RIO RANCHO, N.M. — It’s history in the making: An ambitious, four-phase program of dives into the Pacific Ocean — including to previously unexplored depths and a number of technical and scientific firsts.
And Erin Moots, who grew up in Rio Rancho, will be along for the ride.
Not into the depths of the Pacific, where her fiancé, Kelly Walsh, is headed, but she’ll be aboard the mother ship that’s transporting the 5-foot-wide, two-man submersible vessel carrying Walsh and Victor Vescovo. The vessel is capable of multiple, repeatable dives — the only manned submersible of its kind that can dive to full-ocean depth, anywhere in the world, over and over again.
This time it’s headed to the deepest place on the planet. It’s a long way from when Moots was a girl, living on Sara Road, and attending Rio Rancho Elementary, Lincoln Middle School and Cibola High School, where she graduated in 1991.
Walsh’s father, Don, 78, once named one of the world’s great explorers by Life magazine, preceded his son by 60 years into the depths of the ocean. He and famed underwater explorer Jacques Piccard were on the bathyscaph Trieste when it made a record-breaking dive into the Mariana Trench on Jan. 23, 1960 — nearly 36,000 feet, or almost seven miles.
Vescovo and the elder Walsh, a retired Navy captain, thought it’d be neat to have his son take his place 60 years later.
Moots, the chairwoman of the Sandia Prep performing arts department, had her usual summer work waylaid by the pandemic and could tag along.
The engaged couple’s connection goes back to Moots’ days as a student at Eastern New Mexico University, where a roommate mentioned she should meet this guy who attended St. John’s College in Santa Fe.
“I never did,” she said.
“Fast-forward to 2011. I was doing some graphic design work for (that) roommate,” who asked to connect Moots with the same guy — Walsh — after almost two decades, since both were divorced.
She did. They started getting to know each other online, and Moots flew to Oregon to meet him. After a six-year courtship, they became engaged in November 2017.
“He has the same sense of humor,” she said.
They don’t have the same sense of adventure, given that Erin is a self-proclaimed couch potato.
“Me, personally, it’s just so wild what life throws into your path,” she said. “Me from a land-locked state, I meet somebody online and this guy Kelly falls in love with a land-locked desert rat. … There’s no way I could design this in my head.”
“It’s hilarious,” Walsh said of their courtship. “You can’t plan these things — they just happen.”
“He’s done the Arctic multiple times,” Moots said. “The closest I came was I joined him for (an earlier expedition) and was part of the greeting crew (in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada). I came back home when they launched.”
How did Walsh end up in Santa Fe?
His dad was a dean at the University of Southern California, so it was easy to attend college there. But, “In my sophomore year, he retired — so I went to Santa Fe. I had a friend from high school who went (to Santa Fe College), and I fell in love with the people, Indians and the climate.”
Challenger Deep expedition
Vescovo and Walsh will be headed next month to the bottom of the Western Pool of Challenger Deep, with three additional dives into Challenger Deep including the Western, Central and Eastern Pools. The objective is to do a further topographical and marine life survey of the entire Challenger Deep for a cumulative total this year of eight dives, all piloted by Vescovo.
“Initially, (Vescovo’s co-pilot) was to be his father; then it spiraled down to, ‘What if your son did it?'” Moots said. “So Kelly’s going to be passenger, Victor the pilot. (The vessel) holds just two at a time. They’ll do multiple locations — doing the Titanic again and the Mariana Trench.”
She was asked how she’d answer if her fiancé was to be the pilot and wanted her to be the passenger.
“I feel like, who would say ‘no’ to that, but I have awful claustrophobia,” she replied. “But you just can’t say no. I’m not worried about being seasick.”
Moots left New Mexico on June 10 and said she expects to be home July 3. She’s the media director for the adventure, tweeting out updates and using other social media
She said the expedition would involve three dives, each around nine hours long.
“I think we’re on the ship for 10 days,” Moots said. “I’ll meet up with him in Seattle.”
Walsh, 52, agreed: “3½ hours down, 3½ hours up, and a couple hours poking around. Think of it as a plane ride — long and uncomfortable.”
He has confidence in the vessel.
“Repeatable (uses) and safe, and when you do it this many times, it’s economically sound,” he explained. “Nobody’s cookie-cutter building these; they’re built for specific tests, with goals in mind. Good engineering doesn’t change.”
He’s eagerly anticipating the upcoming adventure.
“(The vessel) is climate controlled and has an oxygen scrubber, so the pressure’s the same as on the surface. We’ll be breathing regular oxygen at sea-level atmospheric conditions — no decompression time,” he said. “The timing of the dive is gonna vary; (it depends) on how equipment is working.
“I’ll be closing the circle bet my dad and myself.”
He isn’t interested in shipwrecks.
“I don’t care about the Titanic or the Bismarck,” he said. “I think salvaging them is a mistake — I don’t have interest in seeing them, rather seeing the natural world.
“Oceans have not been explored to the extent they should have been, (unlike space).”