Explorer- filmmaker James Cameron became the first person to dive solo into the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, the deepest place on Earth. He completed the dive the night of 25 March, Eastern Daylight Time, off Guam. In light of his feat, we thought it appropriate to post an interview done for Naval History magazine in 2000 with Dr. Don Walsh, one of the two men who beat Cameron to it more than 52 years ago.
Fred L. Schultz
From Naval History Magazine, April 2000
In January 1960, he and Swiss copilot Jacques Piccard navigated the U.S. Navy’s bathyscaphe Trieste into the Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the World Ocean. At nearly seven miles, the record still stands. Retired U.S. Navy Captain Walsh also was a member of Operation Deep Freeze in 1971, spending more than a month on the ice in Antarctica and earning recognition for his contributions there by having an Antarctic mountain ridge named for him. Today, Captain Walsh is president of International Maritime, Inc., an Oregon-based consulting company that has completed projects in 20 nations. He is one of 20 living Honorary Members of the Explorers Club, an Honorary Life Member of the Adventurers Club, and a Fellow of England’s Royal Geographic Society. Captain Walsh is a 1954 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and earned Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Oceanography from Texas A&M University and a second Master’s degree from California State University in San Diego. A technical advisor for such films as Gray Lady Down, Raise the Titanic, The Hunt for Red October, and The Abyss, Captain Walsh is scheduled to lead an expedition in April 2000 to HMS Breadalbane, the world’s northernmost shipwreck, 350 feet beneath the ice off Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic. He spoke recently about a variety of topics to Naval History Editor Fred L. Schultz.
Naval History: In a Naval History interview a few years ago, Jean-Michel Cousteau referred to you as the Buzz Aldrin of the ocean. What do you think he meant by that?
Captain Walsh: I’ve known the Cousteau family for many years. I know Jean-Michel well. I’ve been a guest in the Cousteau home. We go way back, so I believe that was a compliment and not a complaint.
Naval History: We thought he might have meant that Jacques Piccard received more of the credit for your expedition to the Challenger Deep, comparing you to Aldrin and Piccard to Neil Armstrong.
Captain Walsh: Well, it’s a tad nationalistic. Europeans tend to favor the European, and Americans tend to favor the American. I think that’s just human nature. The Piccards, of course, are a dynasty. I don’t think any family in the history of exploration has had three generations who, essentially, all established world records. Auguste, of course, was a great balloonist. He was basically a physicist, but he set the world altitude record in the early 1930s in a balloon. And, of course, his son Jacques was with me in the Trieste. And now Jacques’s son Bertrand is the first man to fly a balloon around the world.
So they’re a dynasty of explorers and scientists in Europe, and, understandably, the press treatment would probably favor them. I don’t think it’s any kind of a deliberate spin; it’s just the way people see the news and report it. It doesn’t trouble me.
Naval History: What was it like competing against the space program at the time?
Captain Walsh: It was pretty tough, because the advent of the space program came at just about the time we brought the Trieste to the United States. We and this inner spaceship we had didn’t even enjoy a year of primacy. NASA already was off and running. The Navy’s entire undersea program has lived in the shadow of the space program. Of course, our project seemed to be under wraps from the beginning.
I remember presenting the program to Admiral Arleigh Burke. Of course, the Navy doesn’t require lieutenants to go the Chief of Naval Operations to get approval for programs, but nobody wanted to make the decision. I kept getting handed up the chain until one day I ended up in front of Admiral Burke.
So I briefed him on the program. And he said, “How many of you are in this thing?”
And I replied, “It’s just myself and Piccard.”
Then he said, “Are there any other Navy people associated?”
And I said, “There’s Lieutenant Larry Shumaker, who’s the assistant officer in charge. He’ll be in charge of the topside aspects.”
The Admiral then said, “Well, if this thing doesn’t come back up, you tell Shumaker that you’re the lucky one, because I’m going to have his lower appendages.” Arleigh Burke said what he meant and meant what he said. So I got the approval from him, but he put a condition on it. He said, “There’ll be no publicity, none at all.” I looked at him in surprise, because if we were successful, this was going to be quite a coup for the Navy.
