Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard – the first people at the bottom of the Marian Trench

August Piccard Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13738 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard


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As someone rightly counted, there were a dozen or so people on the moon, we go for a walk on Mount Blank, like on Mount Everest (although for some it is the last walk), but in the deepest place in the world, in Marian Trench, there were only three people (Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard and James Cameron), of which two currently live.

First ideas

A Swiss scholar August Piccard began his studies at the Federal Polytechnic in Zurich in 1904. He was fascinated by balloons, both those flying (Polish accent: he later collaborated with the rubber factory in Sanok), as well as the created model of “free-falling underwater balloon”. However, contemporary knowledge did not allow to go beyond the sphere of the idea.

August Piccard Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13738 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
August Piccard, author: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13738 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 by Wikimedia Commons

It is worth mentioning that he had a brother Jean Felix, and at least three generations of Piccards were associated with ballooning and inventions. There is a theory that the characters of the brothers inspired the creators of Star Trek to name one of the captains of the Enterprise by the name of Jean-Luc Picard. Another theory is that he got his name after the 17th-century astronomy (link to article). Decide for yourself who you believe, but personally I am inclined to the first version 🙂

August had a second approach in the 1930s. He was then a pilot of balloons in the reserve of the Swiss Army. He first called his invention a bathyscaphe for the Greek bathos- depth and skaphos – ship. The research was interrupted by World War II.

Bathyscaphe “Trieste”

August, with the help of his son Jacques, constructed the first bathyscaphes for France. As a result of disagreements with the local army, he established cooperation with Italy. This is how “ Trieste ” was created, which was originally planned for 6,000 m. The name was taken from the production city – Trieste. After repeated launching in the Mediterranean Sea, it was sold in 1957 to the United States Navy.

However, father and son were visionaries and knew how to infect others with enthusiasm. In the USA, they constructed a more powerful bathyscaphe, made at the Krupp Plant in Essen. He was to withstand the pressure at a depth of 15,250 m, just in case, it turned out that the Marian Trench is deeper than thought. Then, something incomprehensible to the Navy was done: the bathyscaphes were folded and … glued. However, the commander responsible for the project entrusted the ingenious Swiss.

Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard – the crew of the bathyscaphe

In 1958, Don Walsh was 27 years old, a rank of lieutenant, and he served on submarines at a San Diego base. He was also very unlucky. The commander in his unit was looking for an assistant, so he took the first random officer. Fiddler Don got stuck behind the paperwork at his desk for a long time.

He was saved from oppression by Jacques Piccard. He demanded in his unit two qualified officers for underwater missions and five seamen for surface and technical service. After a few days and no other volunteers, Don volunteered for the project.

Don Walsh  i Jacques Piccard (po prawej) w batyskafie Trieste, Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard (on the right) in the bathyscaphe Trieste<br /> By Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS (NOAA Ship Collection) [Public domain],via Wikimedia Commons
Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard (on the right) in the bathyscaphe Trieste
By Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS (NOAA Ship Collection) [Public domain],via Wikimedia Commons

January 23, 1960 – a great day for Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard

Exactly on this day, the historical launch was planned. Although the weather was not very favourable, they did not want to postpone a carefully planned challenge.

At a depth of 200 m, Don and Jacques ceased to receive sunlight, they only saw plankton and biofluorescent fish. At 9449 m there was a disturbing explosion. After closer inspection, it turned out that acrylic on the outside of the manhole window could not withstand. It wasn’t a serious damage, so the journey continued.

At 10 363 m depth, echo sounding was turned on. Daredevils descended cautiously until the gauges indicated 10 970 m. According to contemporary knowledge, they should just settle at the bottom, and they still plunged deeper.

When the meter indicated 11 002, they noticed a fish outside the window, resembling a halibut or flatfish, about 30 cm long and white in colour. For 40 years they were not believed that something so advanced could live at 11 kilometres depth. Only the Japanese in 2014 confirmed this possibility.

Finally, “Trieste” reached the Challenger Depth, which is the deepest point of the Marian Trench. The counter indicated 11 521 m, although after calibrating it came out 10 912 m. Travellers gave the following message:

“Here Trieste, we are at the bottom of the Marian Trench. Everything OK.”

They had to break away from the muddy bottom after about 20 minutes and start a slow ascent. They reached the water surface six miles from the place of immersion and nine hours later.

Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard – further fate

After this achievement, Don and Jacques made headlines and were showered with gratuities and medals.

Don participated in 45 missions to both poles as a military. He became an oceanographer, lecturing at the Universities of Georgetown and Southern California. Walsh advised many organizations, including the UN, assisted in research, consulted films and TV series, and popularized maritime issues. He also assisted James Cameron in his descent to the Challenger Depth. He lives in Oregon.

Jacques died in 2008.

Other missions deep into the ocean

The Marian Trench waited 35 years for more guests. In 1995-1998 the Japanese unmanned robot Kaiko arrived three times, and in 2009 the American vehicle Nereus. The measurements taken spelled a depth of 10 911 meters.

In 2012, director James Cameron (remember “Titanic”?) lowered himself into the bottom of the “Deepsea Challenger“. The bathyscaphe itself was built secretly in Australia, and the sponsors were National Geographic, Rolex and the daredevil himself. The whole immersion took almost 7 hours, of which 3 hours on the bottom. Maximum depth 10 898 m was recorded.

Interesting facts

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