‘Uh oh … boom!’: TikTok is in love with simulated shipwrecks

Fans say the use of an accurate physics engine to reimagine historic shipwrecks makes it ‘difficult to look away’

A shark swims slowly and serenely beneath the Bismarck seconds before it sinks deep into the ocean. Seemingly out of nowhere, the battleship tilts and falls; its bow crashes on to the seabed. Its hull floods before briefly resurfacing out of the water. Then the voiceover says: “Oh! Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh! Boom!” The Bismarck snaps in half and sinks.

This was not the Bismarck’s real end, but a shipwreck simulated by Alex Reifsnyder, a 27-year-old retail supervisor from Pennsylvania. Reifsnyder uses the physics simulator Floating Sandbox to sink ships with tidal waves, icebergs and lightning for between one and two hours almost every night. On his TikTok page @an_angry_flyy, 167,000 loyal followers cannot get enough.

Not even they seem to know exactly what draws them. A comment under one video from October reads: “Don’t know what I am watching … and why … but I still come back every day.” Though some are given a soundtrack of slow, sinister music and others upbeat pop, all Reifsnyder’s videos seem to capture the terror of an eerie expanse of ocean that has the power to crush you and drag you down.

Warship wreathed in smoke from main guns firing
The German battleship Bismarck sank with the loss of nearly 2,100 men in 1941 and was discovered almost 50 years later. Photograph: PA

The comment section reveals that viewers cannot help but picture themselves onboard: “Imagine your boat goes completely airborne,” reads one, while others joke: “I’m fine, I had my seatbelt on,” and “I’d survive.”

There is also a clear appetite for further destruction: “Can fire be added or an explosion?” asks one commenter. Another requests: “Could you drop it from the sky into the water?”

There are 3m lost vessels under the waves, and with new technology finally enabling us to explore them, Guardian Seascape is dedicating a series to what is being found: the secret histories, hidden treasures and the lessons they teach. From glimpses into storied wrecks such as the Titanic and Ernest Shackleton’s doomed Endurance, to slave vessels such as the Clotilda or Spanish galleons lined with plundered South American gold that confront us with our troubled history, shipwrecks are time capsules, holding clues to who we are.

But they are also ocean actors in their own right, home to huge colonies of marine life. They are victims, too, of the same threats faced by the ocean: invasive species eating away at their hulls, acidification slowly causing them to disintegrate. Shipwrecks are mirrors showing us not just who we’ve been, but what our future holds on a fast-heating globe.

The pull of these wrecks has been a boon for science, shedding light on a part of the planet that has been shrouded in mystery. “If shipwrecks are the sirens that lure us into the depths, they encourage exploration into what truly is the last frontier of the planet,” says James Delgado of shipwreck company Search Inc. “A frontier that we don’t really know much about.”
Chris Michael and Laura Paddison, Seascape editors

More than 1.7 million people watched the Bismarck go boom in early October, and Reifsnyder’s most popular video has 21m views. In it, an unfathomably tall wave approaches the Bismarck as Hans Zimmer’s Cornfield Chase from the film Interstellar plays. The ship is lifted up into the air; its stern slams into the ocean and snaps in half. Water pours into the ship. In pieces, it sinks to the seabed.

“I’ve always had an interest in the Titanic, the Britannic, the Lusitania. I’ve watched a lot of history videos on these ships,” says Reifsnyder, who began wrecking ships in July 2022 after two years of failing to get fans by streaming the shooting game Call of Duty.

Finding fans has not been a problem this time. “A lot of people find it really satisfying,” he says. “It’s actually pretty therapeutic to watch boats sink. In my streams, I create a very relaxing and inclusive environment for everybody and anybody.”

Initially, Reifsnyder’s viewers were mostly men aged 15 to 35, but recently others have hopped onboard. “I have noticed more females coming in and watching,” he says, “I even have people that speak languages that I can’t even recognise.”

Reifsnyder is bilingual and occasionally speaks Spanish on streams. “A lot of people tell me I have a great narration voice,” he says. His commentary varies from deadpan and descriptive to excitably absurd: “It’s going to get yeeted into the air!”, “Oh my, into the spikes she goes.”

Dr Coltan Scrivner, an expert on morbid curiosity, argues that what keeps people coming back is that it is a form of learning. “Humans, like other animals, have a built-in cognitive bias that encourages them to pay attention to situations that can inform them about threats or danger,” says the research scientist at the Recreational Fear Lab in Aarhus University, Denmark.

Scrivner says such “threat information” is especially appealing “when the cost to look is low – such as when we watch the news, play a game or see a simulation.

“Our minds see a simulated shipwreck as an opportunity to learn important and consequential information at a very low cost. This makes it difficult to look away.”

Reifsnyder, too, views his content as educational, not about mocking tragedies. Unlike other games, there’s “nobody onboard” the ships of Floating Sandbox, and no population counter that ticks down as a vessel sinks.

“This is all about history, and we’re learning physics here,” Reifsnyder says. “Hydrodynamic physics are accounted for in the game, thermodynamics are accounted for, gravity is accounted for.” Or to put it another way: Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh! Boom!


Amelia Tait

The GuardianTramp

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