“The science guys and the research and development engineers in the Navy,” he said, “have been promising me spectacular things. We were going to put up the first earth-orbiting satellite.” They had lit off a rocket at Cape Canaveral, and it shot into the ocean rather than into space. So Admiral Burke said that he didn’t want any more of these promised science spectaculars that turn out to fizzle. “If you do it successfully,” he said, “then we’ll have the publicity. But until then, just keep your mouth shut and go do it.”
So we didn’t really have a ramp-up to this great event. There was no general knowledge of what we were doing. Although Life, National Geographic, and improbably, The London Daily Mail got a whiff of it, the Navy’s Chief of Information bought their silence by saying they could go on the trip but they couldn’t tell anybody. And they didn’t. Does Macy’s tell Gimball’s? They were inside, and the door was shut. They essentially had scoops. And so, off we went to Guam. That was good coverage.
The London Daily Mail had a wonderful foreign correspondent, Noel Barber. He was out of the trench coat-Lowell Thomas school. When the Dalai Lama came out, Barber hired horses and rode a hundred miles into Tibet to greet him and get the scoop. He was a wonderful raconteur. During the evenings in Guam, when we’d all go out for dinner, we didn’t talk about the Trieste, we sat around and listened to the reporters tell stories about their adventures. It was great fun.
Naval History: Were you at all trepidatious before your dive in the Marianas Trench to the Challenger Deep?
Captain Walsh: No. People say, “Well, you’re just being modest.” And my wife says I’ve got a lot to be modest about. But the fact is, the whole strategy of the testing of the Bathyscaph, over nearly a year, was to make increasingly deeper test dives. When we got it, it was configured for only 20,000-foot diving depths. We had to reengineer it, enlarge it, and buy a new cabin for it, to be able to go to 36,000 feet. And so we did a few test dives in San Diego, then shipped the whole thing to Guam.
At Guam, we started out at 400 feet in the harbor and worked our way offshore, in increasingly deeper water. And we actually brought the world’s depth record home to the United States in November of 1959, when we made a dive to 18,000 feet. The previous record, of course, was held by the French Navy, at 12,500 feet, which actually is the average depth of the ocean. That was set in 1954. So we captured the record again in 1958, and by early January 1960 we dove to 24,000 feet. Then 12 days later we made the deep dive. It was all incremental.
So I say it was just a longer day at the office, and people think I’m trying to be clever. But that’s the truth. All the manipulations we did to make it dive were the same whether we were diving 1,000 feet or 36,000 feet. And we got to know it intimately. I’d put on a boiler suit, scrape rust inside that tank, and help paint it. Everybody turned to. We were a small team—only 14 people. And we worked seven days a week, dawn to dusk, at Guam. You build a certain confidence in your equipment.
Naval History: Why do you think no one’s done it since? Is it a cost/benefit matter?
Captain Walsh: Yes, it is. If you can dive to 20,000 feet, you can cover 98% of the sea floor. For engineers and bean-counters—even the users—98% is pretty good.
Having said that, the last 2% is about the size of North America, in terms of unexplored ocean floor. Today, four manned submersibles can dive to 20,000 feet. We did have five, but the U.S. Navy has resigned from the game. We had the Sea Cliff, which replaced the bathyscaph Trieste. In 1982, that was converted to a 20,000-foot submersible by adding a titanium hull, among other features. So the Trieste left service, and the Sea Cliff went into service.
That was soon followed by the Nautile, the French 6,000-meter, or 20,000-foot submersible, in the mid 1980s. The Russians bought the two Mirs—actually made in Finland—in the late 1980s. And then the fourth country to get into the game was Japan, which built a Shinkai, at 6,500 meters. The extra 500 meters means that the Japanese now have the deepest-diving manned submersible in the world.
Naval History: Why is the U.S. Navy out of the game?
Captain Walsh: Beats the hell out of me. I wish I knew. We pioneered manned submersibles. Sure, the Piccards invented and developed the bathyscaph, but it was perfected in our Navy. And this led us on to other submersibles. Most that exist in the world today are based largely on work that began in the U.S. Navy R&D establishment. And all of the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) technology came out of the Navy, principally the Navy lab in San Diego. The same goes for the autonomous untethered vehicles (AUVs). So much of this early work was started by the Navy in the Sixties and the Seventies, which was sort of the golden age of undersea vehicles. But over the years, the Navy has just pulled clear of all of it. I guess it doesn’t see any operational need.
