SEVEN MILES UNDER THE SEA
Born in Berkeley, California, he grew up during the Great Depression.
Don remembered as a boy, looking out from his bedroom window and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge being built in San Francisco Bay. “I’d see all these ships coming and going through the Golden Gate, straight out to the west and I thought, ‘I wonder what’s out there?” He said this was the start of his thirst for adventure.
Upon leaving school, Don went to the United States Naval Academy and graduated with a BA. He was commissioned as an officer.
He chose to work with submarines and was transferred to the naval base in San Diego. He worked on submarines that were exploring the Arctic. They were powered by diesel and had the nickname ‘Smoke Boats’.
It was there that Don became the American Navy’s first deep submersible pilot with the craft USS Bashaw.
By now, Don was married to Joan, and they had two children.
Then, he was recruited to join a very dangerous scheme called Project Nekton. The intention was to send a bathyscape down into the Challenger Deep – the deepest part of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean – the lowest level of any ocean in the world.
The bathyscaphe was called ‘Trieste’ and had been designed by Swiss inventor Auguste Piccard.
Piccard was an explorer, an innovator, a physics professor and a hot air balloonist. He had been the first person to go into the stratosphere in a hot air balloon.
He was a twin – and his brother was also an explorer.
In later years, the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, named the captain of the Starship Enterprise, Jean Luc Picard, after the brothers.
Piccard had shifted his emphasis from exploring the skies (and above), to the oceans, and had recruited his scientist son, Jacques, to help him. But they needed a pilot for their craft and Don was recommended.
He was shown a photograph of the bathyscape. He said, “It looked like an explosion in a boiler factory.”
When told what Project Nekton aimed to achieve, Don said, “So, now I’m going from 300 feet deep in a military submarine, to maybe 36,000 feet in something I can’t even pronounce?” He signed up regardless, despite being warned that there was a high likelihood he would not come out of the expedition alive.
The bathyscape was designed on the same principle as a hot air balloon, but was sausage shaped not spherical, as that made it easier to tow out to sea. The top part was full of gasoline and water, to enable the vessel to rise from the foot of the ocean. Underneath, was a small capsule, designed for two people. It was very basic. “It’s like the paper clip or can opener. Everyone thinks ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ Once you look at it and see it, you realise it’s pretty simple.” Don called it, “an underwater balloon.”
The two people inside the capsule were Don (aged 28) and Jacques Piccard (aged 37). The Trieste was tested over one thousand times – but it was impossible to replicate the unknown conditions at the bottom of the Pacific.
The expedition set sail from Guam, in January 1960. By the 23rd of that month, the shark infested sea was very choppy. The captain of the ship was unconcerned, stating he had seen much worse weather.
Then, the navy sent a message to the ship saying the launch should be cancelled. Just as the order was being printed off, the First Mate shouted to the captain to come and have a coffee – which he did.
After his drink, the captain read the note and rushed up onto the deck. But he was too late. The Trieste had already been launched.
It was a very uncomfortable journey for Piccard and Walsh. “It was like getting into a household refrigerator.”
As the Trieste neared the bottom of the Mariana Trench, their vision got worse. They were stirring up sediment.
They had no cameras and no lights. “We didn’t have good stuff then. Nothing existed. If you needed something, you had to design it and build it yourself.”
It was a 5-hour journey to the bottom. At 32,500 feet down, there was an explosion. Their plexiglass viewing window had cracked, narrowing their vision by over 50%. They initially considered abandoning the journey – but then decided that as they had come so far, they would risk going on. Don said later, “If you’re descending in a submersible and you hear something – you’re probably going to be OK. If you hear nothing, you might have a problem.”
When they reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench, they could see little. Don remembered a halibut-like flat fish scuttling across the ocean floor and apart from that, “Shrimp – nothing but shrimp.” He said the main entertainment down there was the incandescent plankton.
They spent 20 minutes on the seabed. Don remembered there was no cheering, clapping or whoops of joy at their achievement – “Just a quiet moment of reflection.”
When the two men finally resurfaced, it was calculated they had gone to a depth of 35, 813 feet. This was amended later on, using more accurate measurements, to 35, 798 feet. Either way, it was over 7 miles down!
As soon as they returned to shore, they were summoned to the White House. There, President Eisenhower awarded both men the Legion of Merit. They told the President they thought it might be a couple of years before anyone else went down that far into the ocean – little did they know it would be 50 years.
Don continued working for the US Navy for a number of years – in ocean research and craft development. During this time he went back to university, where he earned 2 MAs and a PhD.
He even advised the Apollo missions on remote sensing.
Don spent his vacations lecturing on cruise ships. He did over 50 trips, but Joan, his wife, hated them and refused to go with him after the first one. He grinned as he said, “Joan told me to ‘grow up.”
