Share this article

Oceanographic Expeditions

The Refit

In October 1922 Discovery was purchased by the Crown Agents for the Colonies from the Hudson Bay Company for £5000, for the purpose of conducting further research work in the Antarctic. She was transferred from London to Portsmouth, where a £114,000 refit was undertaken to turn her from a cargo ship into a research vessel.

The work was carried out at Messrs Vosper, under the direction of Sir Fortescue Flannery and Partners. Extensive alterations were made to the vessel. They took Scott’s criticisms of the Discovery seriously as her plans for reconditioning were drawn up. In the end, the ship was almost completely rebuilt. The changes included the masting, re-provisioning of a wardroom with cabins for officers, scientists and accommodation for the crew, building chemical and biological labs, and being fitted with scientific equipment.

Since she was owned by the government of the Falkland Isles, she was re-registered to Stanley in the Falklands and designated as a Royal Research Ship.

Discovery in Portsmouth Dock (DUNIH 401.3)

The Expedition

In October 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 the Royal Research Ship 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.

Her research role continued when the British Government lent her to the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE). She served in this duty from 1929 until 1931.

Discovery leaving London 1929 (DUNIH 1.168)

Scientific Exploration

This scientific investigation – the first of its kind in history – was financed by the British Government. Its purpose was to prevent overfishing in the British Antarctic territories and to gather scientific knowledge for whaling management.

The on-board scientists were tasked to observe the whales and document their breeding habits and their migration patterns. More generally, they conducted a study on the Southern Ocean ecosystem.

Among their rank was the zoologist Alister Hardy (1896-1985). He was interested in marine organisms and crustaceans, especially the plankton and krill that form the main diet of whales. On the voyage he invented the ‘Continuous Plankton Recorder’ to capture plankton samples over huge areas of ocean; an instrument which is still in use today. A gifted watercolourist and photographer, Hardy left a precious visual account of what he named the ‘kingdom of the krill’.

Black and white image of Alister Hardy using a plankton net aboard Royal Research Ship Discovery.
Alister Hardy using plankton net aboard RRS Discovery (DUNIH 2017.2.48)

Following the expedition, the research results were published in the Discovery Reports, a series of studies that ultimately provided a strong scientific basis for the conservation of whales. Their significance was specially recognised in 1946 during the establishment of the International Whaling Commission, which watches over the regulation of whaling and promotes the recovery of depleted whale populations.

Discovery Reports Vol. I (DUNIH 2008.52.2)

Life Aboard

The scientists and crew focused on their scientific work whilst aboard the ship, so little is known about life aboard. It is known that the crew broke abstinence on a Saturday with a toast to wives and sweethearts: rum for the crew and port for the officers. This is noted to be a welcome break from the usual water or orange juice which was usually drunk.

On both the voyage from the UK to South Georgia and then from the Cape in South America back to the UK, a crossing the line ceremony was held for anyone aboard who had not passed over the equator. On the return journey the ship was in full sail, giving a magnificent backdrop.

During the Expedition, the ship travelled; giving the crew a range of experiences, such as trying tropical fruit as they sailed south to the smell of a whaling factory.

'Crossing the Line' Ceremony (DUNIH 2017.2.4)

The Crew

Chief Scientist & Director: Stanley W. Kemp Sc, D., F.R.S. Ship’s Captain: Lt. Cdr Joseph R. Stenhouse DSO, OBE, DSC, RNR


  • Alister C. Hardy M.A – Planktologist
  • John E. Hamilton M.Sc – Zoologist
  • Henry F. P. Herdman M.Sc – Hydrologist


  • Lt. Cdr John Chaplin RN
  • T. W. Goodchild
  • Lt. C. Sanderson RN
  • Lt. (E) Wm. A. Horton RN
  • Andrew N. Porteous
  • Lt. Col. Edw. H. Marshall DSO


  • W. P. O’Connor
  • J. Bentley
  • F. Pease

Petty Officers

  • E. C. Cunliffe
  • Robert G. Gourlay
  • J. Jackson
  • D. S. Sherrington
  • John Cargill
  • W. Alexander
  • J. Forbes
  • F. E. Hollands


  • J. D. Forsyth L. S
  • Alfred C. Briggs A.B
  • S Pollard A.B
  • J. McKinnon A.B
  • R.E. Morton A.B
  • M. Smith A.B
  • R. Staines A.B
  • W. Wadden A.B
  • James Purvis O.S
  • J. H. Slabber O.S
  • W. Wise O.S
  • J. H. Peacock O.S


  • W. B. Alsford
  • John C. Cook
  • J. Peebles
  • Horace W. Sandford


National Oceanography Centre: Into the Future

The scientific work begun on the Discovery Expeditions continues today. The National Oceonography Centre undertakes ground breaking research to discover the lifeblood that is the ocean.

To celebrate the legacy of the work done by the Discovery on this voyage, three subsequent Royal Research Ships have been named Discovery: RRS Discovery II (1929), the third-named RRS Discovery (1962), and the fourth – and current RRS Discovery – which was built in 2013.

In June 2023, we were lucky enough to welcome our friends from the National Oceanography Centre aboard our 1901 Royal Research Ship Discovery, whilst they visited the city of Discovery in the fourth iteration of the ship bearing the name.

During their visit, we recorded videos comparing the work of Discovery’s 1920s expeditions with the current science undertaken on pioneering expeditions all over the world.

1901 RRS Discovery and 2013 RRS Discovery side by side

The Legacy of RRS Discovery

Celebrating 100 years of scientific breakthroughs by ships named ‘RRS Discovery’. Filmed in the 1920s deck lab.

You might also like…

Join our mailing list

Keep in touch!

You’ll receive exclusive insights into our work behind-the-scenes at Discovery Point and Verdant Works Museum, be first to know about upcoming events and exhibitions and, discover how you can help support Dundee Heritage Trust. You can unsubscribe at any time.

* indicates required
What are you interested in hearing about?