50th Anniversary of World’s Deepest Dive
Fifty years ago, two men voyaged to the bottom of the deepest sea. Nobody has been back since.
On Jan. 23, 1960, Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss explorer Jacques Piccard, in the submersible Trieste, descended seven miles into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. The feat was celebrated Saturday at the Naval Undersea Museum, where the vessel’s successor, Trieste II, is displayed.
“The surprising thing is that more people have walked on the surface of the moon than have been to the deepest part of the world’s ocean,” said museum director Bill Galvani. “These two guys went in 1960. No one has been back since. No one has been even close. In the meantime, we’ve sent 12 people to the moon and many people into space. We know more about the surface of the moon, and even the opposite side of the moon, than we do about the deep ocean.”
Piccard died in 2008, leaving Walsh as the only living person to have made the 37,799-foot dive, 200 miles south of Guam. The 78-year-old Walsh, who lives in southwest Oregon, will be attending another Trieste anniversary event Saturday in San Diego.
The Trieste was designed by Piccard’s father, Auguste Piccard, and built in Italy in 1953. The U.S. Navy bought it in 1958. Walsh, then a 28-year-old Navy submariner, became its officer in charge.
The strange-looking vessel was called a bathyscaphe, or “deep ship.” There was just enough room in its 7-foot crew sphere for two people. Most of the vessel was huge tanks of lighter-than-water gasoline that functioned as a big balloon. To descend, air tanks were filled with seawater. To return to the surface, steel pellets were released.
Twenty-five-foot waves pounded the Trieste on the morning of the historic dive as it bobbed on the surface with its headquarters ship, the USS Lewis. At about 8 a.m., its heavy door clanked shut, and the vessel slipped under the waves. No other vessel had ever dived deeper than 12,300 feet, and the Trieste hadn’t gone below 23,000 feet.
Between 4,000 and 7,000 feet, drops began seeping in, but decreased as the dive continued. Walsh and Piccard were jolted by a big bang at 31,000 feet, as if something had broken. They couldn’t find a problem, so they kept going.
At 34,000 feet, the water beneath them began to lighten up as Trieste’s light reflected off the seafloor. At 36,000 feet, they still hadn’t reached it, however, nor at 37,000. Finally, they released just enough shot to make an easy landing. The depth gauge read 37,800 feet.
“Jacques and I shook hands and expressed our feelings of relief and joy,” Walsh said. “It was a great day for all of us who had worked so hard for nearly five months at Guam.”
They didn’t take any pictures because the Trieste had stirred up so much bottom sediment that there was no visibility.
“It was like being in a bowl of milk for our entire time on the bottom,” Walsh said.
At 1:30 p.m., after sitting at the bottom for only 20 minutes, the Trieste dumped ballast and headed home so it could reach the surface before sundown. The ascent took 3 1/2 hours.
Back in the states, Walsh and Piccard became heroes. They were ordered back to Washington, D.C., to be acclaimed by political and military heavyweights, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and wound up on the cover of Life magazine.