No Matter How Rich You Are, You Can’t Own the Sea

The deaths aboard the Titan submersible are a tragedy — a tragedy born of the hubris of the ultra-wealthy.

An undated photo shows a tourist submersible belonging to OceanGate beginning to descend at sea. (OceanGate / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Tell me, O Muse, of the man who dove to the depths of the sea, heeding the siren call of piles of money. Stockton Rush, the millionaire founder and CEO of OceanGate, Inc. and Xbox-controller-wielding pilot of the Titan, was confirmed dead on Thursday after his nonrated, custom-made submersible predictably imploded under the pressure of millions of tons of water, instantly killing him and his four passengers. Alongside him died Hamish Harding, a British billionaire; Shahzada Dawood, a Pakistani millionaire, and his son Suleman; and French billionaire Paul-Henri Nargeolet, the director of underwater research at RMS Titanic, Inc., the company that claims to own to the Titanic wreck, and had to settle its debts by auctioning off relics from the site, a practice commonly known as “graverobbing.”

Rescue efforts by the United States Navy and Coast Guard will likely total in the millions, after OceanGate was wholly unprepared for any kind of search and rescue operation for their deep-sea boondoggle: the vessel did not have a locator beacon onboard, and it was even painted white, the color of breaking waves, making it nearly impossible to locate on the surface. Rush’s philosophy for his undersea exploration company was, “I think I can do this just as safely by breaking the rules.”

David Lochridge, an engineer on the sub, thought differently in 2018, pointing out, among other flaws, that the main viewing port was only rated to a dive depth of 1,300 meters, less than a third of the depth to the seafloor where the wreck of the Titanic lies. He was promptly fired. So now, after years of safety warnings, open letters, and legal proceedings, the American public will pay for the futile, days-long search for a white strand of hay in a white haystack, even after the US Navy heard the vessel implode.

The twelve-thousand-foot-deep pleasure cruise around the wreck of the Titanic is the latest in a fad of highly dangerous and expensive stunts carried out by the uber-wealthy who are desperate to feel something, and willing to spend their vast fortunes extracted from their workers in the attempt to do so. The price of admission to this death trap was $250,000. Trying to live out a Jules Verne fantasy, passengers of the Titan join the wealthy victims of the Titanic, which, when it sank in 1912, also killed by class: of first-class passengers, 62 percent survived the sinking, compared with just 25 percent of third-class passengers.

Letting the lower class drown is a trend that continues today. The most recent example is the horrific capsizing of a ship carrying at least five hundred migrants off the coast of Greece, which has killed at least seventy-eight people. In stark contrast to the all-out, multinational effort to save the Titan, the Greek Coast Guard has been accused of deadly inaction after discovering the ship dead in the water and dangerously overcrowded. This is only the latest incident in a constellation of tragedies involving migrants in the Mediterranean: between 2015 and 2023, it’s estimated that over twenty-four thousand people are dead or missing after setting out for Europe, including over 1,100 this year alone. That’s more than a Titanic every year, but you don’t see the same kind of breathless, wall-to-wall news coverage.

In a world where shipwrecks abound, why are we so obsessed with the Titan and the Titanic? It’s a combination of panache, prestige, and that classically Greek concept of hubris. Important people went down with both vessels: millionaires, royalty, business tycoons. The splendor of the Titanic’s Grand Staircase has been rendered in countless paintings, documentaries, and films. And, of course, there’s the epithet that steams Poseidon’s ears: “unsinkable.” It’s hard for the average person to imagine possessing both the arrogance to claim total victory over the sea, and the influence to skimp on lifeboats based on that claim.

The sorrowful odysseys of migrant ships don’t sell papers because, for one thing, those papers are usually in bed with the draconian, inhumane, and vengeful regimes that allow such horrible fates to befall migrants in the first place; and for another, because the misery hits very close to home for most people. Not everyone has been a refugee, but most people in the post-COVID era know what it’s like when suddenly you can’t afford your home anymore and have to move, or when food becomes absurdly expensive, or your job disappears, and you’re faced with difficult choices and uncertainty for yourself and your family. Staring down the barrel of human-driven climate change, an astronomical cost of living, and a poor economic outlook, most people recognize that they are far closer in life to desperate refugees than they are to the politicians, war profiteers, and rapacious capitalists who create them.

Anyone’s death is a tragedy, of course, and it’s awful that the passengers on the Titan died this way. But their deaths come amid a much larger wave of preventable suffering inflicted by the ilk of those aboard the Titan. Perhaps there’s a ripple of irony in watching these very billionaires, who buy shipwrecks and private submarines with the hoarded treasures of our society, humbled by an inescapable facet of ownership: ius abutendi, the right to destroy, held over every ship by the wine-dark sea.