Having said that, I think that the state of technology in the civil sector, for ROVs and AUVs today, is such that the Navy is probably better off just buying what it needs, or contracting to have built what it needs, rather than being involved in the research and development.
The genesis of civil involvement in deep submersibles rested in the Navy lab system, with submarine force involvement. And it’s all kind of gone away. The Navy doesn’t do that kind of R&D anymore, and it really doesn’t contract for much of it. It’s not even a sponsor of new developments, which are all being done in the civil sector.
We’ve just resigned from the game. That’s an all-embracing statement, but essentially it’s correct. It just seems to me today—as it did a long time ago—that being able to go deep in the oceans, to maintain a presence anywhere in the oceans, and to be able to work anywhere on the floor of the oceans, is pretty important. But after we made the deep dive, the Navy restricted the Trieste to 20,000 feet. From then on, the U.S. Navy did not have a ultimate-depth capability.
Naval History: Why was that restriction made?
Captain Walsh: The Navy felt the new cabin that was built for it was not safe and didn’t want us to use it anymore.
There is an apocryphal story; well, maybe it’s true. When we were on board the Trieste, getting ready to make the deep dive, my leading chief petty officer was on board a destroyer escort called the Lewis (DE-535), some distance away.
A radioman came around with his clipboard, looking for Lieutenant Walsh. He said he had a message from Washington. The chief said that Lieutenant Walsh was on the Trieste, but that he’d certainly give this message to him at the earliest possible opportunity. The message said: “Don’t make the dive.” The chief gave me that message about five years ago. That shows how much confidence we had in each other and in the device, a confidence that probably wasn’t shared in Washington.
Naval History: You brought up the ROVs and the AUVs. That brings me to a question about Robert Ballard. What do you think of his adventures and his ability to have them funded by public means?
Captain Walsh: Well, I think it’s wonderful. I don’t know what hold he has over these people. Normally, that kind of deal stems from a personal relationship with somebody like the Secretary of the Navy or somebody who controls resources; both the policy resources as well as the physical resources.
Bob’s been able to do it across several changes of top-level personnel in Washington, and that’s a remarkable thing that he’s done—to gain access to Navy assets and resources for these jobs. I’m sure he’s not paying market rate, if he’s paying at all. It’s not only remarkable; it’s unique.
In the old days of exploration, people like Richard Byrd had hybrid expeditions with Navy assets. How many of his flights were done with Navy air, and how did he get the time off, as a serving naval officer, to do these things? There was a lot more flexibility in those days that isn’t present today.
So what Bob is doing is truly remarkable in the sense that he’s been able to plow straight ahead, get access to these assets, and do some interesting things. He’s a great communicator. He gave a talk once to some educators in a meeting I attended in England. He said that when he did dives on the deep sea vents, the black smokers, with the Alvin, he’d get a few letters a week from students who were interested in what he was doing. When he found the Titanic, he said it went to hundreds of letters a week.
Here was something that was recapturing young people’s imaginations. From a scientific point of view, finding the Titanic was probably far less valuable to society than working with the deep sea vents and trying to explain them. He’s developed a formula that allows him to connect with a large body of the public, with the underlying message that not only are strange and wonderful things happening in the sea, but there’s almost nothing that has been lost or dropped into the sea, in man’s history, that we can’t find and study.
Naval History: What do you think he might find in his next expedition?
Captain Walsh: The next expedition, I understand, is the Black Sea, which is an anaerobic basin, where the water is oxygenated down to a certain depth; it’s a very shallow layer on top. And that’s because the sill depth at the Sea of Marmora is high enough that only the top layer moves in and out and gets oxygenated. Of course, biological and chemical processes use the oxygen quickly.
After the oxygen is depleted and not being recharged, the result is an anaerobic body of water. The notion is that ancient wrecks will not, perhaps, deteriorate as rapidly as they do in an oxygenated area, which can support chemical breakdown of substances or support bacteria that facilitate that breakdown.
My question is: If we’ve got two life systems on our planet—beyond the traditional photosynthetic sun-based system—that exist in the absence of oxygen, couldn’t bacteria microbes that live in the Black Sea have adapted to a virtually no-oxygen environment and still be able to carry on the deterioration of organic materials?
