SIX DECADES AGO, EXPLORER DON WALSH VOYAGED TO THE DEEPEST PART OF THE OCEAN. THIS IS THE STORY OF THE WATCH THAT WENT WITH HIM.
By Steve Lansdale
“It did its job.” That seems like a modest standard for any piece of equipment, but the job of a watch wrapped around the wrist of Don Walsh was no ordinary day at the office.
Walsh, a retired naval officer, spent the majority of his career exploring deep oceans and the polar regions as an oceanographer and ocean engineer. On January 23, 1960, he and Swiss oceanographer and engineer Jacques Piccard piloted a deep submersible vessel, the bathyscaph Trieste, to the deepest place in the world ocean: the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, some 200 miles southwest off the island of Guam. The mission reached an ultimate depth of 35,813 feet – or 10,916 meters, greater than the height of Mount Everest. During the expedition, which earned the cover of the February 15, 1960, edition of Life magazine, Walsh wore his personal dive watch – a circa 1959 Aquastar 60 Ref. 1581.
Some watches can handle tough conditions; Walsh’s Aquastar, which is a centerpiece offering in Heritage’s November 15 Watches & Fine Timepieces Signature® Auction, has been to the deepest depths in the world’s oceans – three times.
“I think, as a Navy dude and commanding officer of the bathyscaph Trieste, I just required stuff to do its job, whether it’s people or devices or equipment,” Walsh says. “There’s this thing called ‘Mil-Spec’ – Military Specification – and if we ordered a watch through the Navy supply system, Mil-Spec, it probably would withstand a direct hit by an H-bomb, chemical warfare agents and all of that. But I didn’t need that. I just wanted a simple watch that kept time, and that’s what it did. It did its job.”
The watch – one of three from Walsh in the auction, including a prototype for a newer version of the Aquastar 60 – is one of three Aquastar 60s that Walsh and fellow Trieste team members Dr. Andy Rechnitzer and Larry Shumaker purchased in 1959 from a dive shop in San Diego. In addition to its trip to the ocean floor, the timepiece also graced Walsh’s wrist at the White House when President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented him with the Legion of Merit for his explorations with Trieste.
“We are fortunate at Heritage Auctions to have sold numerous watches in the past that have increased value because of the fame of the people who previously owned them,” says Jim Wolf, Director of Watches and Fine Timepieces. “What is most impressive about this watch is the fact that it was purchased with a purpose in mind – to be worn and used in some of the most rigorous conditions on earth. It’s not so much something he wore as it is a part of him, part of one of the elite marine adventurers of all time.”
That the watch reached the deepest part of the ocean once is extraordinary, but that was not its only deep dive. At Walsh’s request, Triton Submarines president Patrick Lahey wore it when he piloted the submersible Limiting Factor to the seafloor at Challenger Deep on May 3, 2019. A year later, Walsh’s son, Kelly, teamed with businessman Victor Vescovo to dive Limiting Factor to the same location in Challenger Deep that Don had visited six decades before. Along for the ride was Kelly’s father’s beloved timepiece.
“[Kelly] is a brand ambassador for Omega Watches and wore his personal Omega timepiece on the dive,” Walsh says. “As his dad, I asked him to take my Aquastar on the dive. They achieved a depth of 10,925 meters at the deepest place in the world ocean. My Aquastar is the only watch that has been to the seafloor at Challenger Deep on three separate expeditions: my dive in 1960, Limiting Factor in 2019 and 2020.”
Along with Walsh’s Aquastar, two Rolex watches made the 1960 dive: “Piccard wore one, and the other was attached to the outside of the bathyscaph, where it was subjected to full depth pressure of 8 tons per square inch,” Walsh says, noting the incredible conditions endured on these missions.
The location of Piccard’s Rolex is unknown, while the one attached to the outside of the Trieste was given to the Smithsonian, making Walsh’s watch the only one from the mission that is held in private hands.
STEVE LANSDALE is a staff writer at Intelligent Collector.