Retired Navy Captain 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 “mud-colored tobacco” at the bottom of the Mariana Trench of the Pacific – is dead. He was 92 years old.
Walsh died Nov. 12 at his home in Myrtle Point, Oregon, his daughter, Elizabeth Walsh, said Monday.
In January 1960, Walsh, then a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard were locked in a 150-ton steel-hulled bathyscaphe named Trieste to attempt to dive nearly 7 miles below the surface. A bathyscaphe is a self-propelled submersible used for underwater diving.
The two men descended to 35,800 feet (11,000 meters) in the Challenger Deep, the deepest point in Earth’s oceans, part of the Mariana Trench, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) offshore. Guam in the Pacific.
After a descent of about five hours, the steel-hulled submersible landed on what the newspaper described as the “tobacco-colored ooze” of silt made up by the ship reaching the bottom.
When they reached the seabed, the two men shook hands.
“I knew we were making history,” Walsh told The World newspaper in Coos Bay, Ore., in 2010. “It was a special day.”
After spending 20 minutes on the ground and verifying that there was life there when a fish swam, they began their 3 1/2 hour climb.
“We were amazed to find higher forms of marine life there,” 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 asked for volunteers to operate the vehicle. Walsh stepped forward.
“There was an opportunity to be a pioneer,” Walsh told Le Monde. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I knew I would be at sea. It was only later that they told us what they had in store for us.
Walsh was born on November 2, 1931, in Berkeley, California. He joined the Navy at age 17 and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. He earned master’s and doctorate degrees 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 maritime consulting business in 1976.
In 2010, he received the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award and has served on numerous boards, including as a policy advisor to the U.S. Department of State.
“Walsh was a naval officer, submariner, adventurer and oceanographer. To his family, we express our deepest condolences and gratitude for allowing him to explore and share with us his extraordinary experiences and knowledge,” Chief Naval Research Rear Admiral Kurt Rothenhaus said in a Navy press release.
Walsh traveled the world, including numerous trips to Antarctica, where the pointed rock of Walsh Spur is named in his honor.
Her daughter said one of the first lessons she and her brother Kelly learned from their parents was that the world wasn’t a scary place — a lesson reinforced by the fact that their parents always came home after their various journeys.
He also encouraged them to venture outside.
“Don’t be afraid and go on adventures, learn things and meet people,” she remembers of her teaching. “It’s certainly sparked an enthusiastic curiosity about the world in Kelly and me, and that’s a wonderful gift.”
In 2020, Kelly Walsh made her own journey to the bottom of the Challenger Deep aboard a ship owned and piloted by Dallas explorer Victor Vescovo.
“An explorer, an oceanographer and an extraordinary human being. I’m so honored to be able to 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.
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