Chemosynthetic organisms live around the hydrothermal vents on the sea floor. Microbes known as archae live under very high temperature and pressure within the rocks. This gives us a clue about whether there might be life on other planets. These microbes are able to live in extraordinarily tough environments. And so we need to go back and start looking and sampling from other planets in our solar system, to see whether or not there might not be life at this level there. If something can live in conditions as brutal as that, why couldn’t they adapt in the Black Sea? Very few archeological expeditions have gone into it, so it’s virgin territory. Trade and shipping were very active in early civilizations around the edge of the Black Sea. One of our best-known oceanographers, Willard Bascom, judges that about 15% of all ships that sailed in ancient times never got to their destination. And so Bob’s going in an area that is like a big bank.
Naval History: You were talking about technology transfer. Has deep-sea exploration brought us anything similar to what the space program has brought us? Or is it all intangible?
Captain Walsh: That’s a good question. In the case of sea exploration, we’re really talking about technology that has migrated to other segments of the science. A lot of that know-how, those technological building blocks, might be borrowed by another project, without having to pay for the technology again. That’s technology transfer, but that’s intramural. When they say technology transfer, most people talk about it as extramural.
Undersea technology probably has not had that much extramural transfer, but has produced a lot of intramural benefits. Things that we developed for the Trieste have shown up in other programs over the years. We had the first underwater manipulators—the artificial hands—and the first high-resolution sonar. The first ROVs were a technology transfer from the U.S. Navy lab to profit-making companies. But that is intramural. So it depends on how you ask the question, when you’re talking about technology transfer.
A little bit has gone the other direction. For example, take Europa, the water-covered moon of Jupiter. Its outer skin is ice, with some icebergs sticking out of the crust. It appears that surface disturbances were caused by thermal venting from inside. The ocean on Europa has been determined to be about 100 kilometers deep—33 miles. That’s a pretty deep ocean. So the biggest ocean in our planetary system may be on the Europa moon, or satellite, of Jupiter.
So what is being discussed now is the development of a Europa lander with the capability of boring through this ice crust to put an ROV or an AUV into the ocean. This would be able to determine whether or not things are living in the water and to analyze water-dissolved gasses, salinity, and other characteristics. So U.S. companies that build ROVs have been approached. Antarctic Lake Vostok, an ice-covered lake, would be a good prototype experimental area, but the horns of the dilemma now is whether we want to contaminate Lake Vostok with our atmosphere.
Right now, we’re studying the ice layers on Greenland. I think we’ve been able to core down to about 300 feet, which represents something like 250,000 years of earth’s climate. It’s just like tree rings. Here we actually have a sample of the atmosphere, earth’s atmosphere, a quarter of a million years ago. But have we contaminated it? That’s the dilemma on Lake Vostok—that we will open it up and contaminate it. Or will we?
Naval History: Do treasure hunters have a role in the understanding of history?
Captain Walsh: I’m glad you asked that question, because it’s something I’ve been working on recently. Underwater archaeologists and salvors need each other. Even in a big country like ours, or a European country like France or Great Britain, underwater archeology ranks below ballet in terms of government support. I won’t say it doesn’t get any respect; of course it does, because it’s an academic discipline. But it doesn’t get a lot of public funding for the conduct of research.
Working in the deep ocean is terribly expensive. A good first-class oceanographic research ship with a manned submersible or an ROV system on board might cost $45,000 to $60,000 a day. And finding things on the sea floor isn’t easy. Ocean water magnifies, so a square mile on the floor of the ocean is huge, in terms of being able to sweep through it and find small objects. That’s a slow, time-consuming business. Virtually nothing that has been lost on the floor of the ocean cannot be found, if you can pay the price.
So a marine archeologist had better know very well where something is before he goes out, because you can burn up your budget quickly and come home empty handed. This is not good for an academic or a program manager. I think there’s a place for people—I would prefer to call them “shipwreck diving companies” rather than the pejorative-sounding “treasure hunters”—who have a different motive to search for, locate, and classify things. These companies work with the additional incentive of being able to recover artifacts, market them, and sell them.