He finally left the Navy and started his own marine consultancy business in 1976. It was incredibly successful. Everybody wanted Don’s experience and advice.
Don and Joan bought a ranch at Sitkum, Oregon (near Coquille), close to the sea, where they lived for the rest of their lives.
Simultaneously, Don was appointed Dean of Marine Programmes and Professor of Ocean Engineering at the University of California. He set up the ‘Marine and Coastal Studies’ course there.
President Jimmy Carter appointed Don to the US National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere – responsible to the State Department. Carter’s successor, President Ronald Reagan, asked Don to continue in this role.
From 1989, Don worked very closely with the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in the Soviet Union (later Russia).
Meanwhile, Don continued his research in both the Arctic and Antarctic. He estimated that he made 5 expeditions per year. Initially, he called the Antarctic, “The most inhospitable place in the world,” but he grew to love the savage beauty of the place and kept going back – “drawn to it like a magnet.” Throughout his career, Don estimated he had made over 50 expeditions to the Arctic and the Antarctic.
He was invited onto a trip to visit the wreck of the German battleship, Bismarck, in 2002.
This was followed by a visit to the wreck of the Titanic in 2010. A fellow traveller was film director James Cameron, and the two men became firm friends.
Don then did some work with the China Ship Scientific Research Centre but returned to the USA extremely disillusioned. The craft ‘Jialong’ had planted a Chinese flag on the ocean floor of the South China Sea. He said it was “very deliberate.” He felt the world’s oceans belonged to everybody.
Don’s former partner, Jacques Piccard, died in 2008, aged 84.
In 2012, Don became the advisor on his friend James Cameron’s attempt to become the first solo diver to reach the floor of the Mariana Trench. As Cameron went over the side, Don shook his hand and said, “Good luck – and have fun.”
When Cameron returned successfully, Don said, “Welcome to the club. There are just the two of us.”
In later years, Don worked with the National Academy of Science and was appointed onto the board of the University of Oregon.
He also became a member of the Ocean Elders, dedicated to the protection and conservation of the world’s oceans.
He was thrilled when he got a small part of the Antarctic named after him – the Walsh Spur in Victoria Land, near the Ross Sea.
In 2015, Don featured in the book ‘No More Worlds to Conquer’, by Chris Wright. It was about great explorers of the modern world – and Don was Chapter One. Wright asked him why he was not more famous after Trieste. Don replied, “Well, a lot of people thought I’d died.”
Don advised explorer and entrepreneur Victor Vescovo on his trip down to the Mariana Trench in 2019 – and was there to greet him upon his safe return.
National Geographic gave Don the Hubbard Medal – their highest possible award.
But there was still a greater thrill to come. His son, Kelly, went down to the floor of the Mariana Trench, in 2020 – only the 12th person to have done so. Don called it the greatest Father’s Day present – but admitted Kelly had gone down 8 metres lower than he had done.
That same year, an award was created in his name – the ‘Don Walsh Award for Ocean Exploration’. The first winner was Edith Widder, and Don was proud to present the award in person.
In an interview, Don was asked the difference between his trip in the Trieste in 1960, and modern diving expeditions. He said, “It’s like comparing Orville Wright and a 707. They both do the same essential job – carrying people down to the deepest place in the ocean, but you are talking about half a century of technology.”
Asked about how he viewed his achievement, Don said “Not many of us get to set global ‘firsts’, and there’s some pride in being a member of a great team that did a durable first.”
Don was a great believer in continuing research. “We’ve only adequately studied 8% of the world’s oceans. I’d suggest there’s a lot of work left to do, whether it’s the deepest part of the ocean or anywhere else.”
National Geographic said there were three great explorations of the second half of the Twentieth Century: the climbing of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing in 1953, the first men on the moon (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) in 1969 and the plumbing of the depths of the ocean by Piccard and Walsh in 1960. It said two of these achievements were known worldwide – and one remained almost unknown.
Don was asked how he felt about astronauts getting all of the attention and publicity. He said, “It was the Right Stuff – but in the wrong direction.”
Nevertheless, he said he had ‘dined out’ on his achievement for the rest of his life.
He was still considered an expert in underwater craft. He repeatedly warned that the Titan tourist submersible was dangerous – “an accident waiting to happen.”
Titan sank on its maiden voyage to the Titanic in June 2023, killing all 6 people on board.
At Don’s death, the Society for Underwater Technology, said, “He will be most recalled for his humility, kindness and generosity.”
Life magazine called him, “One of the world’s great explorers.”
National Geographic said Don will be remembered for, “Pioneering a new direction in ocean exploration.”
RIP – Relied (on) Inventor Piccard