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Half a Century Later, 1960 Record Dive Still Stands

  • Rosanne Skirble

US Navy craft's dive to deepest part of sea marks 50th anniversary

2010 marks the 50th anniversary of a pioneering event in ocean exploration.

In 1960, a U.S. Navy submersible craft called the Trieste plunged almost 11 kilometers to the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Guam. That achievement has never been repeated. The Trieste's history-making journey to the bottom of the ocean has not been repeated.

The Trieste's history-making journey to the bottom of the ocean has not been repeated.

When Donald Walsh first saw the vessel on a flat barge in San Diego, California, he wasn't impressed. "It looked like an explosion in a boiler factory. And I looked down at all these bits and I thought, 'Good luck to them.' I couldn't make any sense of it."

What Walsh, then a Navy lieutenant and aide to the commander of a fleet of submarines, didn't know at the time was that he would co-pilot the Trieste. The Trieste right before her dive to 35,800 feet in the Challenger Trench in the Pacific Ocean near Guam.

The Trieste right before her dive to 35,800 feet in the Challenger Trench in the Pacific Ocean near Guam.

Going deeper than Mt. Everest is high

The mission would advance ocean science by taking the craft to the ocean floor at a depth of almost 11,000 meters - deeper than Mt. Everest is high.

"That was more than 10 times deeper than I had ever been in a submarine," he says. "Most oceanographers don't like excitement and adventure. They want a very stable, reliable, well-known platform. What better demonstration of the safety of this platform than to go to the deepest place in the ocean and come back perfectly intact and in working order?"

The Trieste is a bathyscaphe - a free-diving self-propelled submersible - one of just two in the world in the late 1950s. It's an impressive craft at over 16 meters long with a gasoline-filled flotation chamber's deck, rails, and conning tower that make it look a bit like a submarine.

"Basically, it's an underwater balloon," Walsh says. "You've got two parts to it: You've got the balloon here - which is this long cylindrical object - and that's filled with a lighter-than-water substance, which is aviation (grade) gasoline. Oil floats on water, and so you get the buoyancy or lift. Then beneath the balloon you have a cabin for the fragile humans."

That cabin is a 14-ton spherical steel capsule only two meters in diameter, with a single, half-meter-wide circular plastic window for viewing. There is just enough room for two people. Lt. Don Walsh (left) and Jacques Piccard (center) in cramped quarters inside Trieste's chamber on January 23, 1960.

Lt. Don Walsh (left) and Jacques Piccard (center) in cramped quarters inside Trieste's chamber on January 23, 1960.

On Trieste's historic dive, the co-pilots would be Walsh and Swiss scientist Jacques Piccard - whose father, Auguste Piccard, had designed the craft.

In late December 1959, Walsh recalls, he and Piccard headed to Guam to begin a series of test dives. "By the time we got to January 1960, we were pretty familiar with the workings of the submersible."

The descent

On January 23, 1960, the Trieste began its mission in rough seas. It descended cautiously through bioluminescent particles and ocean layers of gray, then black, at about one meter per second. Things went smoothly until the Trieste was nine-and-a-half kilometers down, when they heard a muted bang.

"It got our attention," Walsh says. "But we didn't know at the time what it was. We just knew that we were alive and everything was functioning well. All of our instruments and indicators said the dive was progressing just fine. So we proceeded."

That bang turned out to be a crack in the Plexiglas viewing window. Luckily, it didn't leak and the Trieste arrived, intact, at the deepest point in the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench - a ravine called Challenger Deep. Their descent had taken 4 hours and 48 minutes.

"Just before we landed we saw a flat fish, about a foot long like a halibut or a sole." he says. "That's a bottom dwelling creature. They live on the sea floor and it was a fairly high order marine vertebrate. So that was important to see."

But the landing churned up so much sediment that the 20 minutes the aquanauts spent on the ocean floor was, as Walsh describes it, "like swimming in a bowl of milk."

The Trieste ascended safely, completing the round-trip mission in just over eight hours.

New era in ocean exploration

By the end of that day, the copilots were being heralded as heroes who had opened a new era of ocean exploration.

Both men remained active for decades in ocean exploration. Jacques Piccard died in 2008 at the age of 86.

Walsh says the Trieste produced a blueprint that others would follow. "Everything we did here was a first, not because we were pioneers or inventors, but because literally, necessity is the mother of invention. If we needed something, we had to invent it."

That state-of-the-art technology included underwater lights, cameras, motors and electrical systems.

No human has returned to that deepest part of the ocean.

However, a remotely-operated Japanese vessel did reach the site in 1995. And in 2009, an unmanned submersible named Nereus, a project of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, made the same journey.

"That was really a first class piece of engineering," says Walsh. "It not only went down there, not just setting a record, if you will, but it did useful work."

Nereus recorded video and collected geological and biological samples with its manipulator arm. In similar fashion, the manned submersible known as Alvin has also expanded our reach into the ocean's inky depths, most famously in its historic visits to the 73-year-old wreck of the Titanic, discovered in 1985 at the bottom of the North Atlantic by ocean explorer Robert Ballard.

Trieste co-pilot Donald Walsh applauds the advances in technology since his record setting dive, but laments that most of the world's deep oceans remain unexplored and that only a handful of vessels - manned or robotic - exist to do the job.

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