raging Atlantic ocean massive waves in a storm
An ocean storm with massive swells can cause turmoil for any vessel above or below the surface. (Photo: Whatknot / Creative Commons)

Why All the Hate for Billionaire Explorers?

Our Outside experts examine the internet drama and nasty comments about this week’s Titan submersible catastrophe

raging Atlantic ocean massive waves in a storm
Whatknot / Creative Commons

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Five people were killed this week when they took an experimental submarine, the Titan, into ocean depths to visit the wreck of the RMS Titanic. Yesterday, search and rescue officials confirmed the vessel had seemingly imploded.

Internet reactions to the tragedy continue to range from compassion to outright vitriol directed at both the submersible’s maker, Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate, and its paying passengers: Hamish Harding, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, Shahzada Dawood, and his son Suleman Dawood.

Why the mixed emotions? Is it because the submersible ride cost a steep $250,000 per-person—unaffordable for most—and because at least two of the passengers were billionaires? Or, because despite dire warnings from industry peers about the safety and functionality of Stockton’s Titan submersible, he and his tourist crew went anyways? Or, because we put dangerous faith in innovators and these missions sometimes result in loss of life? Or, perhaps, it’s simply easier in today’s digital age to weigh in on disasters from behind a screen—positive or negative.

“Rich people taking risks outdoors is nothing new,” explains Dr. Len Necefer, an Outside contributor who works at the intersection of Indigenous peoples, natural resources, and environmental policy. “From Christopher Columbus to Richard Branson, money and resources have historically brought the ability to do dumb, dangerous stuff.”

We asked Dr. Necefer, along with Matthew Scott, an Outside contributor and Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and frequent leader of vehicle-based expeditions through some of the world’s most remote places, to examine some of the social media memes, comments, and reactions to this tragedy.

“$250,000 is a lot of money. Couldn’t it have been better spent helping people in need?”

Scott: That kind of coin is being thrown around daily, all around you. When I see a person of extreme affluence spending their money on experiences, instead of a gold-encrusted steak from that terrible Salt Bae guy—I support it.

Dr. Necefer: This particular adventure is one of the dumb outcomes of a gross misallocation of society’s resources. Let’s not forget the other stories from just this past week of migrants dying at sea in the Mediterranean and outside the Canary Islands.

“It’s unethical for billionaires to exist at all since the only path to hoarding so much wealth involves exploiting others. Good riddance.”

Scott: Billionaires are a by-product of the values and legislation that a majority of society supports. If society didn’t want billionaires, we could tax them out of existence with the stroke of a pen. But deep down, you want to be a billionaire the same as I do.

Dr. Necefer: I’m sure OceanGate, the people in it, and anyone who decided that it was a good idea to associate with this mission are going to get sued out of existence. I can just see those wrongful death lawyers wringing their hands together in delight with the money they’ll make on the stupid litigation that will come from this. Who knows, maybe a new billionaire will be minted through these lawsuits?

“That sub looked sketchy. It was stupid for anyone to even get on it.”

Scott: There’s no way in hell I’d get on a submarine controlled by a knock-off game controller. But let’s not forget that some of the people on that submarine—which included elected members of the Explorer’s Club—had legitimate deep sea submarine experience, including at the Titanic site. They obviously felt comfortable enough to strap themselves in. There are few, if any, regulations or standards for submersibles capable of this depth. You have to accept this risk before doing something like this.

Dr. Necefer: Let’s quote OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush: “Safety is just pure waste.”

“The passengers were just paying for a seat, they’re not real adventurers.”

Scott: “The battle for authenticity, as viewed through someone else’s eyes, is a battle you will never win. How many people reading this went on a gap-year backpacking trip to Thailand where they spent a couple weeks getting drunk and then went home to brag about their “adventure?” These folks bolted themselves into a steel tube and went to the bottom of the ocean. Sounds like an adventure to me.

Dr. Necefer: Honestly, if I had access to this kind of money? Hell yeah I’d do it. But hell no would I think of myself as an adventurer.

