One of the good news stories of 2016 was that, against strong international competition, the famous Merseyside shipbuilding company, Cammell Laird, had won the contract to build one of the most advanced polar research ships in the world – the RRS Sir David Attenborough.
Ahead of her launch in 2018, the British Antarctic Territory has issued a set of stamps looking back at past and present ships.
Ice-strengthened ships, manned by experienced personnel, have been a cornerstone of the UK’s Antarctic operations since 1943. Initially, the role of the ships was to establish bases and provide annual relief staff, supplies and mail, but they also opened up otherwise inaccessible locations to scientific field parties. Ships' officers have always carried out a variety of hydrographic survey and sea ice observation work to help with the demanding and, at times, dangerous task of navigating in icy and poorly charted waters.
During Operation Tabarin (1943-1945), ship support was provided by the Admiralty. Then, in 1947, the newly formed Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS) purchased its first vessel. New polar vessels have been named either after previous ships or individuals associated with polar exploration. The first ship (the MV Pretext) was renamed the MV John Biscoe after the English 19th-century sea captain, John Biscoe (1794- 1843).
The FIDS scientific work was recognised in 1953 by the granting of Royal Research Ship (RRS) status to FIDS (later British Antarctic Survey (BAS)), vessels. In 1955, a second ship was bought, the RRS Shackleton.
The RRS Shackleton was in service with FIDS/BAS from 1955/56 until 1968/69. Her role was primarily that of a survey and science vessel, supporting marine geophysics programmes. On 29 Nov 1957, having completed the relief of Base H, Signy Island, the vessel was north of Coronation Island, South Orkney Islands, when she collided with heavy pack ice and was holed in two places below the waterline. Number 2 hold filled with water, but using the ship’s pumps and temporary repairs, she was stabilised and escorted by the whaling ship Southern Venturer and HMS Protector, into Stromness Bay, South Georgia, for repair.
From 1969, the Shackleton was operated by BAS’s parent body, NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) as an oceanographic research vessel carrying out geophysical and marine geology cruises in Antarctic waters until being withdrawn from service in May 1983, and then sold. In 1956, the first purposebuilt support vessel, RRS John Biscoe (2), replaced her ageing namesake. Her maiden voyage included HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, visiting some of the FIDS research stations during the 1956/57 season.
Initially, the RRS John Biscoe (2) operated as a cargo vessel to resupply FIDS (later BAS) research stations. Increasingly, she supported hydrographic and marine biology surveys, and geological landings. Following a major refit in 1979, her role became that of a platform for marine science, particularly the Offshore Biology Programme. Modifications included replacement of the main engines, new laboratories, winches for sampling down to 3,000 metres, a gantry for trawling and bow thruster to enable the ship to maintain station in strong winds and currents. New instrumentation included a satellite navigation system, echo-sounder and echo-integrator and salinitytemperature- depth profiler. Her final voyage with BAS took place during the 1990/91 season.
The John Biscoe‘s motor launch, sometimes referred to as the ‘Biscoe Kid’, was transferred to the RRS James Clark Ross and continued to be used until around 2002. She later took part in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Thames Pageant on 3 Jun 2012.