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Tourists in Heart of Ocean Ponder Fate of the Titanic

Adventure: In September, a dozen people descended 12,500 feet to view the wreck. Each paid $32,500.


AT THE BOTTOM OF THE NORTH ATLANTIC — In the deepest black of the ocean, the tiny egg-shaped craft glides toward the wreck like a curious spaceship from another world.

Up the enormous hull it climbs, over the mangled decks. Hovering by the hole that was once the grand staircase, it pauses just long enough for passengers to glimpse a chandelier. Then it's off again, flying by cabins and capstans, plunging past rivers of rust, skirting the jagged overhangs by the promenade deck where the rich and famous once strolled.

Squashed beside a pilot in the 7-foot cockpit of a 26-foot submarine, the two tourists gasp.


Nose to nose with the great ship's bow, they are deeper than almost anyone has dived. Barely two inches of nickel and steel separate them from eternity.

"Magnificent," whistles one. "Like a ghost."

The submersible shudders and swings to the right, banging into one of the tears of rust that drip from the wreck like stalactites. Sediment swirls around the portholes. For a moment it seems as if they're lost.

The pilot frowns. The radio crackles. The tourists fall silent.

At 12,500 feet, no one doubts the power of the "unsinkable" Titanic to drag down a few more victims.

Or of nature to blow technology to shreds.

They wore fleeces and hats and heavy jumpsuits. They packed Styrofoam cups into exterior baskets and watched as the pressure (6,000 pounds per square inch) compressed them to the size of a thimble. They brought cameras. And they brought questions.

Do tourists really belong here? Does anyone?

This summer a dozen sightseers paid $32,500 each to be ferried to the middle of the North Atlantic and dropped into the ocean in an 18-ton sphere. They spent 14 hours in a cold, cramped three-person submersible, after free-falling to one of the most inhospitable places on earth, with little to do during the descent except watch the plankton swirl and contemplate their reason for being there.

What did they hope to accomplish in their glowing cocoon, creeping through the remains of another era, past other people's teacups and suitcases and bedsprings? Were they reverent pilgrims come to pay their last respects, or brash intruders desecrating sacred ground?

The answers lie on the ocean floor.

The World Reduced to an Undersea Bubble

Resting in her lonely berth about 400 miles southeast of Newfoundland, Titanic is majestic and ghostly and eerily frail. The only natural light is the blue-green glow of the luminescent fish that dance around her bow. The only air is inside the white and orange sphere that keeps the visitors alive.

On April 14, 1912, the world's most luxurious passenger liner steamed into an iceberg and split apart with a wrenching roar, scattering more than 1,500 bodies into the ocean. Their cries, wrote one survivor, echoed across the water "like locusts on a midsummer's night."

Eighty-six years later, the beep, beep, beep of sonar echoes across the same spot, like a heartbeat monitor reassuring visitors they are safe.

But they can't escape the cries of those who went before. Or the tremors they feel as they squeeze through the submersible's narrow opening and hear the hatch slammed shut.

"The night before my dive, the sea was so dark and I was looking out of my cabin, wondering about all those people who had died, and how they had probably looked out of their cabins at the same sea," said Heike Schnellbach, a 33-year-old from Wiesbaden, Germany, who won her dive in a contest. "That is when I really wondered what I was doing here."

The first Titanic tourists included five Americans, five Germans, an Australian and a Briton. They boarded a 400-foot Russian science ship, the Akademic Keldysh, at St. John's, Newfoundland, and spent 36 hours heading south. For the next seven days they lived at sea, floating over Titanic's grave.

Titanic sank just south of the Grand Banks, where the cold Labrador Current collides with the warm Gulf Stream, churning up some of the roughest seas on earth. The weather is notoriously unpredictable here, changing from sunny to stormy in hours. The greatest danger, as the tourists were reminded, is not the safety of the submersibles--Mir 1 and Mir 2--but the fickleness of nature.

Reliving a Scene of Terror

"Attention all passengers. We are arriving at the Titanic site."

The message booms through the ship's intercom and everyone hurries on deck. The morning is warm and sunny, so peaceful it's hard to focus on sorrow. Those who try soon give up. In silence, they watch the crew drop four acoustic transponders that will form an electronic grid around the wreck, navigation guides for divers below.

"I keep trying to remind myself of the people clinging to the sides and the screaming and the horror," says Anne White, a 63-year-old retired teacher from Taunton, England. "But I just can't."

On the ocean floor, reminders are everywhere.

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