Early January 1960: The bathyscaphe Trieste swings on cables at Apra Harbor in Guam prior to its historic dive to the deepest part of the world ocean. The U.S. Navy estimated that at maximum depth, the vessel's passenger sphere withstood the weight of five battleships. Image courtesy of Thomas J. Abercrombie, National Geographic Society.
‘More people have walked on the moon than have been to the deepest place in the ocean’
Renowned explorer Dr. Don Walsh reflects on his historic 1960 dive in the Marianas Trench, and on what the next 50 years of ocean research may bring
The 1950s and ‘60s marked a burgeoning era of exploration, when postwar prosperity led to generous funding for scientific research and great freedom for those seeking to delve into unknown realms. Such was the atmosphere in late 1958 when the U.S. Navy purchased a cutting-edge, Swiss-designed submersible, named the Trieste. The Brass agreed to let a mildly brash team of young engineers and technicians send her to the very bottom of the sea – if they could figure out how to do it within a reasonable budget and time frame.
That’s how it came to pass that U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss scientist Jacques Piccard completed a record dive aboard the two-man submersible on January 23, 1960. The tiny vessel with its intrepid passengers dived to a depth of 35,800 feet in an area called the Challenger Deep, located in the Marianas Trench – the deepest part of the ocean – in the waters off the coast of Guam.
To this day, Drs. Walsh and Piccard remain the only two people ever to view the hadopelagic (hay-duh-puh-laj-ik) zone – the ocean abyss, below 20,000 feet – with their own eyes (the term hadopelagic derives from the Greek word Hades, for “underworld”).
As a trailblazer in ocean research and exploration, Dr. Walsh has been a proponent of NOAA since it was founded in 1970, and, over the years, he has served as both a formal and informal consultant to the agency in many capacities. In the following Q & A, he Walsh recalls his historic voyage, 50 years later.
January 23, 1960: Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh (right) and Swiss scientist Jacques Piccard wave as the Trieste emerges from its seven-mile journey to the deepest point on Earth, in the Pacific Ocean's Marianas Trench off the coast of Guam. The historic dive has never been duplicated. Image courtsey of Thomas J. Abercrombie, National Geographic Society.
As a young Navy lieutenant, you were experienced in submarine operations. But how were you chosen to command the Trieste on its history-making mission?
The Navy lab in San Diego asked if anyone in submarine operations wanted to operate the Trieste, which was a new type of mini-submersible called a bathyscaphe (bath-ee-scaf). I was stationed there at the time, so I volunteered. As it turned out, there wasn’t much competition! No one knew what a bathyscaphe was. It didn’t sound terribly career-enhancing.
How did the mission come into being?
Following World War II, ocean scientists, few though we were, were seeking a steady, reliable platform from which we could learn more about the ocean. At that time, the easiest and least expensive way to make ocean observations was via scuba, but that only worked to a depth of about 135 feet. And back then, it was rare to find a scientist who was also a professional diver.
It became obvious that in order to record data at deeper depths, we needed a small submersible vessel. So the Office of Naval Research bought the Trieste in hopes that it would prove to be a reliable research platform. Well, we figured, what better proof of validity could there be than to take it to the ultimate depth? So we shipped the Trieste to Guam for its deep-diving tests, and over a series of seven months, prepared for our mission to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.
January 23, 1960: As a young Navy lieutenant, Don Walsh faced little competition in his bid to command the Trieste. "No one knew what a bathyscaphe was," he says. "It didn't sound very career-enhancing." Little did he know that 50 long years later, he would still be one of only two people ever to voyage to the very bottom of the sea.
When you think back on the technology of 1960, is there anything about the mission or the submersible itself that people might find surprising today?
Well, consider that at that time, only two manned deep-sea submersibles existed in the world, and the Trieste was one of them. Everyone involved in the kind of work we were doing could sit around one table. Our team was comprised of 14 people, including myself and Dr. Piccard.
Thus, there was no infrastructure for our mission, no vendors we could call for equipment or parts. We designed our own lights, cameras, sensors, and instrumentation, and either made them ourselves or had someone make them for us. The market for submersible accoutrements did not exist. We created it!
Now that 50 years have passed, what do you find most memorable about the mission?
What’s most memorable to me is that we were successful. We were a pretty young group, all between the ages of 28 and 35, including the project manager and the chief oceanographer. We told our bosses that we wanted to do this, and if they gave us the go-ahead, we would do it, on time and on budget. We liked to say that we knew the Navy was behind us, but we just weren’t sure how far behind us! So there was, and continues to be, a certain pride of accomplishment that we actually did what we set out to do.
When the Trieste mission happened, was it big news? What was the “atmosphere” in those days regarding ocean exploration?
Truth be told, it wasn’t particularly big news. The space race had captured the public’s imagination, and it was much flashier, highly graphic, highly visual, more exciting. We joked that the only thing you see when a sub submerges is a little cloud of bubbles, as opposed to the rockets’ red glare.
Seriously, though, our mission was a scientific first, and it was a highly imaginative endeavor. So much so that I ended up at the Pentagon justifying the project to the Chief of Naval Operations, who reluctantly agreed to let us proceed, but ordered us not to discuss it with anyone until the mission was completed.
So did the mission remain “secret” until after it was over?
As it turned out, a few of the major periodicals of the day – Life, The National Geographic, and the London Daily Times – sniffed the story out, and were with us on Guam for our last couple of weeks. If not for them, the mission probably would have been completely lost to the history books.
To this day, a lot of people have no idea that it even happened. I like to remind them that more people have walked on the moon than have been to the deepest place in the ocean.
What do you think was the Trieste mission’s most important contribution to ocean research?
I see our fingerprints all over today’s deep-diving systems. My colleagues and I developed many of the most basic technical necessities for these sorts of operations, and our work has been carried forward, in much more elegant forms, in the ensuing 50 years. Quite simply, very few ocean sensors were available in those days.
Ultimately, more than 250 manned submersibles have been developed. Today’s unmanned submersibles – remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles – also have a bit of our DNA in them. In that sense, the Trieste mission was truly evolutionary.
Why do you think there never has been another expedition to the bottom of the hadopelagic zone?
It’s mainly economics. The deepest-diving family of present-day manned submersibles is designed to go to about 23,000 feet, which comprises 97 percent of the world ocean. The hadopelagic zone, which lies below 20,000 feet, comprises only three percent. So you can get a pretty good picture of the whole by diving to 23,000 feet.
After obtaining your PhD, you founded and directed the University of Southern California’s Institute for Marine and Coastal Studies. What do you think the future of ocean research holds?
Even more and greater discoveries. There’s so much ocean, and so few of us.
Things in the ocean happen slowly, but inexorably. Much of what happens cannot be reversed. Sea-level rise, global warming – we can mitigate the damages from these things, but by the time we even realize there’s a problem, it’s typically too late to save the system.
The higher-tech governments want to explore space, and not to diminish space, but governments across the world must resolve to invest in more exploration here. The ocean holds the key to our knowledge of the place that 99.9 percent of us are destined to inhabit – this large, manned satellite of the sun called Planet Earth.
NOAA's National Ocean Service, together with the NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and NOAA Fisheries, are leaders in undersea research that reveals clues to the origin of life on Earth, helps find potential cures for human diseases, strives to achieve the sustainable use of resources, promotes maritime history, and protects endangered species.