The Four Incarnations of Britain’s Royal Research Ship Discovery

Their contributions to science span more than 100 years

8 November 2013

What began in 1901 as a British research expedition to explore the Antarctic with Discovery, the first ship built for that purpose, has led to major contributions in biology, chemistry, and physics that are still significant today. The scientists aboard were the first to map the Antarctic Ocean’s coasts and glaciers, discover new kinds of marine animals, and take magnetic measurements and seismic recordings of the area. Later expeditions by that ship and its two successors contributed to understanding the biology of whales and the migration of zoo plankton, and to the discovery of sea mountains. And now a fourth ship is on the way.

The work of the original Discovery and of the subsequent Royal Research Ships—Discovery II (1929), Discovery (1969), and the newest Discovery, which will set sail in 2014, was the topic of the recent webinar A Century of Discovery: How Three Research Ships Named “Discovery” Unveiled the Ocean’s Mysteries. IEEE, the Group on Earth Observations, and the U.S. National Science Foundation sponsored the program as part of its Blue Marvel-Ocean Mysteries webinar series. You can now register to listen to a playback of the webinar.

The presenter, Gwyn Griffiths, is a former chief technologist at the United Kingdom’s National Oceanography Centre. He first sailed on the RSS Discovery in 1976 as an instrumentation engineer.

“The role of a research ship as a highly capable analytical laboratory is absolutely essential,” he says.


The first Discovery was specially built for the British National Antarctic Expedition, conducted from 1901 to 1904. It had coal-fired auxiliary steam engines but had to rely primarily on its sails because the coal bunkers had insufficient capacity to take the ship on a long voyage. That first voyage became known as the Discovery Expedition, and the scientists performed oceanographic research on the way to the Antarctic, but the ship, according to Griffiths, was a poor sailor.

“The top speed was low—6 knots under sail—and her coal consumption was far too high to make great use of her steam engine, but she worked well enough to reach Antarctica,” he says.

The ship was sold in 1905 to the Hudson Bay Company to be operated as a freighter between northern Canada and Europe. In 1923 it was refurbished into a research vessel once again and was the first ship to have the “Royal Research Ship,” or RRS, designation. It measured 52 meters in length, with a speed of 8 knots.

In October 1925 it sailed for the Southern Ocean to chart the migration patterns of whales, as part of the Discovery Investigations. This series of sea-borne expeditions and shore-based investigations into the biology of whales was conducted to provide the scientific background for better managing the stock that fueled the commercial Antarctic whale industry. The U.K. controlled the whaling industry at the time. The blubber from whales was still being used back then as fuel for oil lamps while the rest of the carcass was discarded, an extremely wasteful process that led to concerns about overfishing.

“This extensive exploitation of whales threatened stocks, and if the stocks were threatened, the entire whaling industry was threatened,” Griffiths says. “This was an economic threat to the U.K. so the government’s response was to protect the stocks, but the biological knowledge required for scientifically controlling them was almost totally lacking at that time.”

The basic biological data that the scientists gathered aboard Discovery helped them to understand better the community and population dynamics of whales.

“It only took a few years for the scientists to realize that their gaps in knowledge were not only about the whales but also about how the mammals fit into the greater ecosystem of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica,” Griffiths says. “There was a movement away from the need for just biological knowledge to gathering ecological knowledge, which included many aspects of the ocean’s food chain, as well as the symmetry of the coastlines and the physical and chemical oceanography that constitutes the sea.”

Unfortunately, despite the overhaul, the ship was not in service for long, according to Griffiths. The Boy Scouts, the Royal Navy Auxiliary Reserve, and the Sea Cadets later used it as a training ship. RRS Discovery continues life today as a museum and science center in Dundee, Scotland, the town where it was built.

Its replacement, RRS Discovery II, was also purposely built as a research ship, and operated from 1929 to 1961. It measured 80 meters in length, with a speed of 13.5 knots. Griffiths says the ship had a biology laboratory with microscopes and a so-called rough laboratory where scientists stood out on deck, preparing their equipment for going over the side of the ship, something unimaginable today, he notes.

The scientists carried on the Discovery Investigations, whose research, published in 1962 in a 430-page report, is still one of the major reference works on the life and distribution of the shrimp-like krill, according to Griffiths. Built to operate in ice-covered seas, Discovery II was the first ship to circumnavigate Antarctica in winter. Along the way it found four seamounts—mountains that rise from the ocean floor but fail to reach the water’s surface. By 1962, however, Discovery II had become limited in its technology to conduct modern oceanographic research and was decommissioned. The following year it was broken up and sold as scrap.

The naming convention for its successor ship dropped the numerals and returned to RRS Discovery. From 1962 to 2012, it carried out oceanographic and marine biology research, including the study of zoo plankton migration and their acoustic characteristics. The biggest vessel yet at 90 meters in length, it had vastly improved laboratory space and made full use of the new electronic equipment that had become widely available in the 1960s. Rather than steam, it was powered by diesel electric generating sets and bow thrusters. In 1991, it got an overhaul, perhaps an unusual one: Its hull was cut in two and lengthened by 10 meters. This allowed room for more powerful engines, additional computers, and housing for autonomous ocean vehicles. The ship was retired in 2012. Its long life span is noteworthy, for it is “absolutely tremendous for a ship to be productive through difficult conditions for over half a century,” says Griffiths.

The latest RRS Discovery will set sail in October 2014. The National Oceanography Centre


A new ship is on the way, the “floating laboratory of the future,” as Griffiths refers to it. Named (what else?) RRS Discovery, it is currently undergoing sea trials, with research programs due to begin in October 2014. It measures almost 100 meters, and has a speed of 12 knots. It will be powered by four eight-cylinder inline diesel electric generating sets. There are two DC motors, two azimuth thrusters with five-bladed fixed-pitch propellers, one retractable azimuth thruster and one water-jet thruster. It also contains multi-beam echo sounders for mapping the seabed, a wide range of cranes and over-the-side gantries, with winches and cables that can deploy many different types of equipment from the ship. There’s also a launch pad for remotely operated vehicles to examine the seabed.

Other webinars in the Blue Marvel series include Environmental Impact of the Arctic’s Shrinking Sea Ice Cover, An Ocean of Data: Diving into the Virtual Ocean, and The Evolution of Robots for Scientific Exploration of the Deep Sea.


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