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(’History’ researched and authored by Dr Emile Shemilt)

The Discovery Investigations were a series of British funded, scientific studies taking place in and around the Antarctic Southern Ocean.  Undertaken between 1925 and 1951, the investigations were periodically conducted on board three research vessels: R.R.S. Discovery, R.R.S. William Scoresby and R.R.S.Discovery II. It was also conducted on land at the marine biological station Discovery House, at King Edward Point on the Island of South Georgia. After severe over-fishing and the near devastation of Arctic whale stocks during the latter half of the 19th century, the Discovery Investigations were established by the British Government with the principal aim of gathering enough significant research as to ensure a more effective management of the remaining stocks in the Antarctic region. These investigations would include a study of the whales themselves (their migration, feeding patterns, breeding frequency, nursing and rearing periods) a study of the plankton that forms their diet, and research into the physical and biological nature of the oceans they inhabit.



The investigations were given their name after the R.R.S. Discovery, upon which the first of these research expeditions took place in 1925..  The Discovery, originally launched in 1901, had been famed for its maiden voyage: taking Captain Robert Falcon Scott and R.N.R. Sub-Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton on their first expedition to the Antarctic.  Although their journey is often associated with the race for the South Pole, what is perhaps less widely recognised, is the great deal of polar-environmental research that was also conducted on board the Discovery at that time - an expedition that included, as well as Scott and Shackleton, several scientists (including First Lieutenant Charles Royds, a meteorologist; Lieutenant Michael Barne, a magnetic observer; Thomas Hodgson, a marine biologist; Hartley Ferrar, a geologist; Dr Reginald Koetlitz, a botanist; Dr Edward Wilson, a zoologist; and Louis Bernacchi, a physicist).  Commissioned by Sir Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographic Society in 1899, the Discovery was in-fact specifically designed and assembled with polar-scientific research in mind.  Due to the number of magnetic observations that were to be undertaken for example, the most notable design feature was for the Discovery to be construction in wood, making her the last, traditional three-mast ship to be built in Britain.  After Scott’s return in 1903, the ship was sold to the Hudson Bay Company and modified for use in the Arctic fur trade.  In some state of disrepair and in need of careful restoration, it wasn’t until she was purchased by the Crown Agents for the Colonies in 1923, that she would again be used for her original research purposes.  It is perhaps ironic to note, that 26 years after the commission to design and build her had been awarded to Dundee Shipbuilders Incorporated - a company whose portfolio consisted mainly of ships designed to hunt whales - she would then be returning to the Southern Ocean with whales’ conservation as the mission’s primary concern.


Purpose and Funding

Such had been the devastation to the northern stocks in the Arctic region that the first Discovery Investigations expedition came at a time when there was only one stock of rorquals (the largest group of Baleen Whales) left.  As Sir Alistair Hardy, the Chief Zoologist on board the first Discovery Investigations expedition wrote:

  [This remaining stock] turned out to be the greatest of them all, that in the far south.  [Even] by the time of the First World War the fishery there [had been] developing fast.  Could this stock be saved? To answer that question was the object of our voyage (Hardy, 1967, p.34)


In an attempt to maintain some control over this rapidly developing fishery, certain precautions had already been put in place prior to the First World War.  This included a restriction on the number of whale catchers that any one company could use and a ban on the shooting of young whales and of mother whales accompanied by their calves.  There was also an insistence that the whole of the whale’s body should be used without waste.  Although these precautions provided a modest success for the authorities charged with maintaining stocks, as soon as the First World War broke out, the situation changed rapidly.  Whale oil was important in the manufacture of nitro-glycerine, a highly sought after explosive used in both World Wars.   As demand for whale oil soared, these restrictions were lapsed, and the number of whales shot during First World War rose exponentially.  Hardy calculates that ‘the number of whales killed in a single season in South Georgia rose in 1915-16 to 11,792’ (Hardy, 1967, p. 36-37). 

This was a significant rise on previous seasons, when numbers were expected to be in the region of 6000. Of particular significance however, was the benefit of taxation collected from the industry.  The British Antarctic Territory, administered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, levied a tax from oil taken from any whales processed in Britain’s Antarctic territories (this includes South Georgia, the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Orkneys and the South Shetland Islands).

