Money can buy a visit to space or the deep sea, but it can’t guarantee safety
By Christine Chung
Mountaineers have long climbed atop Mount Everest, and scientists in submersibles have descended into the Antarctic Ocean. In recent decades, travelers with deep pockets and little expertise have joined these explorers or even ventured further, paying to visit the bottom of the ocean or the edge of space, touching the literal bounds of Earth. But as the deaths of five people aboard the Titan submersible make evident, there are no clear safeguards in place when something goes wrong.
The tragedy last month spotlighted the issues around rescue operations and government oversight in this new world of extreme travel — who is responsible for search and rescue, and who pays for it? Is it even possible to purchase insurance against catastrophe? It also raises questions about when risk is too great and dangers too immense for rescue.
This all comes at a time when an increasing number of thrill seekers are undertaking risky — and riskier — adventures and expeditions.
“People want these experiences, and they’re going to continue to want them and be willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money for them,” said Anthony Berklich, a travel adviser and founder of the luxury travel service Inspired Citizen.
An adrenaline rush with a high price
Innovations in technology have opened up the possibilities of travel in recent years, and wealthy travelers are willing to spend more to go further, especially when it comes to space travel and underwater exploration.
“Some people like watches, other people like exploring, because that’s how they get their kicks,” said Roman Chiporukha, of Roman & Erica, a referral-based luxury lifestyle and travel firm based in New York City, and the SpaceVIP service, which connects clients to space tourism operators.
About 1 million tourists a year embark on some sort of underwater sightseeing expedition, according to Triton Submarines, a Florida-based company offering “superyacht submersibles.” (These large, ultraluxury and customizable underwater vessels reportedly cost between $2.5 million and $40 million to build and count the “Titanic” movie director, James Cameron, as an investor.)
The expeditions can range from short submarine tours, like a two-hour, $180 trip that dips 100 feet below the waves of the Hawaiian island of Maui to an overnight stay in Lovers Deep, a submarine hotel equipped with a chef and butler, which will take passengers through reefs of St. Lucia in the Caribbean for nearly $300,000 a night. The expedition on the Titan to view the Titanic was priced at $250,000 a person.
Diego Gomes, 36, a medical director from Seattle, visited Antarctica in February. He booked passage with Seabourn Cruise Line, where most cabins start at $10,000, and after reaching the Antarctic Ocean, was able to get a glimpse of the ocean floor in Seabourn’s Expedition Submarine.
The experience, Gomes said speaking before the fate of the Titan was known, went above his expectations. The public, he said, “never hears about underwater life in Antarctica, and that’s what made me sign up for it.”
Before boarding, he and other travelers were given a tour of safety features on the submarine, he said, and were in constant connection with the ship while they went 1,000 feet below.
“I felt extremely secure,” he said. “I’d do it again.”
Then there is space tourism. The sector is booming, with billionaire-led companies such as Blue Origin and SpaceX already successfully launching suborbital spaceflights. Virgin Galactic, where tickets for a suborbital spaceflight start at $450,000, said in a news release that it plans to launch its first flight this week.
“With last year’s Blue Origin and Virgin launches, and the James Webb telescope photos, there is renewed interest in space and it has become the cultural zeitgeist,” Chiporukha said. His SpaceVIP service, he said, has seen a 40% increase in inquiries this year.
And little training is required for aspiring space travelers. Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos, whose passengers have included “Star Trek” television star William Shatner, says that passengers can “fully train” for the experience of blasting 62 miles above Earth in just two days.
When things go wrong
For many forms of adventure travel, insurance and support systems are available. Those who wish to climb Everest can join expedition companies, hire Sherpas to guide them along the ascent and purchase travel insurance to offer various protections up to the mountain’s high altitudes.
When things go wrong, companies can often swoop in to whisk you away to a hospital or conduct a field rescue, if and when they know where you are. A helicopter can fetch you if you get frostbite while attempting a summit in the Himalayas. If you’re mired in civil unrest abroad, former Navy SEALs can come to extract you.
Nick Goracy, a spokesperson for Servius Group, a company offering private travel security on a case-by-case basis, said that fees can hover between five and six figures.
Then there are travel-assistance companies that provide yearly memberships for security needs, medical evacuations and rescue services. Covac Global offers “fully indemnified” packages for medical and security evacuation, including search and rescue, costing about $2,800, with up to $1.3 million in expenses covered, said Ross Thompson, the company’s CEO.
