Resurrection and the Oceanographic Expedition 1925 – 1927

5th, 2012
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In the penultimate paragraph of Part 6 of this true story I used the word ‘resurrected’, I did so because in fact that is just what happened to the Discovery during the latter part of 1924 and the first half of 1925, she was resurrected. Why? Well, I have to go back a few years to explain how it came to pass.

Over-fishing is a huge subject in today’s world but the subject was very much alive in 1917 when discussions took place regarding whaling in the Southern Ocean. The number of whales it was feared, had been dramatically reduced by over-fishing and the possibility of sending a Whaling Research Expedition to the Antarctic to study the problem, especially around the Falkland Islands, was aired. An Interdepartmental Government Committee was set up early in 1918 but its report was not published until April 1920. Briefly, the Committee recommended that the whole environment of the whale needed to be studied in order to evolve the ways and means to protect it. However, it was not until 1924 that an Executive Committee was appointed to deliver the recommendations contained in the April 1920 report. Now, that’s seven years after the initial discussions had taken place and although it is said that 24 hours can be a very long time in politics, I think you would agree that seven years is an unforgiveable long time.

Two ships were needed. Discovery was purchased from the Hudson Bay Company by the Crown Agents, and a decision was taken to build a small steamship with an auxiliary sailing rig of a foresail, jib and spanker, to act as Discovery’s tender. As far as the Discovery was concerned, this meant that she had to be transformed from a cargo ship back to a research ship. No mean task. Her hull had to be substantially rebuilt and the refit extensive, as can be seen in the following photographs:

The positions of the fore and mainmasts were moved, a wardroom was again provided with cabins for officers, scientists and crew space, all on the main deck. The refit was so substantial that when the Maritime Trust in the UK took over the ship in the 1970s, a decision was taken that all future restoration and conservation of Discovery should be based upon her condition immediately after the Vosper’s refit in 1924/5.

The refit took longer than anticipated and it was not until the 5th of October 1925 that she finally set sail on her Expedition but not before she was formally appointed Royal Research Ship for the first time. Two of the main elements of the research were to be the study of the anatomy and embryology of whales, based on a shore laboratory at Grytviken, South Georgia, and observations made at sea of the food supply and habitat of the whale.

Her voyage South was via the Canary Islands and Ascension Island to Cape Town in South Africa. From there she proceeded to what was to become her home port for the next two years, Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Today she still proudly carries the name ‘Port Stanley’ painted around her stern as her registered port.

For the next two years she undertook a number of research voyages around the Southern Ocean calling at South Georgia andthe South Shetlands among others, only visiting Simonstown, near Cape Town to have bilge keels fitted for the first time. The decision to make this modification was taken because the scientists on board complained that she rolled so heavily that it made their research operations near impossible at times.. Before arriving back in England on the 29th of September 1927 after calling at a number of West African Whaling Stations on the way home, she had covered a distance of more than 37,000 miles during the course of her wanderings in the Southern Ocean. The map below plots her travels during that historic voyage (with thanks to Dundee Heritage Trust in allowing its reproduction).

Discovery’s 1925/27 adventures were to lead to further involvement in the Antarctic. That story will continue to reveal her important role in Antarctic research during 1929 and 1930 and will be told in the next part of this tale in a couple of weeks from now. Until then some of you may want more detail than space here allows. Should that be the case, send me a note:

©  Captain John J Watson OBE                January 2012                        Fethiye

Captain John:

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