The ocean is not Disneyland: Scientist calls for halt on all tourist expeditions to ship wreck

An undated photo courtesy of OceanGate Expeditions, showing their Titan submersible vessel being towed to a dive location. Picture: OceanGate Expeditions/ AFP

An undated photo courtesy of OceanGate Expeditions, showing their Titan submersible vessel being towed to a dive location. Picture: OceanGate Expeditions/ AFP

Published Jun 23, 2023


Pretoria - As the world grapples with news of the demise of all five individuals aboard the deep-sea submersible, named Titan, which was on a doomed voyage to the Titanic ship wreckage, a world-renowned scientist who survived a horrific expedition to the site in 2000 has called for tougher restrictions on expeditions to the century-old wreckage.

Dr Michael Guillen, aged 63, is a physicist and former news correspondent who, among other spoils, boasts of being the first reporter to participate in an expedition to the Titanic wreckage.

“Should we allow tourism to continue to the Titanic? I am not gonna be so presumptuous as to say yes or no right now because I can see arguments either way. However … if we allow tourism to continue, then two important questions need to be asked and we have to have satisfactory answers.

“Number one, why do you want to go to the Titanic; and number two – how do you want to get there? We need to be careful about people’s motive for going there and how they propose to get there, for two reasons – the ocean is unforgiving, the ocean is dangerous. This is not a Disneyland ride,” Guillen spoke to broadcaster Newzroom Afrika.

Freelance journalist Dr. Michael Guillen says the ocean is unforgiving and dangerous. Adding that it was not a Disneyland ride. FILE: Guillen sits with the media on December 27, 2002 at the Holiday Inn in Hollywood, Florida. PHOTO: Marc Serota/Reuters

“This (the Titanic) is not just the site of a wrecked ship. This is a graveyard. People lost their lives. This is their final resting place. It is sacred ground and we need to respect that.”

Guillen went to the Titanic site in 2000 on a Russian research vessel.

He spoke to broadcaster Newzroom Afrika about his traumatic experience at the Titanic wreckage site – just an hour before the demise of the five people aboard the Titan was officially confirmed on Thursday night.

“Honestly, I just want to go away and hide. This has been very hard, to know what those poor people are suffering. I feel that it is important for people to know the dangers.

“For me, I was invited to become the first correspondent to report from the Titanic. I was hesitant because I have a fear of water,” he said.

Guillen said when their research ship parked above the Titanic wreckage and they dived in a submersible, into the deep waters for more than two hours, “it was quite fascinating”.

Moments later, the fascination almost turned into tragedy as the small submersible became stuck in one of the giant Titanic’s propellers.

“We went from the bow to the stern, and that is when the problem started. I noticed our sub picking up speed, and accelerating towards this giant propeller and the stern. I talked to myself, why? And I realised we were caught in an underwater current which took us right into the blades of the propeller.

“You have to understand the propellers are much bigger than our little sub. We somehow got caught behind these giant blades and the body of the ship. Immediately, I knew that we were in a life-threatening situation,” Guillen narrated.

The scientist said he had taken the expedition fully cognisant of the inherent risks.

“I didn’t go foolishly, and I didn’t take it lightly. I didn’t feel like I was going on a vacation to the Barbados. I understood what I was doing. I was doing my job and I wanted to do it with excellence, which is what I always do,” he recounted.

Guillen has appealed for a temporary suspension of expeditions to the Titanic ship wreckage.

“In this case I really feel that there should be at least a temporary pause. I am not talking about a permanent ban on any further trips to the Titanic until we found out what went wrong. That is why it is important we continue this search, to find that vessel, otherwise we will never know that.

“We should prepare ourselves right now on what is going to happen in space. We have people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and (Richard) Branson in the UK developing space tourism. There will be people who will pay lots of money to just go into the suborbital just for the experience. I am not gonna judge them, they have every right if they have the money to afford it.

“We need to prepare ourselves that there will be accidents such as this. Think about Mars. Who is gonna volunteer to go to Mars and how in the world could we possibly rescue them if something between here and Mars happens to them,” said Guillen.

On Thursday, the US Coast Guard said pieces have been found from a "catastrophic implosion" that killed everyone aboard the Titan.

One pilot, one crew member and three passengers were on board when the small vessel went missing on Sunday in the North Atlantic. The Titan was on a daring mission to explore the historic wreckage of the Titanic ship in deep waters off Canada's coast.

According to reports, the tour on the submersible vessel was the highlight of a tourist expedition that cost $250,000 (about R4.5 million) per person.