“They were just watching the trip through a 21-inch TV screen from inside the sub, and occasionally through a tiny porthole. What was the point?”

Scott: Were you expecting a double bay window with a screen door? This is 3,000 meters below sea level. The small porthole was the entire point of the trip—to see the wreck of the Titanic with your own eyes.

Dr. Necefer: From what I can see from the vessel’s layout, the toilet has a direct view out of the porthole. Talk about a million dollar view, huh?

“Stockton was just exploiting gullible rich people to pay for his research.”

Scott: It’s really easy to point fingers at this early stage. When you consider the exploration credentials and accomplishments of some of the expedition members, my opinion is that you’d be hard pressed to take advantage of those guys without them knowing what they were getting into.

Dr. Necefer: Good marketing can convince people to do just about anything. Up to, and including, spending a quarter of a million dollars on a vacation they’ll never come home from.

“These guys argued against government regulations and purposefully chose to operate in gray areas. Why did they expect those same governments to come to their aid once they got into trouble?”

Scott: Let’s be humans here for a second. If someone had the assets necessary to help, why wouldn’t they?

The outrage comes from dissimilar responses to two disasters happening at similar times—the migrant ship disaster off Greece, and this OceanGate thing. But, the resources and training of the combined United States and Canadian Coast Guards, plus the United States Navy, are also dissimilar from the training and resources of Greek government responders.

Dr. Necefer: Of course we should ensure that search and rescue services remain accessible without a paywall. But damn, reaching Titanic depths is a next level SAR mission. There should at least be contingencies paid by the wealthy people who do stuff like this. You know, like taxes.

“At what point does extreme risk taking become unethical?”

Scott: Walking out of your front door comes with risks. Staying inside raises certain risks. Everything is a risk. Racing drivers, who often come from the same financial group that undertake extravagant trips like this, die all the time. They assume the risk, and that risk is their own. You have no idea how much stupid money is being spent in that world. Winning the Baja 1000 costs millions. Winning a Formula One constructor’s championship? Billions. Risk taking becomes unethical when you’re endangering lives other than your own without their full knowledge or understanding. If those folks willingly got on a submarine which they knew was experimental with a window that was rated for less than half of the pressure and depth they were going to, that’s on them. But if they were misled—there’s an ethical issue.

Dr. Necefer: I am fully in support of people taking risks if they’re fully aware of the dangers involved. These folks should be able to get their submarine thing on, but should also be aware that society is going to have little sympathy when things go wrong.

“Deep ocean and outer space travel should be regulated by governments.”

Scott: We have to be careful that as a society we do not regulate ourselves into complacency. The survival of our species largely depends on furthering our understanding of the unknown.

Deep ocean exploration will never fall under the realm of public transportation. It is inherently experimental. However, space travel might one day become commonplace, and just like our governments agree on air travel regulations, there will need to be space travel regulations.

Dr. Necefer: I’m not an expert in either ocean or space tourism, but pulling from environmental and technology policy: we cannot let private actors externalize costs and risks to society. In this particular instance OceanGate was circumventing safety regulations by calling this vehicle “experimental.” When the experiment predictably goes wrong then the coast guards of two nations come try to save them? Yeah great business planning there.

“Why is there so much hate around this?

Scott: In our highly unequal world, this was a look over the fence between the haves, and have-nots for a lot of people.

Trips of this cost are happening all over the world, all of the time. It’s crude to say, but $250,000 to go to the bottom of the ocean and see the Titanic is an incredible bargain. Right now, as we speak, dozens of ultra-wealthy people are paying that just in jet fuel to hop back and forth across the Atlantic in their Gulfstreams.

In my opinion, this Netflix-special-waiting-to-happen has clearly triggered people’s feelings, but it’s not really about submarine travel—it’s about the perceived differences in treatment between the poor and the wealthy.

Dr. Necefer: This is just an easy target for justified frustrations about society.