Breaking the ice

New scientific research vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough, has been designed to operate in the toughest conditions and will embark on its maiden voyage later this month

Image: The RRS Sir David Attenborough in Greenwich, London, last week. Credit: BAS

Scientific research vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough, will embark on its maiden voyage in mid-November to the Antarctic where it will support research on the Doomsday Glacier. 

The royal research ship (RRS), built at a cost of $272 million, is named after natural historian and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough. It is a fitting tribute to the British ‘national treasure’, who for over 60 years has brought the natural world into the homes of millions of people through his TV documentaries.

This noble namesake was not, however, the British public’s first choice. The clear winner of an online campaign for suggestions and votes to name the vessel was … Boaty McBoatface.

The UK’s National Environment Research Council (NERC), however, decided against naming one of the world’s most advanced polar research vessels Boaty McBoatface, and instead opted to honour Sir David Attenborough.

The RRS Sir David Attenborough recently spent three days docked in Greenwich, London, as part of a three-day Ice World’s exhibition and marked the opening of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26).

The vessel then sailed up the Thames River on 31 October to berth in Harwich on the UK’s east coast around six hours later. 

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Image: On 31 October the vessel left Greenwich and sailed to Harwich. Credit: MarineTraffic

It will remain in Harwich until mid November when it embarks on its voyage to the Antarctic after a brief stop in Portsmouth further down the UK coast, the British Antarctic Society (BAS) that operates the vessel told MarineTraffic.

The RRS Sir David Attenborough will deliver cargo to the English Coast in Antarctica, “providing critical support for the International Thwaites Glacier Project, an exciting collaboration between the UK and US, to learn more about the so-called Doomsday Glacier,” said BAS. 

The vessel will also deploy Argo floats in the Southern Ocean to gather data on ocean temperature. “The International Argo program supplies the most direct measurements of ocean temperature for the study of global warming and climate change. Within this project, the Southern Ocean has always been sampled less than other more accessible oceans. 

“Deploying these Argo floats will address this shortfall, improving measurement and understanding of global change,” BAS told MarineTraffic.

To carry out this scientific work the Sir David Attenborough requires a crew of 30, and can also accommodate up to 60 researchers and support staff. The vessel is designed to be self-sufficient for up to 60 days. It has a range of up to 19,000 nautical miles at 13 knots (24 km/h) cruising speed.  According to BAS this capability is more than enough for a return trip from England to Rothera Research Station Britain’s largest Antarctic facility – or to circle the entire Antarctic continent twice.

The vessel was handed over to NERC and BAS, who will operate the vessel, by shipbuilder Cammell Laird on 27 November 2020. Sea trials began in October 2020 and have been ongoing over the past year mainly around the UK coast.

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Image: MarineTraffic data reveals the movements of the RRS Sir David Attenborough between 1 October and 1 November this year. Photo: MarineTraffic

The vessel’s ice-strengthened hull gives it an icebreaking capacity of up to 1m thick at 3 knots (5.6km/h). This will be useful when breaking through thick polar ice to access some of the most remote locations in the world. It will operate year-round, spending the northern summer in the Arctic and austral (southern) summer in the Antarctic.  Ice trials will begin early next year off the English Coast in Antarctica.

Flexible by design

The 129 metres long- and 24 metres wide-vessel has a number of unique features that set it apart as a pioneer of its type.

The ship is designed so that scientists can carry out their research as easily as possible. It is the first British polar research ship to feature a moon pool – a vertical 4×4 metre-shaft running through the vessel, open to both the air and sea. 

“Using the moon pool, scientific equipment can be deployed and recovered through the centre, and most stable part, of the hull. This is easier and safer than deploying equipment over the side or stern, particularly in the polar oceans’ rough seas,” said the BAS website.

From the ship, scientists can deploy, operate and control a number of airborne and marine instruments simultaneously, and has a number of built-in laboratories. In addition, it is also possible to ‘plug-in’ portable, containerised laboratories. Not only does this offer a more flexible way of using the vessel, the ‘plug and play’ element allows for updates and advancements in technologies and techniques 

BAS director Jane Francis said in a statement: “This magnificent ship will take UK scientists deep into the heart of the ice-covered polar seas.

“As we seek to find answers to the current climate crisis, this ship will take us to the ends of the Earth to seek answers and to help us understand our future world.”

And what of Boaty McBoatface? The name lives on and is now inked on the side of the RRS Sir David Attenborough’s underwater submarine

The yellow-hulled vehicle is designed to reach depths of 6,000m and journey independently under ice in polar regions. David Attenborough has brought remarkable documentaries to our TV screens over the years, but Boaty McBoatface can bring back footage from places that no human will ever reach.

You can follow the RRS Sir David Attenborough as it embarks on its maiden voyage using MarineTraffic.

Vessel specifications

  • Length: 129 metres
  • Beam: 24m
  • Gross Tonnage: 15,000
  • Scientific cargo volume of approximately 900m³
  • Endurance – up to 60 days
  • Range 19,000 nautical miles at 13 knots (24 km/h) cruising speed; more than enough for a return trip from England to Rothera Research Station, or to circle the entire Antarctic continent twice!
  • Ice-breaking capability – up to 1m thick at 3 knots (5.6 km/h)
  • Bow and stern thrusters for dynamic positioning in challenging conditions
  • Launch and recovery of aerial and ocean robotic systems

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