To date, no client has exceeded the coverage’s maximum, he said, adding that the priciest evacuation, from Indonesia to Canada, was for a traveler with a critical case of COVID-19. It cost $400,000.
In the United States, federal and state agencies, including the National Park Service, will cover the costs of search and rescue efforts, depending on where you are. For water rescues, the U.S. Coast Guard, which led the Titan rescue, is not legally allowed to charge for its operations, an agency spokesperson said.
Three countries deployed at least nine vessels and multiple aircraft and remotely operated vehicles during the vast rescue effort to save the doomed Titan submersible. Experts estimate the cost will be in the tens of millions of dollars, at least.
Thompson priced the Titan search and rescue response at around $100 million, adding that ROVs are “very expensive to operate.”
“Ultimately, taxpayers will be responsible because that is where the Coast Guard’s budget comes from,” said Mikki Hastings, president of the National Association for Search and Rescue, a nonprofit that focuses on wilderness rescues.
But most domestic search and rescue teams are volunteer organizations, said Chris Boyer, the executive director of the search and rescue association.
He underscored that the new level of extreme travel requires rethinking what rescue efforts can reasonably be made when disaster strikes.
“Can people do things like this and expect a voluntary response? Or do they expect an agency and government response?” Boyer said of space tourism particularly. “Who is going to do that and how does it work?”
Indeed, as the Titan’s doomed journey indicates, even established travel-assistance companies face limits.
“There’s nothing that you can do to help somebody that’s 15,000 feet below the surface of the ocean,” said Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue, which provides evacuation and field rescue services. “We can only do what’s humanly possible.”
In terms of insurance policies, there may be new calculations about insuring extreme risk, said Thompson of Covac Global. Old models may no longer make sense for complex rescue efforts whose costs are unprecedented. We are “a long way from anyone saying, ‘I’ll cover the dive down to the Titanic,’” Thompson said.
The Federal Aviation Administration oversees regulation of commercial space tourism and requires operators to have “insurance, or demonstrate financial responsibility to cover potential damage and injury to the public, public property, and any government personnel and property at risk from the operation,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
Additional policies, such as insurance for participants climbing into capsules for travel into space, are a “matter between the operator and the participant.”
Murkiness with oversight
Regulation for these otherworldly experiences is also lagging behind the pace of the booming market.
The FAA’s oversight of space tourism is limited to “protecting the public on the ground and others” in the country’s domestic and over-sea airspace, said the agency’s spokesperson. The FAA has no role in “regulating the safety of passengers onboard commercial space vehicles.”
And the “niche little market” of plunging to the deep sea in a submersible to see wreckage up close has little oversight, said Salvatore Mercogliano, a maritime history expert and professor at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.
There was little to no regulation regarding the Titan’s design. Classification of submersibles is not compulsory in international waters, Mercogliano said, a loophole allowing OceanGate Expeditions to skirt this step. The Everett, Washington-based company claimed that the Titan was so advanced that certification by assessment agencies would take years, a circumstance the organization described in a 2019 blog post as “anathema to rapid innovation.” (The post has since been removed.)
Complicating the matter further, the Titan was operating in international waters, where it wasn’t subject to the jurisdiction of any one nation, Mercogliano added.
“There is no real outside agency to ensure that things like a redundant communication system was fitted, an emergency beacon to be launched if necessary,” he said.
International maritime law requires all available vessels to respond to distress calls in the sea, a regulation implemented after the Titanic sank more than a century ago and which prompted last week’s huge search-and-rescue response.
Who should go?
Whether last week’s ill-fated Titan expedition will lead to better oversight remains to be seen. But the incident has sparked conversations among explorers and wealthy travelers alike about who exactly should be embarking on this type of danger-filled travel.
West Hansen, a 61-year-old ultramarathon canoe racer and member of the Explorers Club, has paddled the 2,100-mile Volga River in Russia and the entire length of the Amazon River. Along with four other experienced kayakers, Hansen will embark on a journey to paddle the Northwest Passage. He believes that the tourists who are “dabbling” in areas that “explorers are just getting to see” may have a false sense of security.
The drive to explore and test limits is deeply human, Hansen added, but money does not “diminish potential danger.”