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Despite Delays, Titanic Explorations Expected to Set Sail in 2021

16 Mar, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Well, it wasn’t the coronavirus that knocked the Titanic explorations offline. It something much more, well, boring: plain old wear and tear.

But despite the delays, the Snohomish area continues to see economic development and interest in dives because of one of its biggest seaport projects. Here’s the update on what’s going on in Washington State and what we can expect, Titanic-wise, in the months to come – and how it could continue to affect sports tourism.

It was back in early January of 2019 that SDM first told its readers about a company located in the Port of Everett, that had created a miniature submarine capable of diving all the way down to the storied wreck of the Titanic.

The private company OceanGate, had designed and built its most high-profile venture, the Titan, a carbon fiber and titanium submersible. And the enterprise was garnering headlines everywhere, since it appealed to everyone from science buffs to history aficionados to romantics – all of whom had been captivated with the history of the so-called unsinkable ship that went down in 1912.

But the expeditions that had been planned to take place, well, haven’t happened, at least not yet. Dives that were supposed to take place in summer 2019 were been moved to 2020 because of a change of support vessel for the sub. Delays in the mission are apparently an ongoing problem; according to Geekwire, the Titanic Survey Expedition was originally scheduled to launch in 2018, but was pushed into 2019 after lightning (blame Thor for that one) damaged Titan’s electronics. 

But the delays to the 2020 missions were caused by the most mundane of all problems: wear and tear. OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush noted that “cyclic stress” had become evident on the hull of the Titan as she was being tested in the waters off Annapolis, Maryland. And as a result, the hull’s depth rating was reduced to 3,000 meters.

“Not enough to get to the Titanic,” Rush told reporters. (Titanic is located approximately 3,800 meters below the ocean's surface).

That meant the Titanic trips — which had been planned at first for 2018, then 2019, then 2020 — had to be put off until mid-2021. By that time, Rush expects the new submersibles to be ready to enter service. He said mission specialists (the term for non-scientific personnel who had paid generously – more than $100,000 – to be present on the submersibles and to see the Titanic) were “generally supportive but disappointed” by the delay.

And according to reports, OceanGate has a new partner in the endeavor: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, which will serve as the facility where the development and manufacturing of a new aerospace-grade hull is completed. This design effort is viewed as key to OceanGate completing its latest Cyclops-class submersible that is intended to dive to 6,000 meters (19,800 feet) with five crewmembers on board.

Time is of the essence when considering this dive, say researchers. According to some news reports, the window is closing for those with a wish to see the Titanic. The wreck is decaying rapidly and within the next several decades, may no longer be recognizable. And let’s face it – despite the fact that it sank in 1912, interest in the story of the Titanic has never waned.

OceanGate’s exploration will be the first crewed expeditions to the Titanic since the 2012 centennial of its sinking

Those who want to see the wreck should know that this is no glass-bottom boat ride available to spontaneous day trippers. First, there is the cost. The “mission support fee” for the 2019 expedition was $105,129 per person – and was recently listed as $125,000. (The 2019 price, OceanGate claimed on the website, was equivalent to the cost of First Class passage on Titanic’s inaugural sailing after adjusting for inflation.)

Mission Specialists in return get to join the crew for an 11-day mission, make one submersible dive about six to eight hours in duration, and assist the expedition crew in one or more support roles aboard the surface vessel and aboard Titan during a dive. And make no mistake – this is actual work, according to OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, who talked to reporters from KOMO News in 2017.

“We don’t want somebody going into the sub to just be entertained,” Rush said. “You’re there with a mission, so if somebody comes with us, they’re going to work on operating the sonar, they might be on communications, they might just be taking pictures.”

While not every destination can boast an OceanGate, many destinations can benefit from the increased interest in diving and underwater exploration that are sure to follow as publicity continues to emerge about the ship. Event owners hosting tournaments should know there are often opportunities for the public to take advantage of tourism opportunities offered – snorkel and SCUBA lessons – as well as information on the many dive spots – or even hiking or other day trips to view wrecks from a nearby shore. And setting up something in advance, then promoting it well, can result in an extra revenue stream as well as more economic impact for the destination being visited.