Despite the fact that the majority of whales tended to be shot outside the three-mile limit to territorial waters, during the first two decades of the twentieth century, most whales would still have to brought ashore to on-land whaling stations in order to be processed (the principal stations being those on South Georgia).  British Antarctic Territory officials were even able to collect a tax from the first ‘floating factories’ that were increasingly making their appearance in the Southern Ocean before the War.  The essential design of these factories was to allow the whales to be processed at sea, thereby increasing productivity.  However early designs meant that the whales had to be flensed over the ships’ sides, which also meant that shelter from the severe Antarctic weather conditions was still a major consideration.  Hence many of these floating factories would still seek shelter in British Antarctic Territory seas and bays, and so it was that they were liable for the tax levied on the whale oil.  Even during the First World War, the tax continued to be collected and the income it generated rapidly accumulated.  The significance of this tax was that it was from this revenue that the Discovery Investigations were funded.  For Hardy:

  Surely it was a splendid and enlightening policy; from the whales killed money was provided for a proper investigation to prevent overfishing and the destruction of the stock (Hardy, 1962, p.36) 


The Marine Biological Station at King Edward Point

In 1925, in conjunction with the first Discovery Investigations expedition, the British Government established a marine laboratory, which would later be known as Discovery House, at King Edward Point on the Island of South Georgia.  It was determined from the start that a proportion of the research should be obtained through anatomical examinations of the whales brought in to the island by the whale-catchers.  This anatomical study, it was argued (Kemp in Discovery Reports, 1929, vol. 1, p.144-7) would through ‘much light’ on a number of elementary facts, which would be fundamental to understanding the sustainability of whale stocks.  This included ‘the rate of growth, the age at sexual maturity, the time of pairing, the period of gestation, the number at birth, the length of the suckling period and the nature of the food’.  As significant as the information obtained from this anatomical study could be, it was nonetheless recognised that the findings may only have a limited influence in determining the required solutions.  And it was because of this, that the emphasis was placed on the observations that could also be made at sea.  


First Voyage

So it was, that in 1925 the first Discovery Investigations expedition took place.  The science of the oceans was still relatively young by that time.  It had only been half a century since the HMS Challenger had famously taken to the water in 1872 to begin the type of scientific study now commonly referred to as ‘Oceanography’.  Equipped with research labs and the latest technological instruments, the Discovery would be set to follow the Challenger’s example, by enabling much of the research to be conducted on board.  Led by Dr Stanley Kemp, the expedition would carry out studies that were not simply confined to an examination of the whales themselves, but also to the factors that may influence their lives.  Singling out perhaps the most fundamental concept in natural history, the first Discovery Report written by Kemp (Discovery Reports, 1929, vol. 1, p. 144-7) draws upon the importance of the food-chain and the idea that ultimately, all animal life is only sustained by the existence of plant life.  As Alistair Hardy’s account concurs ‘one kind of animal may pray upon another kind, which may in turn prey upon yet another, but however long the chain, its first link must be an animal feeding upon some green plant or the product of its decay’ (Hardy, 1967, p.40).

Plankton is a collective term for all the drifting organisms that are spread through the sea like ‘fine aquatic dust’ (p42). Phytoplankton refers to miniscule forms of plant life that absorb sunlight, along with oxygen and carbon dioxide, to form the diet of ‘zooplankton’, which refers to the microscopic animal life that initiate the food-chain by feeding upon the phytoplankton.  Although the sea is a vast culture medium, providing all the nutrients that plankton require, living phytoplankton is only found within a few fathoms of the water’s surface: essentially only as far as sunlight can penetrate.  And although particles continually sink towards the seabed, providing food for the deep dwelling sea-life, the required conditions for phytoplankton in turn effects the spread of zooplankton and subsequently the krill that form the diet of the whales the Discovery Investigations were established to study.  It was thus deemed entirely necessary to study plankton, its physical and chemical make-up and its sporadic movement as conditioned by ocean currents.  Similarly the physical and chemical nature of the seas in which the plankton inhabit was also to be examined.


