From mapping uncharted waters to discovering new species and beyond, research vessels have had a huge impact on human history. This post takes a look at notable research vessels, including titans from the past as well as some of those currently exploring our oceans.
The HMS Endeavour
According to the UK’s National Oceanography Centre (NOC), modern-day research vessels owe a great deal to ancestors such as the HMS Endeavour and HMS Challenger. Both were part of the fleet of the British Royal Navy.
The BBC’s History Extra website has taken a deep dive into the history of the Endeavour. The ship is most famous for its 1768 voyage into the South Pacific, which was led by James Cook. An astronomer aboard observed the transit of Venus, an important celestial event. The ship also transported natural historians. By the end of the voyage, which involved 1,052 days on the sea, Cook had charted the coastline of New Zealand’s pair of islands. That, according to Smithsonian Magazine, was a first for European explorers.
Interestingly, the ship went by multiple names and served more than one function during its time: It began its seagoing days as the Earl of Pembroke and spent time involved in the coal industry. It was renamed the Endeavour upon the British Royal Navy’s purchase of the ship in 1768, and it took the moniker Lord Sandwich 2 in 1775, according to The Guardian. Its third and final role was serving in an invasion fleet during the Revolutionary War. It was sunk as part of British efforts to ruin the harbor at Newport.
The HMS Challenger
Taking place roughly a century later, in the 1870s, the Challenger’s key voyage saw it cover more than 68,000 nautical miles, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s page on the ship. This journey is the reason many people believe that the Challenger undertook the world’s first proper oceanic expedition. Among other feats, its passengers gathered data at 363 oceanic stations. That data revealed information on water chemistry, currents, temperature, and deposits on the ocean floor. The passengers also identified new organisms. The Challenger’s trip resulted in so much data that the end product was a report filling 50 volumes and 29,000 pages. It took 23 years to create that report.
Like the Endeavour, the Challenger filled multiple roles during its time in service. It began life as a warship in the British Royal Navy, boasting 17 guns and a powerful engine. It was 200 feet in length, and it featured three masts. (On its famous voyage, the ship used its sails more than its engine because the sails allowed for easier stops to gather data.) The Challenger began its later role as a ship of science thanks to the efforts of Dr. C Wyville Thomson, who requested through the Royal Society of London that a warship be repurposed as a research vessel. The British government was amenable to this, and the Challenger was converted.
The HMS Beagle
Between the adventures of the Endeavour and Challenger came the voyages of the HMS Beagle, which was the research vessel that famously carried Charles Darwin. It launched in 1820, per Britannica. Its second and most notable voyage occurred from 1831–1836, with Darwin on board and Robert Fitzroy as captain. This journey saw the ship circumnavigate the globe and collect a plethora of specimens. In particular, Darwin gathered numerous fossils. On a later voyage, lasting from 1837–1843, the lieutenants John Clements Wickham and John Lort Stokes fully surveyed the coasts of Australia, which was a first.
The Calypso is yet another example of a British vessel converted from military service to research purposes. Originally a minesweeper and finally a research vessel, this one spent a period of time in between those two jobs as a ferry in Malta. According to the Cousteau Society, pioneering oceanic explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau discovered the ship in Malta and completed the process of buying it in 1950. From there, the ship traveled to Antibes, France, and was converted into a research vessel. (The ship’s original designation was J-826, and it became the Calypso upon Coustau’s purchase.) Companies, the French Navy, and Cousteau and his wife Simone put forth resources toward repurposing the ship.
The ship’s adventures began not long after, with test runs occurring in June 1951 and the ship’s first true expedition taking place in November 1951. It set out from the military port at Toulon for the Red Sea with the goal of studying corals. The ship succeeded from a research standpoint: It brought back documentation, including photographic evidence, of flora and fauna that was previously unknown. The ship also succeeded from an even wider point of view: It was this journey that convinced Cousteau that more exploration of the sea was necessary to truly understand it.
The Calypso had many more notable voyages to fulfill Cousteau’s goal. In 1953, it served as a platform for testing new underwater cameras that could capture images of deep-sea animals. In 1954, it took part in a journey that led to the discovery of a Persian Gulf oil field. Then, in 1955, Cousteau and his crew took part in filming The Silent World. As the New York Times review at the time of its release put it, this was a “feature-length fact film” that brought the images the Calypso captured to the masses.
The Calypso was also a key part of the TV series titled The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and enjoyed a long career. Sadly, the ship suffered severe damage and sank after a 1996 collision with a barge. However, that wasn’t the end of the line for the Calypso: It was eventually raised, and the Cousteau Society is currently working to restore it.
The Flip Ship
A child of the 1960s, the Flip Ship is a truly unique research vessel. As covered by Marine Insight, this ship was created by the US Navy with help from the Marine Physical Laboratory in 1962. Spoon-like in shape and 355 feet long, it is able to shift into a vertical position—from the normal horizontal position of a ship—without difficulty. The ship uses ballast tanks to achieve this realignment, and the process takes just under half an hour.
It gets its name both from its most notable feature and its official acronym: FLIP, which stands for Floating Instrument Platform. The Flip Ship enters its vertical position to gather certain types of data more accurately, including measurements of waves. The ship does not have engines to maneuver itself; instead, other vessels tow it into position. The Flip Ship was renovated in 1995 and has provided very valuable data throughout its time in service.
Underwater Research Vessels
A number of research vessels prove their worth not above the waves but below them. For example, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution maintains a number of state-of-the-art submersible research vehicles. In its original configuration, the Alvin could reach depths of 4,500 meters and dive for up to 10 hours at a time, making it able to reach approximately two-thirds of the ocean floor. Another notable vehicle in the institution’s fleet is the Deepsea Challenger, which oceanographer and cinematographer James Cameron used to visit Challenger Deep—the ocean’s deepest spot.
Another specialty research vessel is the SA Agulhas II. This huge ship is an icebreaker—that is, it is able to break through thick ice, enabling it to explore the frigid area of Antarctica. Per the South African government, along with performing research, the ship has an important job in delivering supplies to South African research facilities in the Antarctic.
Joining the SA Agulhas II as a notable icebreaker is the RV Sikuliaq, which is operated by the University of Fairbanks and described in detail here. It uses a number of winches to deposit and retrieve scientific equipment, and it has a wide-ranging set of instruments for research. The ship was designed with the environment in mind, down to the noise it emits, which is purposely low.
The RV Investigator
The RV Investigator, launched in late 2014, represents Australia’s foray into high-tech research vessels. Along with advanced oceanographic capabilities, it can also collect data on the weather from far into the atmosphere, according to The Conversation. Its design is so well thought out that bubbles created by the hull won’t interfere with acoustic equipment on board.
The RRS James Cook and the RRS Discovery
Since 2006, the RRS James Cook has supported the efforts of the NOC by performing large-scale research expeditions. According to the organization’s writeup on the ship, it can perform a variety of duties, including seismic surveys, seawater sampling, the operation of remote vehicles, and deepwater coring. It can even measure changes in gravity. Additionally, the ship contains numerous laboratory facilities on board. The NOC also operates the RRS Discovery, which is the newest research ship in the organization’s fleet, featuring extremely modern equipment. These two ships represent some of the most cutting-edge research vessels out there, and it will be exciting to see what they and other modern ships reveal about the world’s oceans.