And while the Titan’s accessibility to the public is bound to be limited, there’s no limit on the public’s imagination, nor in the amount of interest that will grow as a result, particularly in an era of social media and a 24-hour news cycle.

And in an area like Snohomish, which has shown its hosting flexibility, that’s something to take advantage of.

In fact, Tammy Dunn, Sports Development Director of Snohomish County Sports Commission, notes that there is already water sports activity in the area (the Nautique WWA Wakeboard National Championships have been held there) – as well as recreational diving.

“Diving is somewhat popular in our waters,” she adds. “The City of Edmonds has an underwater park where divers go diving. Most of the diving that is done here is for education including what OceanGate does.”

And she notes, there is an ancillary plus to being in the same area as such as high-profile program. “With what OceanGate is doing, our STEM programs benefit a great deal. STEM programs are becoming more popular in Snohomish County schools as well as school districts are focusing more on STEM programs for all grade levels, including elementary and middle school.”

Patrick Pierce, president and CEO of the Snohomish County Economic Alliance, said the additional attention can benefit the area as an innovative business destination as well.

“Anytime one of our companies is in the national and international media, it is positive for our county. Snohomish County is already known for aerospace because of Boeing. It’s exciting to see composites technologies now being deployed in non-aerospace applications. When talking with companies interested in Snohomish County, especially in maritime and composites, we always highlight OceanGate. It’s not just about the technology though, it’s also about the strength of our engineering and technical workforce, research institutions like Washington State University Everett [whose students helped design the vehicle’s electrical system], and the overall favorable business climate.”

At the moment, the Port is not as much of a tourist destination, he notes. “OceanGate is really just a start up and don’t have the capacity for large-scale tours at this point. However, if they are as successful as we think they will be, I would anticipate this changing.”

In Q1 2019, commercial air service began at Snohomish County’s Paine Field with Alaska and United Airlines offering 24 daily flights to west coast and mountain west destination like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Denver. The Port of Everett will also complete phase 1 of their Waterfront Place Redevelopment.

And that, Pierce added, that does present the possibility of increased tourism. “I could see tourists flying into Paine Field, taking the Boeing tour or heading to the FUNKO HQ, afternoon kite surfing on Jetty Island and staying the night at the new Hotel Indigo across from OceanGate. Dinner at the Blue Water Bistro and Organic Distillery and a hockey or WNBA game at the Angel of the Winds Arena. In the morning, a walk (or run) along the pier to catch a glimpse of one of OceanGate’s subs, Sisters in downtown Everett for blueberry pancakes before heading out for the trails in the Cascade Mountains. That’s a fun weekend in my book.”

While an enormous number of states have wrecks – and many are able to be seen by the public (yes, even in landlocked states like Arizona), some dive sites are more spectacular than others. Additionally, diving and snorkeling provide opportunities to learn about marine life, conservation and even water and boating safety. An enormous part of the Outer Banks’ identity, in fact, comes from its reputation as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, with its dangerous shoals and frequently rough waters contributing to more than 5,000 ships sunk in that area since the 1500s – the most recent being 2012 during Hurricane Sandy. (The area around Cape Hatteras alone is home to more than 600 wrecks.)

On the opposite side of the country lies the Graveyard of the Pacific, a stretch of the coastal region in the Pacific Northwest, from Tillamook Bay on the Oregon Coast northward to Cape Scott Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. The unpredictable weather conditions and coast characteristics have caused more than 2,000 shipwrecks in the area.

Those who want to take advantage of the interest expected to be generated in 2021 by Titan’s voyages should be ready to help bump up interest in applicable destinations:

  • Make outreach to CVBs and sports commissions to learn about opportunities existing in the area; it may be that wrecks exist or that artifacts can be found in local museums
  • Work with vendors or tour companies in the area to craft excursions that would appeal to the demographic being entertained in the event
  • Publicize events – remind people that it’s a limited opportunity
  • Use the side event to add media interest to the tournament or sports event

Another benefit of the increased attention on submersibles may be growth of swimming, boating, SUP, fishing and other water-related sports. Savvy event owners should be ready to harness the enthusiasm and help those interested get their feet wet.

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