As They Got to the Seafloor, He 'Knew We Were Making History'

Explorer, retired Navy Capt. Don Walsh, part of first crew to reach deepest part of ocean, is dead at 92
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 22, 2023 8:11 AM CST
He Took First Trip to Deepest 'Ooze' of the Ocean
In this photo provided by the U.S. Navy, Navy Lt. Don Walsh, bottom, and explorer Jacques Piccard descend to the deepest spot in the world's ocean in 1960, a feat not repeated again by another human being until 2012, when movie director James Cameron returned to the same spot in a small submarine.   (U.S. Navy via AP)

Retired Navy Capt. Don Walsh, an explorer who in 1960 was part of a two-man crew that made the first voyage to the deepest part of the ocean—to the "snuff-colored ooze" at the bottom of the Pacific's Mariana Trench—has died. He was 92. Walsh died Nov. 12 at his home in Myrtle Point, Oregon, daughter Elizabeth Walsh said Monday, per the AP. In January 1960, Walsh, then a US Navy lieutenant, and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard were sealed inside a 150-ton, steel-hulled bathyscaphe (a self-propelled submersible used in deep-sea dives) named the Trieste to attempt to dive nearly 7 miles below the surface. The two men descended to 35,800 feet in the Challenger Deep, the deepest point of the Earth's oceans and part of the Mariana Trench, about 200 miles off Guam in the Pacific.

After a descent of about five hours, the submersible touched down on what the log described as the "snuff-colored ooze" of silt churned up by the ship reaching the bottom. When they reached the seafloor, the two men shook hands. "I knew we were making history," Walsh told the World newspaper of Coos Bay, Oregon, in 2010. "It was a special day." After spending 20 minutes on the floor and confirming there was life there when a fish swam by, they began their 3 1/2-hour ascent. "We were astounded to find higher marine life forms down there at all," Piccard said before his death in 2008. Piccard designed the ship with his father, and they sold it to the US Navy in 1958. Walsh was temporarily serving in San Diego when Piccard requested volunteers to operate the vehicle. Walsh stepped forward.

"There was an opportunity to pioneer," Walsh told the World. "I wasn't sure what I was going to be doing, but I knew I'd be at sea. It wasn't until later they told us what they had in store." Walsh was born Nov. 2, 1931, in Berkeley, California. He joined the Navy at age 17 and graduated from the US Naval Academy. He earned a master's degree and a doctorate in oceanography from Texas A&M. Walsh served in the Navy for 24 years, retiring with the rank of captain and serving on various submarines. He then became a professor at the University of Southern California before opening his own marine consulting business in 1976. In 2010 he received the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award and served on many boards, including as a policy adviser to the US State Department.

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Walsh traveled the world, including many trips to Antarctica, where the Walsh Spur pointed rock is named in his honor. His daughter said one of the earliest lessons she and her brother, Kelly, learned from their parents is that the world isn't a scary place—a lesson that was reinforced because their parents always came home after their various travels. "Don't be scared of it and go have adventures and learn things and meet people," Elizabeth Walsh recalled her father teaching. "He's certainly instilled an enthusiastic curiosity about the world in Kelly and I, and that's a tremendous gift." In 2020, Kelly Walsh made his own journey to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in a vessel owned and piloted by Dallas explorer Victor Vescovo, who honored Don Walsh online last week. In addition to his children, Walsh is also survived by his wife of 61 years, Joan.

(More explorer stories.)

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