Extraordinary siren call of the worlds most famous shipwreck

What possesses someone to risk their life to dive to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in a claustrophobic tin-can for a glimpse of the wreck of the Titanic, paying a fortune for the privilege?

Is it the challenge of journeying to a final frontier attainable only by a select few?

Or is it the enduring romance of the ill-fated liner’s tragic ending which still grips the imagination 111 years after its sinking?

Perhaps it is a combination of both.

One thing is for sure, though: as the families and friends of the five adventurers lost below the sea pray for their safe return amid an increasingly desperate search-and-rescue operation, the Titanic continues to exert a strange pull on millions of us even if we can only dream of visiting her final resting place, two miles deep.

And there’s no doubt, whatever the outcome of the current crisis, high-value tourists will continue to pay approximately £200,000 a piece to make the two-hour trip to the bottom of the Atlantic.

For decades oceanographers searched for the final resting place of RMS Titanic – the holy grail of shipwrecks – often foiled by apparent inaccuracies in her last reported position before she sank.

But with advances in technology, and millions of dollars invested in the search, in 1985 the wreck was finally found.

Ever since she was located by a joint French-American expedition, led by oceanographers Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel, an entire Titanic industry has been spawned, sparking hundreds of books, films, documentaries, even video games.

Contreverial salvage operations have recovered thousands of items from the wreck, which have been conserved and put on public display. While many of the tourist visits are for passengers who wish simply to observe and pay their respects, the expeditions raise money for further scientific research.

Daniel Stone, author of Sinkable: Obsession, The Deep Sea And The Shipwreck Of The Titanic, explains: “Titanic is the most famous shipwreck in the world. It is no different from a celebrity. You think about someone like Harry Styles, or Taylor Swift, or Katy Perry – it’s in that class.”

He continues: “Titanic has the benefit of being old. It is a story that has gripped people for more than a century and the reason it got so famous is really down to the circumstances and the time that it sank. Many shipwrecks are very common among shipwrecks, including iceberg strikes, maiden voyage sinkings, sinkings that killed a lot of rich and famous people.

“But the Titanic sank at a time when storytelling was really advancing in 20th century culture, when it was possible to write a book about the Titanic. And it was possible to make movies about it just two decades after it sank.”

“That storytelling helps to keep the legend of Titanic alive and to revive it for every new generation, with new films, books and other media.”

Stone explains how the huge number of survivor stories have played a vital role too.

“The other interesting thing is that the Titanic not only sank with many people dying, but a lot of people lived,” he says.

“Around 700 women and children survived, and most of them lived for another 60 or 70 years and told their stories for the rest of their lifetimes, so that also kept the story alive to be reinterpreted and reinvented – and become almost obsessive – in the minds of new generations.”

“People have looked for the wreck of Titanic since the day she sank but it was almost entirely out of reach for more than 70 years because it sank in such deep waters in a remote part of the ocean notorious for its rocky waves and bad weather.”

“Robert Ballard really only found it with the benefit of technology developed by the US Navy that was very advanced underwater sonar technology which no regular person could get their hands on, let alone develop. So when he found her, it spawned a whole new resurgence of this story, and new ways to explore the wreck and to understand the stories of the people.”

Stone says we should think of the wreck in archaeological terms.

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Getting down to see it, and to collect artefacts and put them in museums – that has probably revived it for another century still to come.”

Simon Medhurst, author ofTitanic: Day By Day, says: “For me it’s always been about the people rather than the ship.

“Obviously we all pray for those on the submersible to be rescued but, whatever the outcome, they will now become part of this enduring story.”

In 2012, Medhurst, 56, discovered the identity of his father and, through that, learnt that his great-grandfather, Robert Hitchens, had been a quartermaster on board the Titanic and at the helm of the ship when it hit the dreaded iceberg.

He was in charge of loading lifeboat number 6. Incredibly, he survived.

Medhurst has been collecting signatures and other Titanic memorabilia for years and is intrigued by the class system.

“I enjoyed the history of it and all the stories of the people on board,” he says.

Thanks to his connection to the Titanic, Medhurst had become acquainted with members of OceanGate Expeditions on board The Polar Prince, the vessel from which the missing Titan submersible was launched.

In recent days he has followed the drama closely and is hugely sympathetic of their dire situation.

He may not be a fan of Titanic tourism but he recognises the good work of scientists on such expeditions.

“It is looking at the situation with sadness because these people have families and friends and obviously I have friends who are involved,” he adds. “We are all waiting with bated breath to see what happens.”

Fellow author Julie Cook, whose own great-grandfather William Bessant was a stoker on Titanic and went down with the ship, is keenly aware of the ship’s allure.

“First of all, people were fascinated by the opulence and the grandeur of the ship and the way it looked and what it represented,” she explains.

“I also think we were fascinated because so much changed after Titanic. It was a kind of watershed moment.”

“There was a very strict class system which was followed by the First World War and it kind of ended after that. Titanic represents that final moment in time when class was very structured and represented on the ship. People also love the mystery of it all and the fact that the wreck is still there.”

“After Jesus Christ, it’s kind of the second greatest story ever told, it’s just so enduring.”

Julie’s book, The Titanic And The City Of Widows It Left Behind, explores the families left by the tragedy, many of whom had lost the main breadwinner of the family.

She says: “The knock-on effect really did happen for many years afterwards. I wrote my book because my great-grandad was not an officer or a passenger and I felt the working-class side of the story hadn’t really been told.

My great-grandmother Emily had to take in laundry just to survive and to feed her children.

“I had a lot of interest from Titanic fans who had not thought of those families. People are more obsessed with the rich passengers and often forget the invisible crew and the hard-working people below decks.”

Countless books and films about Titanic over the decades have continued to keep the story alive, and the success of James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, proved its continuing appeal, smashing all box office records.

James Bancroft, author of Titanic: Iceberg Ahead, says: “I think the story was remarkable from very early on, not just because of the tragic death toll but because there was so much fascination with this luxurious, ‘unsinkable’ ship. Yet she sank on her very first voyage.”

“People are fascinated to know what happened and every few years there are more books and more films to keep the story alive.”

“It’s all about the tragedy and the heroism and the selfishness. It’s the ultimate human tragedy story, with countless mysteries thrown in.”

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