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Deepest Dive: Geographic Honors Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

By Ford Cochran Fifty years ago–January 23, 1960–Don Walsh, then a U.S. Navy lieutenant, and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard climbed inside a sphere at the bottom of the “bathyscaphe” (deep-diving research submarine) Trieste and descended some 35,800 feet to the deepest place in any ocean on our planet, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench off...

By Ford Cochran

Fifty years ago–January 23, 1960–Don Walsh, then a U.S. Navy lieutenant, and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard climbed inside a sphere at the bottom of the “bathyscaphe” (deep-diving research submarine) Trieste and descended some 35,800 feet to the deepest place in any ocean on our planet, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench off Guam. No one has ever returned to the spot, literally Earth’s ultimate abyss.


Trieste after the Challenger Deep dive. Photo by Tom Abercrombie

Last night, National Geographic bestowed its highest honor, the Hubbard Medal, on Walsh in a ceremony at our Washington, D.C. headquarters. The U.S. Department of the Navy also awarded Walsh its Distinguished Public Service Award.


National Geographic Chairman Gil Grosvenor awarding the Hubbard Medal to Don Walsh. Photo by Becky Hale

“Don Walsh is one of only two people to have visited Earth’s deepest place, and no one else has come close,” said Gil Grosvenor, National Geographic’s chairman of the board. “His accomplishment ranks along with those of our other Hubbard Medal recipients, people like Robert Byrd, Charles Lindbergh, and Robert Ballard.” Jacques Piccard died in 2008, at the age of 86.


Don Walsh (left) and Jacques Piccard after the Challenger Deep dive. Photo by Tom Abercrombie

I spoke with Don Walsh, now 78, about the historic journey and its legacy.

How did you end up aboard Trieste?

I got into the program primarily because no one else wanted to volunteer for it. It wasn’t like the astronaut corps: I sort of backed into it. I was just 28 years old when I made the dive. I didn’t have any competition.

I had been in submarines a couple of years at that point. I was serving in the “smokeboats,” as we called them in those days, the diesel boats. I had just come back to San Diego from a tour on a submarine as a bachelor, thinking about the grand times I’d have around Coronado, when I got asked up to see the commodore. I thought, crikeys, what have I done? I’d only been in port about 30 minutes.

Turned out they wanted me to act as an aide to the commodore. Now I’m the guy in the motorboat going out to meet returning submarines. I was working a desk job. I ended up doing it for three months.

I really am a sailor. I love to go to sea, and I was afraid I’d be driving a desk on the submarine tender for years. Among my duties, I set up briefings for the commodore. One day this guy comes into my office, says the Navy’s got this new Trieste bathyscaphe ready to dive the depths in the Pacific. It was going to be based not far from where the submarine corps was and he thought the boss might be interested. He invited him to lunch, and said ‘Why don’t you come, too?’

He was a marine biologist with a PhD out of Scripps [Institute of Oceanography], and he had Jacques Piccard in tow. An opportunist, he had arranged for Trieste to be brought alongside the submarine tender (one of the two ships that serves the subs in San Diego). The bathyscaphe had been shipped in pieces, and was getting towed up the bay to the Navy electronics lab for reassembly.


Cutaway diagram of Trieste courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center

It looked like an explosion at a boiler factory. That was my first glimpse of Trieste. I’m a submarine officer, but I had no idea what any of that stuff was. I thought “They’re all nuts!”

After they left, I was directed to write up a radio message for all the subs operating in the eastern Pacific asking for volunteers. There were about 15 subs, and we got one volunteer. I went in to see the chief of staff and said ‘Captain, we only got a single volunteer.’ The commodore had promised to send over two officers. So I told him I thought I ought to volunteer to keep the commodore’s promise.

That’s how I ended up becoming the officer in charge of Trieste.

How did the deep dive come about?

The Navy had bought the Trieste in 1958, not to set a world’s record, but as a scientific platform. It was carefully evaluated during the summer of ’57 by a group of ocean researchers: A biologist, an acoustics guy, a geological oceanographer. They chartered it to see if such a platform would be useful for naval research and decided, yeah, having the trained mind and trained eye right at a deep-sea work site would be ideal.

At the time the Navy purchased it, they also took note of the fact that, theoretically, Trieste could go to any depth in the ocean. That was in the back of everyone’s mind.


Trieste swings on cables at Apra Harbor in Guam. Photo by Tom Abercrombie

When it was brought back to the U.S., I took the operating plan to the Navy Department to get approval for the deep project at Guam. I finally ended up in front of the chief of naval operations–the senior-most admiral in the U.S. Navy. All the lower ranks were not ready to sign off on this.

Admiral Arleigh Burke finally, tentatively, approved it, but conditionally: There would be no publicity. If you come back, we’ll publicize it, he said. But if you don’t, no one will know about it. Satellite launches were failing, there was lots of publicity, and it was embarrassing. He didn’t want more of that.

