Archives – Discovery Committee background

(by Margaret Deacon)

Having exhausted stocks in the northern hemisphere, at the close of the 19th century whalers turned their attention to the Southern Ocean where the high productivity attracted sizeable whale populations during the summer months. Previously only certain species could be taken but advances in technology meant that all large whale species were now potential prey. The only limitation at this stage was that catches had to be towed to land-based stations for processing. During the early 1900's these were established on sub-antarctic islands, particularly on South Georgia to which Britain laid claim as part of the Falklands Islands Dependencies.

Zoologists were already concerned that southern hemisphere whale stocks would soon go the same way as those in the north and the then governor of the Falkland Islands, Sir Wiliam Allardyce, suggested to the Colonial Office that if a system of licences was introduced the fishery could be controlled and stocks maintained, incidentally providing a useful source of revenue for the Islands. These suggestions were taken seriously in Whitehall and an interdepartmental committee was set up to discuss further measures. To licence catches at a sustainable level more information was needed so in 1913 G.E. Barrett-Hamilton, a zoologist at the British Museum (Natural History), was sent out to South Georgia, but unfortunately died shortly after his arrival.

Not until the end of the First World War was a new committee convened which decided to send out a scientific expedition. A further seven years elapsed before the main party, headed by the scientific director Stanley Kemp sailed south in 1925 in RRS "Discovery" a steam-assisted wooden three-masted sailing ship originally built for Captain Scott's first Antarctic expedition of 1901. The ship gave its name to yet another committee, appointed to oversee the investigations.

A second vessel, the "William Scoresby", was modelled on the commercial whale catchers to carry out whale marking experiments. A laboratory had already been established on South Georgia, adjacent to the whaling station at Grytviken, to enable zoologists to study whales as they were brought ashore. The aim of these diverse activities was to collect data not only on the whales themselves but also on their environment, in particular their food supply, krill, and on their migration patterns.

The Discovery's principal role was to carry out oceanographic investigations in the seas around South Georgia and southwards to the Antarctic Peninsula but her thick hull, designed for maximum ice-protection, made her slow and unwieldy in these more open and stormy waters. It was already evident that the committee's objectives were too far-reaching to be achieved in one expedition and Kemp obtained the committee's support for a purpose-built vessel, RRS "Discovery II", launched in 1929. This step turned out to even more significant in the 1930's when pelargic whaling made the industry independent of shore stations - which also meant that henceforward it could only be controlled by international agreement.

Between 1929 and the outbreak of the Second World War, "Discovery II" carried out five commissions in the Southern Ocean and a sixth in 1950-51, while the smaller "William Scoresby" made eight southern voyages between 1926 and 1951. The orginal limited geographic and scientific objectives were expanded to cover the whole of the Southern Ocean, and sometimes beyond, and data collected on both the hydrography, biology and fisheries of the region as well as the whale research, led to important advances in understanding both of the general oceanic circulation and of the Antarctic ecosystem.

In 1936 Stanley Kemp left to become director of the Marine Biological Association Laboratory at Plymouth and the Discovery Committee appointed his deputy, Neil Mackintosh, to succeed him. It looked at that time as though the Committee's work would shortly draw to a close, but the outbreak of war in 1939 postponed its demise, though for the duration both ships and most of the staff were employed elsewhere in the war effort.

In 1949 the remaining personnel came under the newly created National Institute of Oceanography and moved to its new premises at Wormley, Surrey, in 1953. The Whale Research Unit later moved back to the Natural History Museum, and subsequently to Cambridge, as part of the British Antarctic Survey.

In 1995 the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences moved from Wormley to the Southampton Oceanography Centre (renamed National Oceanography Centre, Southampton 2005).