The wreck of the Titanic continues to fascinate people over a century sinking. Submersibles are used to visit the wreckage. One recent infamous trip ended in tragedy. But what about us scuba divers. People like this author, Tim Conner, MD, PADI certified 1988, with a medical degree for safety and hundreds of dives below 90 feet. Can they observe the Titanic up close?
You cannot scuba dive to the Titanic due to its depth at 12,500 feet. External pressure is 380 times greater than at the surface. Water temp are at freezing, there is no visible light, and the supply of air needed would be impossible to transport and manage.
Air breathed during scuba diving contains 78% nitrogen, which is the gas that causes decompression sickness. A diver at 12,500 feet would absorb a fatal amount.
I’ll cover each of these points in this article:
- External pressure: At 12,500 feet would be 380 times greater than surface
- Water temperature: At 12,500 feet is below freezing point of fresh water
- Light: No visibility at all at 12,500 feet without very large lights
- Air consumption: one standard tank lasts 15 minutes at 120 feet. Supply for 12,500 feet would be impossible to carry even with a team.
- Nitrogen: the amount that would be absorbed would be intolerable well before 12,500 feet
- Nitrogen Narcosis: A state of mental confusion that can occur even at 100 feet, would be unavoidable at 12,500 feet
- Decompression illness: time to safely eliminate nitrogen would be measured in months after diving to 12,500 feet
Can You Scuba Dive to the Titanic?
As I mentioned previously, recreational divers can only dive to around 130 feet safely. Meanwhile, the Titanic sits underneath 2.3 miles of water. So it is simply not at all possible to scuba dive to the Titanic.
Diving depth limits are determined by external water pressure, safety of breathing air mixtures at pressure, time limits to avoid decompression illness, and practical factors like the total air supply that can be carried, visibility and water temperatures.
At the surface, air pressure is defined as one atmosphere. Since water is denser than air, external pressures on divers’ bodies increase by one atmosphere for every 33 feet of depth. At 130 feet, a diver experiences external pressures 5 time greater than on the surface. 12,500/33=378.8 atmospheres of pressure.
Along with the pressure, descending to 12,500 feet would take a very long time, requiring a massive supply of air. This would likely be next to impossible to do, meaning you would not be able to bring enough air along. While you can swap tanks under water, the pressures, temperatures and risk of decompression illness stand in the way of planning a dive using this technique.
The next issue to note is that the water temperature 2 miles below the surface is below freshwater freezing point. If the water in this location wasn’t saltwater, then it would be ice. Mixing salt in water results in freezing point depression (Wiki source), which is how salt clears roads in winter. This means that no drysuit would be able to provide enough thermal protection to even swim in the area, let alone dive down two miles.
Nitrogen and scuba diving
SCUBA divers breathe regular air, not oxygen. Air mixture used for diving is the same as air on the earth’s surface. It consists of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and small amounts of other gases.
Nitrogen breathed in at surface pressures is inert. It is exhaled with each breath. But at depth, the pressure results in greater volumes of air being taken in with each breath. This results in larger numbers of nitrogen molecules being absorbed by your body’s tissues.
In order to safely eliminate this stored nitrogen, divers often make safety stops while ascending or ascend at slow rates. This is done to prevent nitrogen from forming bubbles in tissues and joints.
Should bubbles occur, they can lead to decompression sickness, nitrogen narcosis, joint pain, strokes and even death, depending on where the bubbles end up. (Source) The risk of decompression sickness also limits the number of dives possible per day, dependent on depths and dive times.
The amount of nitrogen that would be absorbed by a diver’s body at 12,500 feet is unknown. But toxic levels and death can occur in as little as 200 feet, so the depth of the Titanic would certainly prevent being able to breath standard air mixtures and eliminate dangerous nitrogen build up.
Decompression stops would not be feasible, as commercial divers who work at depths of 1,000 feet require several days in a decompression chamber. 12,500 feet would pose an insurmountable decompression challenge.
What Are Safe Depths for Scuba Divers?
Recreational scuba divers are able to dive down to 130 feet, which is mostly due to the safety hazards of diving further than this point. The only divers allowed to surpass this depth are scuba divers who have received their specialty training to understand and manage the challenges that come with diving to greater depths.
Why Is There A Scuba Depth Limit?
One hundred thirty feet was originally decided on by the U.S. Navy for several reasons. Once reaching 130 feet, divers typically anre able to spend ten minutes at that depth without any decompression stops. While you are able to go further than the 130 without the decompression stops, it wouldn’t allow for much time with the limited air you have.
While part of the reason for this depth is due to the volume limit of a single cylinder providing air, many also found much further past this is when nitrogen narcosis begins to become noticeable. This is when a diver is at a certain depth that causes the gases to be inhaled to begin giving them a narcotic or sedative effect.
What is a Decompression Stop?
Recreational divers often don’t need to decompress during a dive, but learning how to properly do decompression diving allows for some divers to go deeper. Decompressing allows divers to reach further depths while also being able to stay down longer. This also allows even greater bottom time at a shallower depths.
Decompression stops are periods where a diver will spend their time at a shallow, constant depth while ascending during a dive. This allows for any inert gases that were absorbed to be safely eliminated, allowing for the body to avoid decompression sickness overall.
