Netman of the Antarctic: Duncan Kennedy on the RRS Discovery II
As early as 1917, it was recognized that whales were in danger of being hunted to extinction, due in part to the flourishing whaling industry in Antarctic waters. A British Government interdepartmental committee was set up to review the excesses of the industry, but it was not until 1923 that a committee with the required finances and authority was assembled to make “a serious attempt to place the whaling industry on a scientific basis.”
The steady decrease in the number of whales could only be avoided by controlling whale catching. But effective control could not be planned for a painfully simple reason: not enough was known about the habits of whales, their distribution and migration, or of their main food — the 4-6 cm. long shrimp known as krill.
Duncan Kennedy became part of this historic scientific program that spanned over a quarter of a century. Born on Jan. 28, 1888, at Greenock, Scotland, Kennedy was a fisherman by trade. During the First World War, he served in the Pilotage Service, and by 1929, joined the Royal Research Ship Discovery II. His fishing background made him a natural choice for the rating of Netman — a petty officer responsible for operations of nets used to collect marine plants and animals.
Initially, Scott’s old ship, the Discovery, was purchased by the newly named Discovery Committee. Then, in 1926, the steam vessel William Scoresby was added to the effort, and was tasked with general oceanographic work, commercial scale trawling and whale marking experiments.
However, it was decided to build a new steel ship to carry out an indefinite and ambitious series: the Discovery Investigations. The Discovery II would carry a great deal of scientific and other research equipment, and to meet unknown conditions, her construction required careful planning and original thought. That large sums of money were spent at all on serious long-term scientific research was admirable enough, but when one considers the international financial crisis of the early 1930s, this points to the vital importance of the Discovery Investigations.
In December 1929, as Discovery II stood ready at London’s St. Katherine’s Dock, she received a visit from the King of Norway, who possessed a keen knowledge of everything to do with whaling. The beginning of her three-year odyssey was captured by a reporter for the Oxford Mail: