An Unmatched Journey To Mysterious Ocean Depths

  • In 1960, Don Walsh was one of two men who rode in the bathyscaphe (or diving vessel) Trieste to the deepest part of the world's oceans — nearly seven miles below the surface in the Mariana Trench. No person has ever repeated this feat. Here, Walsh, a retired U.S. Navy submariner, poses for a portrait in North Bend, Ore., in 2009.
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    In 1960, Don Walsh was one of two men who rode in the bathyscaphe (or diving vessel) Trieste to the deepest part of the world's oceans — nearly seven miles below the surface in the Mariana Trench. No person has ever repeated this feat. Here, Walsh, a retired U.S. Navy submariner, poses for a portrait in North Bend, Ore., in 2009.
    Sue Flood/Getty Images/NPR
  • The Trieste, shown just before its historic dive on Jan. 23, 1960, is washed by 5- to 6-foot waves on the surface of the Pacific. The destroyer escort Lewis is in the background. Walsh and his crewmate, Jacques Piccard, boarded from the rubber raft trailing at left.
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    The Trieste, shown just before its historic dive on Jan. 23, 1960, is washed by 5- to 6-foot waves on the surface of the Pacific. The destroyer escort Lewis is in the background. Walsh and his crewmate, Jacques Piccard, boarded from the rubber raft trailing at left.
    U.S. Navy/AP/NPR
  • Walsh (right) and Piccard wave after emerging from their daylong trip to the deepest part of the trench, known as the Challenger Deep.
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    Walsh (right) and Piccard wave after emerging from their daylong trip to the deepest part of the trench, known as the Challenger Deep.
    Thomas J. Abercrombie/National Geographic Society/NPR
  • Spray-drenched and bone-tired, Walsh (left) and Piccard leave the Trieste in a rubber boat.
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    Spray-drenched and bone-tired, Walsh (left) and Piccard leave the Trieste in a rubber boat.
    Thomas J. Abercrombie/National Geographic Society/NPR
  • The Trieste swings on cables at Apra Harbor in Guam. At maximum water depth, the vessel's passenger sphere withstood the weight of five battleships.
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    The Trieste swings on cables at Apra Harbor in Guam. At maximum water depth, the vessel's passenger sphere withstood the weight of five battleships.
    Thomas J. Abercrombie/National Geographic Society/NPR
  • President Dwight Eisenhower looks at a plaque given to him by the crew of the Trieste and carries a small U.S. flag that was taken on the dive. At a White House ceremony, the president decorated four men for their work on the Trieste dive. From left to right: Piccard; Walsh; scientist Andreas B. Rechnitzer; and Navy Lt. Lawrence A. Shumaker. At left is Capt. E.P. Aurand, the president's naval a...
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    President Dwight Eisenhower looks at a plaque given to him by the crew of the Trieste and carries a small U.S. flag that was taken on the dive. At a White House ceremony, the president decorated four men for their work on the Trieste dive. From left to right: Piccard; Walsh; scientist Andreas B. Rechnitzer; and Navy Lt. Lawrence A. Shumaker. At left is Capt. E.P. Aurand, the president's naval aide.
    John Rous/AP/NPR

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Almost a decade before man landed on the moon, two men went as far as they could go in the other direction. It was 1960 when Navy Lt. Don Walsh and his co-pilot took a nearly seven-mile plunge to the deepest known point on Earth — the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific.

That voyage remains the deepest manned journey in history, and this past week, Walsh was awarded the National Geographic Society's highest honor, the Hubbard Medal. It's a long way from the day the young submarine officer volunteered for a strange project with an even stranger name.

"A call went out for volunteers to participate in this program with something that was unpronounceable — a 'Bathyscaphe,' " Walsh tells NPR's Guy Raz. "I knew it went under water, but this was something different. It didn't go horizontally, like a regular ship or submarine, it went vertically."

But it sounded interesting, so Walsh put his hand up. "I didn't have to put it up very far," he says. "There was only one volunteer."

The Trieste Bathyscaphe was a pressurized diving capsule suspended from a huge steel balloon. The balloon was filled with 35,000 gallons of gasoline to provide buoyancy on the way back up. It was designed by a Swiss man, Auguste Piccard, and built in Trieste, Italy, in 1953. The capsule itself was about the size of a refrigerator, barely big enough to hold Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard.

As the Bathyscaphe descended early in the morning on Jan. 23, 1960, the water turned pitch-black. Beyond the reach of sun, another light emerged. "There's a lot of bioluminescence," Walsh reports. "These organisms are emitting light, and the feeling, as you went past through these colonies of organisms, was like when you were in a house looking out the window and it's snowing and the light's reflecting off the snowflakes coming down."

But in his case, the "snowflakes" were going up as the Bathyscaphe went down.

"As we approached the bottom, we pretty well knew what the water depth was. And when we got to about 35,000 feet, I turned on the fathometer, which would allow us to get a trace or a printout on a chart that shows you the bottom coming up," Walsh says. But something was amiss.

"At 35,000 feet, no bottom. Thirty-six-thousand feet, no bottom. Thirty-seven-thousand feet, no bottom." Walsh and Piccard were worried. "What's going on? Did we find a new place?"

At 37,800 feet, the Bathyscaphe finally landed on the bottom of the ocean — and in the record books. It was a historic journey, but it wasn't celebrated with the hoopla the moon landing received in 1969.

"With apologies to Tom Wolfe, we had the 'right stuff,' but the wrong direction, I guess." Walsh isn't bothered personally by the disparity, but feels there was an opportunity lost.

"Why wasn't that used as a springboard to move us into the ocean depths to do more?" he wonders. "We're doing a lot of good stuff in the oceans today — we're just not doing enough of it."

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