WASHINGTON (April 15, 2010)—Fifty years after he descended nearly seven miles to the ocean’s deepest point, Capt. Don Walsh has received the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal, the Society’s highest honor.
Walsh, 78, was awarded the medal in a private ceremony Wednesday, April 14, at National Geographic headquarters in Washington. At the event, he also received the U.S. Department of the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award.
It was Jan. 23, 1960, when Walsh, then a Navy lieutenant, along with Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard, climbed aboard the Navy bathyscaphe Trieste and plunged to the floor of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench, the world’s deepest location, some 200 miles southwest of the island of Guam. Their destination was the trench’s lowest point, “Challenger Deep,” 35,800 feet below the ocean surface. No one has ventured to “Challenger Deep” since.
“Don Walsh is one of only two people to have visited Earth’s deepest place, and no one else has come close,” said Gil Grosvenor, chairman of the board of the National Geographic Society. “His accomplishment ranks along with those of our other Hubbard Medal recipients, people like Robert Byrd, Charles Lindbergh and Robert Ballad.”
Piccard, Walsh’s copilot, died in 2008 at the age of 86.
Walsh already had made six dives on the Trieste before the historic descent. Piccard, son of legendary ballooning pioneer and bathyscaphe inventor Auguste Piccard, wrote this about the deepest dive in the August 1960 issue of National Geographic magazine:
“Like a free balloon on a windless day, indifferent to the almost 200,000 tons of water pressing on the cabin from all sides, balanced to within an ounce or so on its wire guide rope, slowly, surely, in the name of science and humanity, the Trieste took possession of the abyss, the last extreme on our earth that remained to be conquered.”
Piccard and Walsh had to sit on small stools for the nine-hour trip down and back; they spent the hours keeping records of temperatures of water and the gasoline (used for buoyancy), amount of ballast released and water pressure. They kept in contact with the surface for most of the journey via a sonic telephone.
When, after four and a half hours, the bathyscaphe finally landed on the ocean bottom, Walsh and Piccard spied a fish, thereby answering a question about the presence of sea life in the deep that thousands of oceanographers had been asking themselves for decades.
The Hubbard Medal, named after the National Geographic Society’s first president, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, has been presented 34 times in the past, the first going to arctic explorer Robert E. Peary in 1906. Other recipients include polar explorers Roald Amundsen in 1907, Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1910 and Richard Byrd in 1926; aviators Charles Lindbergh in 1927 and Anne Morrow Lindbergh in 1934; anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey in 1962; Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins in 1970; anthropologist Richard Leakey in 1994; conservationist Jane Goodall in 1995; underwater explorer Robert Ballard in 1996; balloonists Bertrand Piccard (son of Jacques Piccard) and Brian Jones in 1999 and, posthumously in 2000, Matthew Henson, who co-led with Peary the 1909 expedition to the North Pole. Several U.S. presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, have presented the medal.
Don Walsh grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, and his love of the sea spurred him to enlist in the Navy in 1948 at age 17. After graduating in 1954 from the U.S. Naval Academy, Walsh continued his Navy career until retiring as captain in 1975. Most of his 16 years at sea were in the Submarine Service, including command of a submarine in the Pacific Fleet. He also served in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Walsh was first commander of the Trieste from 1959 to 1962 and went on to participate in diving operations with 18 manned submersibles, piloting many of them. On board Russian MIR submersibles he dived to the wreck of Titanic, the German battleship Bismarck and the hydrothermal vent fields on the mid-Atlantic ridge.
Walsh also worked in the polar regions, making 25 expeditions to the Arctic and 27 to the Antarctic. His contributions to polar exploration led the National Science Foundation in 1973 to name a geographic feature in Antarctica the “Walsh Spur” after him.
Walsh earned two masters degrees — in political science and physical oceanography — as well as a Ph.D. in physical oceanography from Texas A&M University, where he worked with NASA to determine how spacecraft could be used to study oceans.
After retirement from the Navy, Walsh was appointed by Presidents Carter and Reagan to the U.S. National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. He also served as a member of the Law of the Sea Advisory Committee for the U.S. State Department and the Marine Board of the U.S. National Research Council. He is honorary president of the Explorers Club.
Walsh has published more than 200 papers and articles and edited five books on ocean-related topics. He has delivered more than 1,500 lectures around the world.