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Titan deep-sea tourism raises questions around ethics, safety and science


For nearly a week, the country has been immersed in a deep-sea mystery - a search for the submersible that began a tourism expedition last Sunday towards the site of the Titanic. Well, yesterday it was confirmed that the sub imploded. All five people on board are presumed dead. What was an attempt at adventure tourism is now raising all kinds of questions about safety and ethics and science. Amy Wagner is a marine geologist who has conducted research on a famed submersible owned by the U.S. Navy called the Alvin. And Amy Wagner joins me now. Welcome.

AMY WAGNER: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So let's start there. You dove down in the Alvin back in 2016. Is that right?

WAGNER: That's correct.

KELLY: OK. So describe the experience. What is it like to be on one of these subs?

WAGNER: It is the most amazing experience, I think, that I've ever had in my life. You get into this little chamber. They lower you down. And I teach an oceanography class, and I've always taught my students about how, you know, you see how far the light can penetrate. And being able to actually experience that, watching the light disappear as you descend into the depths of the ocean, is just something that you can't really put into words.

KELLY: So to what has obviously become a very central question - safety - how safe is a sub, a U.S. Navy sub like the Alvin that is being used - was built for and is now being used for scientific research? How safe is that compared to a sub like the Titan, the one that imploded this week?

WAGNER: You know, I don't know the specifics about the safety of the Titan, just some of the things that I've read. But from what I do know from diving in the Alvin, it's extremely safe. We had to undergo thorough training before we were allowed to dive in the sub. They test and retest and, you know, pressure test everything that is on the sub. Like, we could not take any personal cameras because they all had to be hydrostatically and electrostatically tested so that there's a reduced risk of fire. Everything has a backup system. And so, you know, diving in the Alvin, there really was no fear of it being an unsafe environment. I mean, it's probably less safe to walk down the street or drive your car to work than it is to dive in the Alvin.

KELLY: What has gone through your mind this week as details have emerged, such as that the Titan was built to withstand a certified pressure of 1,300 meters? The Titanic shipwreck that it was going to look at lies nearly 4,000 meters below sea level.

WAGNER: Yeah, it's frightening as a scientist and as somebody who's dove to 1,400 meters. To think that they were going to be diving, you know, two or three times to the depth of what it was certified at is really irresponsible.

KELLY: Well, so as a scientist, do you see value in deep-sea tourism?

WAGNER: If it is done responsibly, safely, if it is done ethically, I think it does have value because as a scientist, what we do - right? - really does depend on public support. We get federal funding to do our research. And if the public is excited, if they're enthused, if they're learning things about the ocean and those things that they're learning and are excited about come from these commercial diving expeditions, then there is value in that. When, you know, they're not being regulated, they become unsafe, they're potentially acting unethically, then it becomes a hindrance because then there's the question of, well, should we be sending people down to the bottom of the ocean at all? And so it just makes our work harder. So I think that there can be this symbiotic relationship between kind of the commercial tourism industry and the scientific diving industry. But it just - it has to be done well.

KELLY: Marine geologist Amy Wagner. She's a professor and chair of the geology department at California State University Sacramento. Thank you.

WAGNER: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT SLATER SONG, "4 LEAF CLOVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.