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Depth Charge Depth Charge

Depth Charge

by Zach Frechette
August 7, 2009

Don Walsh has been deeper in the ocean than any other living person. He explains how shallow our oceanic knowledge really is.

In the late 1950s, a team of marine scientists approached the Navy with a bathyscaphe— a device capable of diving much deeper than any submersible then in existence—named the Trieste. With the goal of testing the limits of human ingenuity and furthering scientific knowledge of the ocean, Lieutenant Don Walsh and the scientist Jacques Piccard descended 35,798 feet from the surface of the Pacific into the Marianas Trench, the deepest spot in the ocean. The chief of naval operations at the time speculated that the accomplishment might “mark the opening of a new age in exploration of the depths of the ocean which can well be as important as exploration in space has been in the past.” That was 1960. And no one’s been back since. We asked Don Walsh, the remaining member of the two-man crew (Piccard died in 2008), why.

GOOD: How come no one ever went back?

DON WALSH: There’s no machine that can take humans to that depth. In fact, the deepest [manned] diving machine goes to 22,000 feet. After we did our deep dive, in January, 1960, the Navy decreed that we could not dive any deeper than 20,000 feet, even though it was all the same equipment.

G: Was that a safety issue?

DW: Well, maybe it’s not that safe. Consider the floor of the world’s oceans—98 percent of it is at 20,000 feet or less depth. So this means that if you can design and build something [safe] for two-thirds the maximum depth of the ocean, and you can look at 98 percent of the seafloor, that’s a lot. That’s a nice trade-off. With respect to the 2 to 3 percent of the seafloor that is off-limits right now for manned vehicles, unmanned systems have been and will go down. But I’ve looked at all sides of that, and I just think there is still room for the presence of man, physically—putting the trained minds and the trained eyes at the appropriate place in the oceans rather than working off a remote sensor. You don’t, as a geologist, grab some guy on the street and say, “Here are the keys to my Jeep, go and get me some rocks.” But that’s what we had been asking people to do in the ocean for many years.

G: Do we really care what’s in that remaining 2 percent?

DW: Close to a thousand people have gone into space, and Mount Everest: 2,000 to 4,000 people have been up there. And only two people have ever been in the deepest part of the ocean. If you’re on land and someone said you couldn’t go to the top 2 to 3 percent of the peaks of the highest mountains, people would think that was nuts. By the way, that 2 to 3 percent of the seafloor is about equal to the total area of Alaska, the continental United States, and about half of Mexico. So it’s not trivial.

G: Why do you think that there hasn’t been as much effort to continue looking at the deepest part of the oceans?

DW: I think it’s a matter of national will and national interest, and lack of national investment. And it’s not just the U.S. All major maritime powers don’t make the kinds of investments in studies of the ocean that they should. Marshall McLuhan once said that here on spaceship earth, there are no passengers, we’re all crew; Buckminster Fuller said it’s too bad spaceship earth doesn’t come with an instruction manual. We need to learn about this place and we hardly explore our oceans.

G: So you would advocate continued exploration of the ocean as a way to better understand the complete picture of life on earth?

DW: I think “advocate” is too weak a term. I would exhort exploration. The whole idea of exploring our planet sometimes goes awry, because we don’t know how to separate adventure from exploration. To me, exploration has purpose for mankind; it creates information that can be used for the betterment of mankind. It is the first step in the scientific method. I’d define exploration as curiosity that you act upon. But you get plenty of adventure on some explorations, no question about that.

Photo by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS

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