The Story of RRS Discovery

History and Background

At the beginning of the 20th century Antarctica was still an uncharted wilderness. Exploration was a daunting task, involving a long voyage through remote and tempestuous seas just to reach the continent. The 1901 British National Antarctic Expedition was the vision of Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society. Naturally cautious, Markham saw the aims of the expedition as purely scientific. Being the first to reach the South Pole was never one of the objectives. By 1900 Markham had raised the necessary funds, now all he needed was a ship, and a man to lead the expedition.

The Ship

As a major whaling centre Dundee’s shipyards had long experience of constructing ships robust enough to travel through the Arctic pack ice. It was this expertise that Markham harnessed to build RRS Discovery, the first vessel to be constructed specifically for scientific research. While the design was based on the great Dundee whalers, there were some modifications to be made. Magnetic surveys were to be an important part of the scientific work of the expedition. To be sure of complete accuracy an exclusion zone round the magnetic observatory was created, with no iron or steel allowed within 30 feet of the area.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott RN

As leader of the expedition Markham wanted “a naval officer in the regular line… young and a good sailor with experience of ships under sail. He must have imagination and enthusiasm… be calm, yet quick and decisive in action.” His search ended with a young naval officer he had first encountered twelve years earlier, Lieutenant Robert Falcon Scott. Devon born, Scott had joined the navy at thirteen. Following a chance reunion with Markham, Scott applied for the post of expedition leader. He was appointed in June 1900 and promoted to Commander RN at the age of just 33. Though a rather shy man he was also steady, strong and, as later events were to prove, immensely courageous.  Captain Scott

Start of the Expedition

Scott took personal charge of all preparations for the expedition. On 6th August, Discovery was finally ready, slipping her moorings at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, to begin her epic journey. It was a journey not without incident. En-route to New Zealand the vessel was lashed by gales and high seas, throwing her like a toy boat. Then tragedy struck on departure from Lyttelton Harbour in New Zealand. A young seaman, Charles Bonner, fell from the main mast, hurtling headfirst to his death, his skull crushed on the iron deckhouse.

The Crew

Forty-eight men started the journey south, each one hand-picked by Scott. Scientists apart, the complement was a mixture of merchant and naval seamen, a decision Scott came to regret as tensions broke out between the codes. As well as Scott two other senior crewmembers stand out in particular, Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson. Despite being invalided home, Shackleton’s first visit to the Antarctic left him obsessed with this bleak desert of ice. He was to return to the Antarctic three times including the ill-fated Endurance expedition which earned him a place in polar history. Wilson, the expedition’s zoologist, was to die with Scott on the fateful journey to the South Pole in 1912.  The Crew

Scott had worked tirelessly to ensure no detail was overlooked. No one knew for how long the expedition would be cut off from the outside world. Everything had to be taken on board with them. Exhaustive provisions lists for three years were made – tropical and polar clothing, sledges, tents, furs, tools, explosives, signal rockets, a library of over a hundred books, lamps, candles, medicines and alcohol, described aptly as medical comforts! Many of the food stores were supplied free by firms with an eye on publicity – custard powder from Bird & Sons, lime juice from Evans, Lesher & Webb and two tons of Cocoa Powder from Cadbury’s. As almost every man smoked, tobacco was vital so 1,000 lbs of the pernicious weed was duly stowed. Further stores were taken on board in New Zealand. On the day Discovery left, the deck was a melee of twenty three howling dogs, a flock of forty five terrified sheep (a gift from the farmers of New Zealand) all milling around countless packing cases, sacks of food and timber for huts. An extraordinary scene indeed.

Aims of the Expedition

After five months at sea, Antarctica was eventually sighted on January 8th 1902. The main purpose of the expedition was scientific – to make magnetic surveys and carry out meteorological, oceanographic, geological and biological research. Five scientists carried out the work: zoologist Edward Wilson, biologist Thomas Hodgson, geologist Hartley Ferrar, physicist Louis Bernacchi and the ship’s senior surgeon and botanist Dr. Reginald Koettlitz. Hauling sledges through blizzards in temperatures as low as minus 45º, they risked frostbite and snow blindness to take measurements and collect specimens.

Scientific Breakthroughs

The work was truly groundbreaking. Over five hundred new kinds of marine animals, spiders, shrimps, star and shellfish were discovered. The expedition was the first to sight an Emperor Penguin rookery and obtain an egg of the species. Many hundreds of miles of unknown coast, towering mountain ranges and glaciers were mapped. Invaluable magnetic measurements, auroral observations and seismic recordings were made. The body of work was massive when the research had been analysed and the Royal Geographical Society came to publish the results, ten large, weighty volumes were filled. It represented a major contribution to the understanding of the Antarctic continent, a feat made all the more remarkable considering the extreme conditions endured by the heroic scientists of Discovery.

Southern Journey

On November 2nd 1902 Scott, Wilson and Shackleton set off to cross the Great Ice Barrier and explore the frozen desert beyond. With them were nineteen dogs pulling five sledges laden with 1,853 lbs of supplies and equipment. On November 25th they had passed latitude 80º south, charting new lands and features every day. But there was a heavy price to pay. One by one the under-nourished dogs began to die. The men too were beginning to suffer dreadfully. They carried on until December 30th, when, at latitude 82º 17’, they reluctantly turned for home. Shackleton was in the advanced stages of scurvy, incapacitated and coughing up blood through his congested throat. Against near impossible odds they arrived back at Discovery on February 3rd 1903. They had trudged over 950 miles in 93 days, travelling further south than any man before them.

By December 1903 there was 20 miles of ice between Discovery and the open sea with no apparent way out. On January 4th 1904 two relief ships arrived, Morning and Terra Nova. Finally, on February 16th controlled explosions were used to blow Discovery free from her icy prison and the expedition headed for home.

Landfall was made at Spithead on September 10th 1904 to a rapturous reception. Scott was acclaimed as a national hero and awarded numerous honours.

The Forgotten Years

RRS Discovery’s adventures continued, first with the Hudson Bay Company, then running munitions to Russia during the First World War. She was to make two further voyages to Antarctica before being laid up in London. In 1986 she made her triumphant return to Dundee and her final berth, a fitting memorial to the heroes of Antarctica.

The Discovery Oceanographic Expedition

In 1925 Discovery set sail for the Southern Seas once again. The expedition’s mission was to research whale stocks, the migration pattern of whales and provide a scientific basis for regulation of the whaling industry. As on Discovery’s last trip south, important scientific breakthroughs were made. The expedition was crucial to our understanding of the whale and saw the beginnings of conservation thinking.

The B.A.N.Z.A.R. Expedition

The British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Expedition was Discovery’s third and final trip south. The brief this time was two fold: to chart the coastlines, islands, rocks and shoals between Queen Mary Land and Enderby Island and to “plant the British Flag wherever you find it practicable to do so.” Whole new lands were discovered and charted, and a mass of geological and zoological samples was collected, as were several chunks of territory on behalf of the British Government.

Home to Dundee

By 1979 Discovery was in a serious state of dilapidation. The first stage of her restoration was funded by a grant of £1/2 million from The Maritime Trust. In 1986 a new home was offered by Dundee Heritage Trust and on April 3rd Discovery berthed at Victoria Dock, welcomed by thousands who lined the shores of the River Tay. Today, over 100 years after leaving Dundee, Discovery sits proudly as the centrepiece of the Discovery Point Visitor Centre.

Find out more about the present day RRS Discovery