Now, that may sound bad. But these two communities—the shipwreck diving companies with a profit incentive and access to the technologies and the search methodologies, and the archeologists who have the research and historical information to identify, classify, and to conserve artifacts properly—need to get together. The archaeologist will never be able to afford deep-water work. It’s just too expensive. Very few in fact will ever have a chance to do it. And so, if the archaeologists just say, “off with their heads” to the deep shipwreck people, they’re never going to get out there to do their work. The shipwreck people are not going to take them. And they certainly won’t cooperate if they are ruled out by governments and laws and regulations. If they can’t work, that’s the end of it. Nobody will go in the deep sea. So it’s a Pyrrhic victory if you get rid of the shipwreck companies.
I visited one of those companies recently, so it’s on top of my mind. They’re very careful. They are working with governments, and they don’t take anything without permission. They welcome archeologists and government officials to go with them on these trips. Every find is documented, and the disposition of each item is auditable.
The deal they usually work out is: 75% of cultural items go to the government, to museums and archeologists, and 25% are retained by the company. In the case of trade goods and gold–the freight, if you will, of the times—75% stays with the shipwreck exploration company and 25% goes to the government. They can swap shares back and forth, but that’s the basic opening deal.
The shipwreck exploration company takes all the risk and does all the research to find the wreck. Once they have a target, they send down the ROVs and classify it. They have their own archeologists on staff, and when they start recovering artifacts, they conserve them in a way generally accepted by all marine archeologists, as far as methodology goes. So they’re doing all the work, taking all the risk, and then they share what they recover with the local government.
Naval History: The trouble with that is, all of them don’t have equal integrity.
Captain Walsh: Deep shipwreck work is not a subtle thing. It takes a big ship, a big staff, and a very sophisticated ROV system or a manned submersible, all of which costs a lot of money. So they have to find investors. It’s all very high-visibility. Governments can track these activities and insist that the appropriate things be done, in terms of employing archeologists and having some control over the artifacts being removed.
Now you might say, “Look, when you get beyond territorial waters, who’s going to track you?” The Mediterranean, which is the richest trove, and the Black Sea are all government waters. I think it’s easier than you think to put some controls and constraints on the shipwreck-location and diving operations being conducted by these private companies.
And so I think that, instead of being adversaries, the direction for archaeologists to take is to work out a set of rules and regulations and protocols to get everything they want. But they need to recognize the only way that these expeditions are going to get funded. And museums can’t house all the artifacts, anyway. The world does not have 10,000 maritime museums. A lot of museums say, “No. Don’t send us any more stuff. We’ve got plenty.”
I saw a video tape when I was in France late last year of a Roman ship that was carrying roof tiles that looked just like the tiles you see today. How many of those can a museum handle? I think there’s enough to go around.
The archaeologists and the governments get first pick, and the rest of it is handed off to the shipwreck diving company to market and thus finance future expeditions. I think you can control it in a way that satisfies everybody.
Naval History: What have you enjoyed most about your career?
Captain Walsh: You know, the great thing about doing this kind of work is not only the work itself, but also the people you meet. I was once loaned to the State Department for a couple of months to lecture in the Indian Ocean region and the Middle East as a sort of advance man just before the third U.N. Law of the Sea Conference. My role was to give talks to people of consequence in these countries, to demonstrate what was possible at the time in uses of the sea. The notion behind it was to communicate the State Department position that, “If you affiliate with the American position on the sea, then these things can be yours.”
It was great for me, because I was able to go to India, Iran, Pakistan, and Ceylon [Sri Lanka]. I was gone for about two months. One of the people I had the pleasure to meet was sitting in the front row when I was lecturing in Ceylon. He certainly looked familiar. It was [science-fiction author—2001: A Space Odyssey] Arthur C. Clarke, who lives there. And so we became friends. We went skin-diving in Trincomalee, and I was his guest. That’s what I mean about meeting people.
I remember we stayed at the old officers’ barracks in Trincomalee, which was a huge naval base from World War II. The Sinhalese Navy had two 40-foot Vosper patrol boats. When they left at night, the whole base turned off its lights. Arthur had brought along his Celestron telescope and gave me a personal tour of the heavens as we sat outside in wicker chairs. You know, I can’t think of a better guide for space. He’s an example–one of my best–of the people I’ve had the chance to meet while touring around.