This April marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Titanic fever has been in full swing for sometime --and travel companies have pulled out the stops with centennial cruises, parades and special events.
In November, the U.K's Daily Mail reported that billionaire Sir Richard Branson was "very keen" to visit the wreck of the Titanic with actress Kate Winslet --who starred in the 1997 movie about the doomed ship. "Titanic" won 11 academy awards; not bad for a script where everyone knew the ending before the movie even started.
According to reports, "Titanic" director James Cameron could be coordinating the trip to the wreck in April to mark the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking.
The trip would be on a special dive down to the actual wreckage, 2.3 miles below the surface. This requires a Russian government owned MIR submersible, essentially a tiny submarine for two passengers and one pilot. There are two of them, and each is one of very few crafts in the world that can withstand the enormous water pressure at that depth.
I contacted Rob McCallum, one of the regular MIR pilots to dive to the wreck of the Titanic. He works with Deep Ocean Expeditions, the company that has taken Cameron down to the wreck several times already. I asked him if the story about Branson and Winslet is true.
“James Cameron is our best customer,” McCallum said. He said the company worked with Cameron for the 2005 “Titanic Live” dive done for Discovery Television, and has taken Cameron down to Titanic, the Bismarck (German battleship) and other deep water spots several times, including geothermal deep-ocean vents and other natural anomalies.
But when it comes to Branson and Winslet --who is currently dating Branson's nephew, Ned Rocknroll -- McCallum said in his best New Zealand accent, “Yeah, I read that story, too, but no one has called me yet.”
Deep Sea Expeditions is the leading provider of deep sea expeditions, and McCallum has been going to the Titanic wreckage site every summer for the last six years.
Since 2012 is the centenary season it is already sold out, although McCallum said the company would consider adding additional trips if enough people want to go.
While we don't know if Branson and Winslet will make the trip, we can tell you what they may encounter.
“The Titanic season usually only lasts through June and July,” he said, “because the weather in that region (370 miles southeast of Mistaken Point, Newfoundland) is not very hospitable most of the year.” McCallum also added: “The thing to remember is that Titanic sank because the seas were dead calm that night which is very unusual for April.”
If the seas had been rougher the Titanic crew on watch would have seen waves breaking against the iceberg much sooner and the crisis could have been averted.
Of course, the weather conditions don’t matter when you are two miles below the surface, but the submersibles require a support boat, “and it isn’t unusual for the seas to reach five meters (16 feet) in April at the site and being at sea for 12 days in those conditions just isn’t very much fun.”
Deep Ocean Expeditions generally takes 20 people per sailing, carrying two MIR submersibles on a support ship for two days from St. John’s, Newfoundland, before reaching the site.
“It takes a day and a half to set up and organize before we start diving,” he explained. “Then we take down two couples at a time on days three and four. Day five is for rest and then we dive again on days six and seven. We rest again on day eight before we head back.”
The entire voyage is 12 nights in total. The fare is $59,680 per customer for the 12-day voyage including an eight to 10 hour dive for each customer.
2012 will be the seventh season for Deep Ocean Expeditions to the Titanic with the following sailings: July 1-14, July 13-26, July 26 - August 8 and August 7 -20. June has already been fully chartered by a client McCallum would not divulge.
“We don’t divulge our celebrity clients,” he said, but since Sir Richard has not called, he was free to disclose that much.
July and August are already sold out to regular customers since it is the 100-year anniversary. “It is conceivable that we could start earlier, in May, or go into late August if the demand is there,” he said. “We could even go in April for the exact anniversary date, but so far no one has asked us to do that.”
If someone does decide they want to go in April they had better call soon.
“Organizing these expeditions is complicated,” McCallum explained, “and our costs are also substantial. First we have to get the MIRs, which are usually someplace in Europe, most often Kiel, Germany.”
Deep Ocean Expeditions says on its website that the support vessel includes “5-star cuisine and comfortable accommodations.” I asked him if the ship has a helipad for people to fly out --to do the dive and fly back. “Unfortunately, it’s too far out for a helicopter, their range is only 150 miles,” he explained.
Other Titanic Centennial Options
If you're not a billionaire or a movie star, there are plenty of ways to still mark Titanic's anniversary. For the people who want to be on site for the actually centenary anniversary there is another option, although a dive is not included.
A company created specifically for the April date is “Titanic Memorial Cruises.”
Two ships, the Fred Olsen Balmoral and the Azamara Journey, will be at exact location where Titanic sank, 2.3-miles above the wreckage, on April 14 and staying through the night until sunrise on the April 15. Each ship will conduct a memorial service to honor those who did not survive.
Rachel O’Reilly from Titanic Memorial Cruises told me berths on the Balmoral sold out over a year ago (there is a waiting list) but there is still space on the Azamara Journey. Those interested in booking should go to the web site.
The Balmoral will sail from Southampton, England, while the Azamara Journey will set out from New York for an 8-night cruise. Both ships will also visit Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the bodies recovered from the Titanic where taken for burial at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery.
Both of the Titanic Memorial Cruise ships and the support ship for the Deep Ocean Expedition dives will have biologists, historians and other Titanic experts onboard for lectures and discussion of the event and the remaining site.
Both companies note that the average person wanting to visit the Titanic is just that – an average person. Even at a cost of $60,000, McCallum said, “most of the people who make this dive are people who are not wealthy or celebrities, but they have some sort of personal connection to the ship.
"Many of them had family members onboard, or who worked in the shipyard, but the main thing is that they are obsessed with Titanic. They are not normally scuba divers or passenger ship historians. They have a connection specifically to Titanic,” he said.
I was told an almost identical profile applies to the people booked on the Titanic Memorial Cruises.
As to whether Branson and Winslet, will be going down to the site in April - that remains to be seen and may be kept a secret until it actually happens. But if you are on the memorial cruise and happen to see a smaller ship with a lot of technology onboard, well, you never know…
Paul Motter is the co-founder and editor of CruiseMates.com cruise travel guide.