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, his daughter, Elizabeth Walsh, said Monday.
In January 1960, Walsh, then a U.S. Navy lieutenant, and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard were sealed inside a 150-ton, steel-hulled bathyscaphe named the Trieste to attempt to dive nearly 7 miles (11 kilometers) below the surface. A bathyscaphe is a self-propelled submersible used in deep-sea dives.
The two men descended to 35,800 feet (11,000 meters) in the Challenger Deep, the deepest point of the Earth's oceans, part of the Mariana Trench, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) off Guam in the Pacific.
After a descent of about five hours, the steel-hulled submersible touched down on what the log described as the “snuff-colored ooze” of silt stewed 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Naval Academy. He earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in oceanography from Texas A&M.
He 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 U.S. State Department.
“Walsh was a Navy officer, a submariner, an adventurer, and an oceanographer. To his family, we extend our deepest condolences and gratitude for allowing him to explore, and share his extraordinary experiences and knowledge with us,” Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Kurt Rothenhaus said in a Navy press release.
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 is not a scary place — a lesson that was reinforced because their parents always came home after their various travels.
He encouraged them to venture out, as well.
“Don’t be scared of it and go have adventures and learn things and meet people,” she recalled him 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.
“An extraordinary explorer, oceanographer, and human being. I’m so honored I could call him my friend,” Vescovo posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, the day after Don Walsh’s death.
In addition to his children, Walsh is also survived by his wife of 61 years, Joan.
Thiessen reported from Anchorage, Alaska.