There were only three organizations that sniffed out the story and got inside the tent: Life magazine, National Geographic, and the London Daily Mail. The Navy made a deal and said you can go out there with them, you just can’t publish until afterward.

As a submarine officer, had you dreamed about exploring the deepest parts of the ocean?

Before I got involved with the project, I had no idea how deep the ocean was. As a navigator, you only care about having a lot of water under your keel so you don’t hit anything. That’s navigation, not oceanography. I’d been serving on submarines that could dive to 300 feet, maybe 400. I go to a Navy lab, and they start talking thousands of feet. In March of ’59 I made a dive to 4,000 feet. Then they started talking about going to 36,000 feet.

Within six months, I’d gone from being behind a desk on a submarine tender to getting ready to make the world’s deepest dive.

Were you nervous about making the dive?

No. When we got to Guam, we set out to do a series of increasingly deep test dives. Each one was designed to test out the platform, figure out what would break, fix it, test it again. The harbor at Guam was the first–just 400 feet.

By the time we did the deepest dive, we’d been through this many times. Two weeks before, we dove to 23,000 feet. It was simply a longer day at the office, I tell folks.

It’s like flying an airplane: Your preflight, your operations, your checklists are pretty much the same whether you fly around the control tower and land or take it to New York City. So the deep dive was just a longer day.

Were there any surprises during the journey?

The diving sphere–our cabin–was pretty tiny, about the size of a household refrigerator and the same temperature. By the time you put all the kit inside, there wasn’t much room for us. And we were in there for nine hours.


At maximum depth, the Trieste‘s small passenger sphere withstood the weight of five battleships. Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center

Something gave out with a loud bang as we got near the bottom. That was extraordinary, but at least it wasn’t fatal to the dive, fatal to us. At about 31,000 feet, where it happened, the pressure is kind of high, something like five or six tons per square inch. We would’ve perished instantly. We sure as hell didn’t know what had failed, and it wasn’t routine. Were we scared? No, but we were concerned.

We checked everything out, checked all the gauges. Trieste appeared to be working. So we continued on with the dive to the bottom.

Jacques saw a fish just before we landed. The invertebrates weren’t such a surprise. But to find a fairly high-order marine vertebrate at that depth was a significant find. And it was a flat bottom-dweller, not something that had just gotten lost and ended up down there. If there was one, there had to be more.


Artist’s rendering of Trieste on the seafloor courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center

After 20 minutes on the bottom, we dropped our ballast and headed back to the surface.

What followed?

We definitely enjoyed getting recognized for what we did. Myself and the other chief plotters of the program, we were happy with what we’d done with our little crew: We had delivered on what we set out to do. We had a damn good team that worked really hard for a long time, seven days a week, to get us to the point we could make that deep dive. But I think we had also showed what is possible in the oceans.

There was the Life cover story and the one in the Geographic. It all went by, and by the time we turned around twice it was gone. What we did was really not noted for very long. It disappeared into the mists of history.

I think more than a thousand people have climbed up Everest. Several hundred have gone into space. More people have walked on the moon than have done what we did. At the time, few people understood the scale of the challenge. I like to joke: The right stuff, but the wrong direction.

But today, our group can still see our fingerprints all over almost every submersible in the world, manned or unmanned.

In our time, you couldn’t go to a catalogue and buy what you needed. You either made it yourself or told people what you needed and had them make it for you. Cameras, lights, underwater electrical systems–we had to do it ourselves. It’s not like we were trying to be terribly clever: If we wanted to operate, we had to make these things. In those days, the number of people who had the technical skills and the pilots–you could probably invite them all to lunch for a sandwich around one table. There wasn’t a lot of support structure.

Even Woods Hole’s Alvin–the original concept was developed by our group at San Diego. We were beating up the bathyscaphe taking it out and around the world’s oceans. We wanted a small submersible you could put on the back of a ship of opportunity rather than towed along behind a vessel at five knots, which is what we had to do with the Trieste. Our captain thought it was a wonderful idea. We called the conceptual design the Sea Pup. Then he dropped the other shoe: Said ‘We’re gonna get one of these and send it to Woods Hole.’ That became Alvin.


The bathyscaphe Trieste on display with the deep-ocean research submersible Alvin at the U.S. Navy Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo by Ford Cochran

When you made the historic dive, did you imagine that 50 years later, yours would remain the only manned journey to the deepest place in the ocean?

No, no. We thought there’d be more dives to Challenger Deep and places like it. While we were waiting for someone to find us after we returned to the surface, we were chatting, happy that we’d gotten the job done. We wondered: How long will it be before someone else does this? It would never be routine, we figured. But we agreed it would just be a year or two before someone was back out again, doing research in the deep trenches.

Ford-Cochran.jpgFord Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

More posts by Ford Cochran

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn