Renata Rojas paddled behind her father through the water off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico. She was only five years old; never before had she been allowed out this far. Now, as she glided across the waves, her father stopped her and told her to look down to the sea floor. There, illuminated by the sunlight, was a sunken plane. She breathed through her snorkel as she studied its wings resting on the white sand.
It was in this moment that she discovered an eternal love for the ocean. “It’s almost like space opens up. It’s very serene,” she remembers today, decades later.
In 2019, following a lifetime of scuba training and saving money, Rojas is scheduled to fulfil her grandest dream: visiting the wreck of the RMS Titanic.
This is a dream that has become increasingly urgent over the years. Rust-forming bacteria are rapidly consuming the Titanic. Experts predict it will last only a little more than 20 years. That means that the group of select paying passengers which Rojas is joining won’t only be the first to lay eyes on the wreck since 2005, they will also be among the last to see it at all.
And while the expedition is a commercial venture, it is a scientific one too: the group will use advanced 3D-modelling tools to analyse and preserve the memory of the Titanic for generations to come.
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The Titanic struck an iceberg on 14 April 1912 as it steamed across the Atlantic on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. It split in two and sank to a depth of 3.8km (2.5 miles) about 600km (370 miles) off the shores of Newfoundland, Canada. At least 1,500 people died. Engulfed by deep-sea darkness, the wreck sat for more than 70 years while bacteria ate away at its metal hull, leaving behind millions of delicate, icicle-shaped formations.
“Now, there’s more life on Titanic than there was floating on the surface,” says Lori Johnston, microbial ecologist and a six-time visitor of the wreck.
These ‘rusticles’ are the by-products of bacteria that oxidise the iron they consume. The acidic, oxidised fluid oozes downward with gravity, forming fragile branches of rust. “The rusticles are unique because they’re kind of the dominant species down there,” Johnston says.