Blog: RRS Sir David Attenborough polar research ship one year on

It’s a year since NERC launched a campaign to name our new polar research vessel. We take a look at what’s happened since RRS Sir David Attenborough was picked.

At around 128m long, 24m wide and capable of spending 60 days at sea without resupply, the new polar ship will be a sight to behold. While scientists work 24/7 in on-board labs, the RRS Sir David Attenborough will be able to range over 35,000km — more than enough to circle the entire Antarctic continent twice. And while it pushes the boundaries of polar science and exploration, the new ship will be inspiring new generations of environmental researchers, just like her namesake.

What is in a name?

The response to the Name Our Ship campaign was staggering. Members of the public suggested 32,000 names and votes stretched into the hundreds of thousands. And you know the rest! Within days ‘Boaty McBoatface’ had become a runaway favourite, a social media sensation that cropped up on panel shows and hit headlines across the world.

Whatever name was chosen would not only face the scrutiny of the world’s press now, but would need to stand for decades to come as the ship took researchers to the extremes of the Earth. In the end, science minister Jo Johnson announced that another of the popular public name submissions had been picked — that of the inspirational science communicator who has taken so many of us to deep dark oceans, inhospitable ice caps and bewildering rainforests, without us ever leaving the sofa.

Polar explorers of the future

If Sir David Attenborough first inspired your interest in the natural world, you’re not alone. And as we’ve seen only recently with Planet Earth II, his captivating narration of the most bizarre, extreme and even mundane aspects of nature continues to inspire younger generations.

The ship will add to this amazing legacy by helping to boost achievement and literacy in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) for schoolchildren. This is thanks to the new Polar Explorer Programme run by STEM Learning which has received £1m from government to engage pupils with the ship’s research. The scheme will also provide intensive support for 500 selected schools, led by 30 ‘Polar Ambassadors’.

Boaty McBoatface’s first mission

But the name Boaty McBoatface lives on. It would have been a travesty to cast aside a name that had captured the imagination of so many people around the world. And so, at the NERC National Oceanography Centre, Autosub Long Range Boaty McBoatface was born. Cute though it sounds, this unmanned submarine is part of a fleet of some pretty intrepid explorers. This month they’ll begin their first mission, traversing a deep current that originates in Antarctica and flows through the Southern Ocean. They’ll be collecting data for the Dynamics of the Orkney Passage Outflow (DynOPO) project as they ‘fly’ through submarine waterfalls and rapids, shedding light on how global warming is changing our oceans.

Keel-laying and splashdown

Meanwhile, up in Birkenhead, work on the £200m ship is progressing. In October 2016, Sir David Attenborough himself took part in the vessel’s keel-laying ceremony. In a keel-laying, the first piece of the keel is laid on top of a newly minted coin. It’s the first stage of a ship build, said to bring luck to ship, captain and crew and, in a nod to its future, we used a coin from the British Antarctic Territory. You might think this is a slightly quaint superstition to be honoured for a serious ship headed out to the poles on arduous journeys in pursuit of knowledge, but better safe than sorry, eh?

Work continues on dry land for now but she’ll be ready to ‘splashdown’ off the yard and into the blue early next year, whilst works will continue inside. Then she’ll be taken for trials to make sure she’s seaworthy and her scientific equipment is working to perfection before she sets off for her first mission in 2019.

This article was originally published on NERC Planet Earth.