COQUILLE — Fifty years ago U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss scientist Jacques Piccard climbed into the chamber of Bathyscaphe Trieste, a deep sea research sub.
The two men were about to make history. They would plunge seven miles to the deepest point of the Earth's oceans.
On Jan. 23, 1960, the Trieste descended 35,800 feet to the floor of the Challenger Deep, the deepest alcove of the Mariana Trench, about 200 miles southwest of Guam. It was the first time a vessel, man or unmanned, had reached the underwater abyss.
"It was just another day at the office," said Walsh, who is celebrated as one of the world's great explorers.
Walsh marked the 50th anniversary of his voyage by driving to San Diego last month and giving a speech to about 225 people in the naval and scientific community.
Walsh now lives on a ranch in Dora-Sitkum, but at 78 years old he still frequently embarks on marine exhibitions. This month, he'll head to Antarctica for the 27th time, where a mountain is named after him.
"The ocean is a vast and mysterious place," Walsh said. "Every time you're out there, you find something."
In 1958, the year the Navy purchased Trieste, Walsh was a 26-year-old submarine lieutenant temporarily serving on the Submarine Flotilla One in San Diego. Piccard, who co-designed the submersible with his father, requested two volunteers to operate the vehicle. Only Walsh and one other man stepped forward.
"There was an opportunity to pioneer," he said. "I wasn't sure what I was going to be doing, but I knew I'd be at sea. It wasn't until later they told us what they had in store."
Still, the first time Walsh saw the Trieste he thought to himself, "I will never get in that thing."
The last submarine he was on had a maximum operating depth of 300 feet.
But by October 1959, Walsh was in the mid-Pacific, performing test dives to prepare for the record-setting descent, which would garner him lifelong recognition and send the San Francisco native to a meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the White House.
A bathyscaphe is a submersible vessel with an observation chamber attached to the bottom of a tank filled with gasoline. Gasoline is more buoyant than water and highly resistant to compression, which made the deep-sea dives possible.
The descent into the Challenger Deep took more than five hours. When they finally reached the deepest crevice of the Earth's surface, Walsh and Piccard shook hands.
"I knew we were making history," Walsh said.
He was overcome by relief and joy.
After 20 minutes, and glimpsing little more than brown sediment and few signs of life, they began the three and a half hour trip back to the surface. Fifty years later, no other explorer has reached such depths.
"It was a special day," Walsh said. "... It was kind of hectic with all the celebrity, then it was back to work."
Walsh spent another three years with the Trieste doing research, before returning to submarines.
The ocean has mesmerized Walsh since he was a boy. It led him to enlist in the Navy at 17 years old. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy six years later and went on to get his masters and doctoral degrees in oceanography at Texas A&M.
"We know so little about the sea," Walsh said. "It's a vast mysterious place."
Walsh spent 24 years in the Navy, fighting in two wars, before becoming a professor at the University of Southern California. Then in 1976, he set up a marine consulting practice, which he still runs today and takes him on about five deep sea explorations a year.
"It's just too much fun to see these exotic places, but I'm trying to slow down," Walsh said.
In his attempt to slow down, although he still travels and writes for numerous publications, Walsh and his wife of 48 years, Joan, bought a ranch in Dora-Sitkum in 1992.
"She's kind of a tree hugger and I'm an ocean person, so this seemed like the perfect fit," Walsh said.