The current world record for the deepest dive ever is held by Ahmad Gabr. In 2014, Gabr took 12 minutes to descend to 1090 feet, backed by a team tracking him and helping him switch tanks when needed as I describe here.
After needing just 12 minutes for the descent, he had to take 15 hours to ascend slowly enough to avoid the risks of decompression illness (Interesting Engineering.)
Deep Diving and Safety
While the recreational scuba diving limit is right around 130 feet, there are divers that are able to go deeper. But how? What’s involved in a deep dive to ensure the safety of the diver at maximum depths?
Training for Deep Sea Diving
For any kind of scuba diving, certification is mandatory. Deep-sea diving requires even more “in-depth” training. You can become a certified deep-sea diver, or a technical diver, from organizations like the National Association of Underwater Instructors, known for their work with the U.S. Navy Seals.
Deep-sea scuba diving requires equipment outside of what’s needed for a recreational dive. In addition to regular scuba equipment, deep divers need these as well:
- Dive computer
- Underwater flashlight
- Tech diver regulator
- Special gas mixes
Techniques for Technical Diving
In addition to certification and equipment, there are certain techniques that are used in tech diving that are different from recreational diving. For example, gas mixing is an essential part of deep diving. Using the incorrect gas mix in an air tank is dangerous, and can even result in death.
Preparation is also a key component to technical diving. Both preparing for a specific dive, and preparing to be a technical diver in general are important factors to consider. This means divers should strongly consider whether they want to be a technical diver.
Brief Timeline of Titanic Trips
1985 – Titanic site discovered by American-French team
1986 – Submersible Alvin explores wreck
1987 – First salvage expedition collects 1,800 Titanic artefacts
1995 – James Cameron visits the wreck – footage is used in his film Titanic
1998 – First tourist visits
1998 – Section of the Titanic hull is raised
2005 – Two crewed submersibles dive to the wreck
2010 – Autonomous robots map the site
2012 – Wreck now protected by Unesco
2019 – DSV Limiting Factor sub makes five dives
1986: First manned exploration of Titanic
The Titanic was reached by a manned expedition for the first time. Containing a crew of 3, the submersible Alvin made 11 trips to the wreck, taking the first images and recordings seen since the ship sank in 1912. (Source)
Many trips were made to the Titanic over the years by various countries and scientific organizations. Many artifacts were recovered.
A controversial 1996 expedition tried unsuccessfully to raise a section of the ship. Accompanied by cruise ship tourists, include many celebrities, the attempt famously failed when the ropes broke in bad weather as the section reached 200 feet from the surface.
After sinking back to below 12,000 feet, the section was successfully retrieved in 1998. Of course, everyone knows about the multiple James Cameron trips and his eventual blockbuster movie. But a lot may not know of the many unusual trips made.
In 2001, a wedding actually occurred on a submersible that landed on the bow of the ship to recreate a scene from the movie. James Cameron made multiple follow up trips for documentaries and an additional movie.
The last manned dive to the Titanic was made in 2005 before a 14 year gap.
Although clever and humorous, this report of the first ever scuba dive to the Titanic was actually an April Fool’s parody post.
2012: Protection of an historic artifact
By the time 2012 rolled around, 140 people had visited the wreck of the Titanic on dozens of expeditions. At the 100 year mark after its sinking, the Titanic reached eligibility for protection per the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.
This move helped preserve the remaining wreck structure from souvenir recovery and unauthorized trips that at times resulted in irreversible damage to a piece of history. An expedition made in 2019 revealed that the remains of the Titanic are rapidly deteriorating (source).
Using MIR Submersibles To Reach The Titanic
The first MIR submersibles were typically very small and could only carry up to three people. Further advances began between 2012 and 2018, where tourism interests grew in the hopes of taking visitors to the depths of where the Titanic resides. After the ability of advanced marine technology was developed and tourism was made possibly, the MIR submersibles were upgraded to hold about nine passengers total.
These submersibles maintain a constant air pressure similar to that at the surface. This allows for prevention of nitrogen build up and medical complications while also avoids having passengers exposed to extreme pressures.
The MIR submersibles also have to control temperatures for passengers to avoid extreme and dangerous drops. This usually occurs around the 3,000 feet range of the dive.
Also, when diving into the Titanic is that you will be expected to see zero sunlight by the time you reach about 700 feet or so of deep water. Once you get past this point, you will be immersed in complete darkness. The MIR has lights to showcase the marine life that lives in these depths.
Do People Travel To The Titanic?
Though it is possible to visit the Titanic as mentioned above, the ability to do so is not common. This is due to enormous expense and risk. In addition, there is really no purpose to go to the remains of the Titanic outside of historical research, except to experience something that only a few people will ever do.
While deeper depths than the standard 130-foot limit for recreational divers are possible with decompressing, you would still be unable to make it the 2.3 miles down to the Titanic.
The other worry is largely based around the depths requiring a trip that is much too long for the amount of gas you would be able to bring along. Even if you were able to carry the correct amount of gas, the water itself would also be much to freezing to even dive in normally.
The area around the Titanic is difficult to reach and is impossible to dive to. While the ship itself can’t be viewed, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to appreciate it.
Recommended Titanic reading
Comparison of Modern Cruise ships to the Titanic with focus on size
All about the Titanic’s Pool One of my favorite Titanic articles comparing 1912 to modern cruising