In 1960 American Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard descended aboard the bathyscaphe Trieste to the Mariana Trench, beneath the Pacific Ocean, the deepest point in the world’s oceans. An experimental Rolex Oyster watch, the Deep Sea Special, now known as “The Old Lady” was fixed to the exterior of the Trieste and its crew not only set a record with their dive but established a fundamental milestone for deep-sea exploration. In a sense, Walsh’s DNA can be found in every subsequent Rolex watch made since.
I’m often asked by young people — and they’re my favourite audience — how do I become an explorer? And I say, “It’s very simple, you’re born an explorer. You don’t have to climb the highest mountain or dive into the deepest place of the ocean, you just have to be curious about the world around you.”
The only thing I ever wanted to be was a sailor. In the late 1930s we lived in a house overlooking San Francisco Bay. I could see the ships going out through the Golden Gate and disappearing over the horizon and I said, “I wonder what’s out there and how do I see it? How do I do it?” I’ve been fortunate because I saw it, I did it, and I still am doing it. I’ve been to the North Pole, I’ve been on the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, and 65 years later I’m still learning new things.
The greatest fascination for me under water is the idea that I’m visiting a new planet. After a few 100 metres, it’s totally dark and it’s like entering a new world, you’re introduced to organisms that are entirely at home and I’m not — I’m the outsider.
I first became aware of the possibility of visiting the very deepest part of the ocean less than a year before I did it. I had been serving in US Navy submarines when the request came to volunteer for something called a bathyscaphe, a machine that would allow you to go deeper into the ocean. I volunteered for the programme and embarked on a lifelong voyage with a rather short one – 11 kilometres – when I did the deepest dive.
The greatest fascination for me under water is the idea that I’m visiting a new planet.
Our living conditions in the cabin were rather tight. Jacques Piccard was a very tall man and I’m not very big – I would use whatever space was left over. The temperature was a little bit better than a household refrigerator. This was in 1960, when much of the electrical equipment we used radiated heat. It was cramped but we were very busy; we were on our game. It marked a new era of working in the ocean.
During our dive we had another passenger on board, a specially made Rolex watch, which today we call, “The Old Lady”. At the time they did not have a facility in Geneva to test to the full ocean depth, so we were the testing platform for this new watch.
It was exposed to full-depth pressure during the entire nine-hour dive. I was curious to see if "The Old Lady" was still working when we came up, and it was. It performed well, we performed well. It was a good day’s work. It pleases me a great deal that the heritage of “The Old Lady” watch continues – that my DNA that is from “The Old Lady” exists in all Rolex watches today.
To celebrate the half-century of this pioneering dive, I was presented this Rolex watch and they kindly engraved it on the back, “Don Walsh, deepest dive 1960, 2010, in appreciation.” I’m very proud of it — it never leaves my side.
It pleases me a great deal that the heritage of “The Old Lady” watch continues – that my DNA that is from “The Old Lady” exists in all Rolex watches today.
It reminds me of who I am, where I’ve been, and is a quiet sense of achievement, and pride. I look at it and it reminds me that we cannot live too much in the past. We have to respect the past and what’s been achieved but we have to look forward.