Subsequent Voyages


Overtime various methodologies were adopted in order to achieve a range of objectives.  In contemplating the immense areas in which observations were required, it became increasingly apparent that such intensive surveillance work was likely to be more than a single research ship could undertake.  Furthermore, additional lines of research were being considered.  As whales are migratory, a programme of marking was initiated.  Following methods used in the fishing industry, whales were to be caught, tagged and then set free.  Estimating that a proportion of these marked whales would be caught by commercial whaling companies, the offer of a reward was used to increase the likelihood that the mark, along with the required data would be returned to the research team.  In his 1929 report, Stanley Kemp recalls the proposal for a second ship:

  In considering the design of a second ship the committee attached great importance to this question of whale-marking.  A vessel of comparatively high speed was necessary, built generally on the lines of a whale catcher, but it was recognised that she should also be required to assist in routine work on plankton and hydrology, and it was also considered desirable that she should carry a full-sized otter-trawl for the exploration of certain areas in the Dependencies which might prove commercially profitable (Kemp in Discovery Reports, 1929, Vol. 1, p144-7). 

Fulfilling these requirements, and providing a speed of travel at over 10 knots, the smaller Research Steamship William Scoresby was commissioned in 1926 to join the Discovery for the second season of the research (1926-27).   The Discovery herself would be eventually decommissioned in 1931, by which time, a third ship, the Discovery II had been specifically designed and built for purpose with the Discovery Investigations.  Constructed in steel and measuring 234 feet, the Discovery II is an oil-burning steamship of 1036 tons. Enabling expansive, ocean research, the ship was built with a large bunker capacity, giving her a full-speed range of 8000 miles at 13.5 knots, or 10,000 miles at 10 knots.  Fitted with a hydrological laboratory, a biological laboratory, a rough laboratory, a scientific instrument store, photographic rooms, a workshop and a net store, the Discovery II was claimed by Alister Hardy in 1967 to be ‘one of the finest research ships ever built’ (Hardy, 1967, p. 441).  Both the William Scoresby and the Discovery II would be used until the last Discovery Investigations expedition was completed in 1951.  After which time, the William Scoresby was broken up.



As early as 1930, the whaling industry was beginning to change.  Open water factory ships were an increasingly dominant feature.  Unlike the earlier, more-crude factory ships, which were often re-equipped old steamships or ocean liners, any flensing of the whales no longer had to be undertaken from a raft alongside.  Instead, the new open water factory ships were enormous ocean-going vessels with extensive on-board facilities for processing whales in the open sea.  Perhaps the most gruesome feature was the gigantic grappling hook, which would be used to draw the harpooned whales up a ramp onto the factory’s deck.  It was then on the deck where all the flensing and processing would take place.  As a result, it was no longer necessary for companies to seek shelter from the severe Antarctic storms, which also meant that they would no longer have to adhere to the British Government’s strict whaling laws.  As Alister Hardy recalls:

  Not only did this allow them to fish anywhere in the open ocean but it at once released them from laws limiting their catching power and from the obligation to pay taxes as the price for shelter Whaling spread around the pole and in the 1930-31 season it was estimated that over 40,000 whales were killed in the Antarctic of which only 2736 came from the traditional grounds of South Georgia (Hardy, 1967, p. 441-442).

For the Discovery Investigations team, it would seem that their attempts to preserve the Antarctic whale stock were in vain.  With companies seeming to be only interested in reaping as many short-term profits as they could, any sense of the industry’s long-term sustainability was pessimistic at best.  By 1966 most whaling had all but ceased in the Antarctic.  Just as whale stocks in the Arctic had been destroyed, stocks in the Antarctic were left utterly devastated.  If there was to be one shining light however, it was that the old League of Nations recognised the research being conducted by the Discovery Investigations and established a Whaling Committee in 1931. In 1946, this led to 15 nations signing the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which subsequently led to the establishment of International Whaling Commission.  Although their agenda at the time was to conserve whaling stocks for the preservation of the whaling industry, on 23rd July 1982, a moratorium was voted in, suspending all commercial whaling in recognition of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s ‘Endangered Species List’.

The research findings from the Discovery Investigations are still available today, and form the basis of international whale conservational studies. 

Developed by: The Centre for Remote Environments