The Magazine for Underwater Professionals

Jan/Feb 2017


Full steam ahead for construction of polar research ship

UCi's Daniel Johnson was on hand to witness legendary naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough usher in a new era for UK polar research

Sir David Attenborough addresses the audience

It is a cold morning on Merseyside, and development of the UK’s new state-of-the-art polar research vessel, RRS Sir David Attenborough, is about to reach a major milestone with the laying of the ship’s keel. Construction will be officially started by world-renowned naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, after whom the ship is named, during a ceremonial event at the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead.

Fittingly, a biting northerly wind has successfully recreated a temperature in Cammell Laird’s cavernous construction hall, one of the largest in Europe, akin to that of the frigid zones that the new ship will inhabit. Alongside breath vapour, a palpable excitement hangs in the air as hundreds of invited guests from the worlds of science, technology and engineering, along with the shipyard workforce, huddle together, waiting for Attenborough to enter the hall and start the keel-laying process (keel-laying is a maritime engineering tradition that formally marks the start of a ship’s construction with a ceremony that is said to bring luck to the ship during construction and to the captain and crew during its later life). When he appears, necks crane and a sea of smartphone cameras are held aloft, their owners eager to capture a picture or video of the veteran broadcaster. If one of the great beasts that star in his natural history programmes had walked into the hall, it’s hard to picture the prevailing sense of awe and wonder being any greater.


Joined on a makeshift stage by the UK's science minister, Jo Johnson, and the heads of Cammell Laird, the UK Natural Environment Research Council and British Antarctic Survey, Attenborough makes a short speech and then pushes a button that initiates the lifting by crane of a 100-tonne segment of keel to the construction berth. To the delight of the audience, a new era for UK polar research has been ushered in.

  • Ready for lift off. A section of the keel of the RRS 'Sir David Attenborough'

To many, Sir David Attenborough is the greatest naturalist that has ever been. A global icon and a national treasure, his work has inspired generations with a love of the natural world. His name therefore is the obvious choice for a new research vessel that will teach us much about life on earth. Having been bestowed with countless honours and awards during his long and distinguished career, where does having a polar research ship named after him rank?

“It’s very humbling actually,” he tells me. “If you have any knowledge of Antarctic exploration or Arctic exploration or the Navy, you can think of some very, very distinguished names that have been carried by ships. That my name should be among them now is a very humbling realisation and I’m very flattered and complimented.”


Commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and to be operated by British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the RRS Sir David Attenborough is set to transform the UK’s polar research capability. When the ship sets sail in 2019, she will be able to carry more scientists and push deeper into the polar ice than any other UK research ship ever has and will provide a research platform to help tackle some of the most important issues facing humanity, including climate change, future sea level rise and the impact of environmental change on marine life.


Polar regions, says Attenborough, are critical for understanding the natural world. “This new ship will ensure that scientists have access to these enigmatic regions to uncover secrets that we can only imagine at this point. Scientists working on this new ship will inform everyone about our changing world for generations to come,” he adds.

At approximately 128 metres long and 24 metres wide, the RRS Sir David Attenborough will be capable of spending 60 days at sea without resupply and have a range of more than 35,000 kilometres – more than enough to circle the entire Antarctic continent twice. The ship will be available year-round to the whole UK research community, spending the northern summer supporting Arctic research cruises and the austral summer in Antarctica carrying out research programmes and transporting people and supplies to research stations.

The vessel’s design optimises her ability to support science in extreme environments. Specialist facilities, instruments and laboratories will enable scientists to conduct a wide range of multi-disciplinary sciences to study the ocean, seafloor and atmosphere. Data from the deep ocean and inaccessible under-ice locations will be captured using robotic and remotely operated devices.


The ship will have a helicopter deck and, unlike Britain’s other polar research vessels, a hangar – allowing scientists to fly to otherwise inaccessible lakes or islands in Antarctica. She is also the first British polar research ship to feature a moon pool, which will allow scientific equipment to be lowered and raised in and out of the water through the ship’s centre, its most stable part. This is both easier and safer than deploying equipment over the side or stern, particularly in the rough seas characteristic of the polar oceans.


Containerised laboratories will introduce a new flexibility in science support – as technologies and techniques change the containers can be reconfigured to ensure research teams have what they need. The new ship will be able better to exploit UK marine robotics capability through deployment of a new generation of autonomous and remotely operated vehicles. She will also incorporate enhanced communications and data handling capabilities to enable real-time data delivery and remote UK-based instrument operation.

With greater fuel efficiency and an ability to use remotely operated and robotic technologies, the ship is expected to reduce the environmental impact of ship-borne science and save more than £100 million in operating costs over her 25-year lifespan.


The ship’s £200 million cost is the largest UK government investment in Antarctic and Arctic science infrastructure since the 1980s. The funding also covers the development of projects to support the ship’s work, including construction of a new wharf at Rothera, the largest British Antarctic research station.

“It’s been my great good fortune to visit British Antarctic Survey stations at various times,” notes Attenborough, “and to have seen some remarkable people at work.”


He has the utmost respect for these men and women, and says that it is difficult for people who have not been amongst them to understand the conditions under which they work. He recalls a visit he once made to a station on Bird Island, a small rocky island lying off the north-west tip of South Georgia. A trip to the lavatory, he says, involved leaving a small hut and going along a gangway which was hemmed on both sides by battling fur seals in order to get to the facilities at the end of it. “Big males battling for the females … and this often in a howling gale. You really needed to want to go I can tell you,” he laughs.

“And when I said to the members of BAS, ‘that’s terrible, why can’t you get an inside loo?’,” he continues, “they said, ‘we were offered the money for an inside loo but we thought that we would rather have a centrifuge in order to continue with our work’. That’s the kind of person who works for the British Antarctic Survey.”

  • The name lives on. The AUV 'Boaty McBoatface'

Also unveiled at the ceremony is a state-of-the-art autonomous underwater vehicle to be known as Boaty McBoatface, in recognition of the popularity of the name during NERC’s Name Our Ship campaign earlier in the year. The Autosub Long Range (ALR) AUV will be deployed from the RRS Sir David Attenborough and will be used to explore under ice sheets, diving 6000 metres deep and able to remain at sea for many months at a time.

The name Boaty McBoatface was the overwhelming winner of NERC’s poll and generated intense media interest from around the globe, reaching hundreds of millions of people and arguably making NERC the best-known research council in the world. Although it was decided that Sir David Attenborough (the option that came fourth in the poll) was a more appropriate name for the research vessel, allowing Boaty McBoatface to live on by naming a subsea vehicle after it would seem a well-judged compromise. The sub will be the face of a £1 million government-funded Polar Explorer Programme, an educational initiative that aims to inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and citizens by engaging young people with the RRS Sir David Attenborough and polar science.


Attenborough says that he is delighted that the name Boaty McBoatface has been preserved, and chuckles at the thought that it will be “whizzing around Antarctica for years to come” alongside his namesake. “I hope that everyone who suggested a name will feel just as inspired to follow its progress as it explores our polar regions,” he says.

Tradition calls for the first keel segment to be placed on top of a coin, and on this occasion it is a newly minted coin from the British Antarctic Territory – that part of Antarctica claimed by the United Kingdom. Once the ship is launched, the coin will be recovered and presented to the crew, for good luck while they sail the oceans. When the ship heads off to Antarctic waters it will have to cope with the fiercest storms and largest waves on Earth, not to mention pack ice and icebergs, so a little bit of luck certainly won’t go amiss.

  • An artist's impression of the RRS 'Sir David Attenborough'





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