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:
Hundreds of People gathered to witness the departure of the vessel and after two hours' skilful manœuvring she was steered into the Thames, where much larger crowds were watching.
As the ship glided from her berth girls crowded to the windows of the factories overlooking the dock and waved good-bye to the crew.
One very pretty girl, more daring than the rest, climbed out on to a ledge and shouted "A Merry Christmas next week," and the sailors responded with a cheer.
At 234 feet long, and displacing 2,100 tons, Discovery II was only a fraction of the size of the 10-12,000 ton whaling factory ships active in Antarctic waters. Still, she was the largest research ship ever to explore the Southern Ocean and both the scientists and crew had to take time to get used to a new ship under conditions of intense cold, storm and pack ice. In addition, working the instruments and winches required constant practice. The surveys, biological collections and hydrographic work were more comprehensive than ever before attempted in southern waters.
Kennedy's nets were of several different sizes and mesh. The mouth of one tow net was the size of a dinner plate, while another was believed to be the largest in the world, so big that a man could stand upright inside it. Doubtless Kennedy was always mending his valuable "webs".
Long hours were dedicated to the raising and lowering of nets in all variety of weather and seas — agony to the fingers. In frigid waters, Discovery II was transformed into a Christmas tree by a combination of gale and freezing seas that sprayed the ship's deck, bulwarks and upper works, thickly encrusting them with ice. Torches of burning waste and paraffin were sometimes necessary to thaw the blocks and sheaves over which ran the wires used to lower nets and instruments into the sea.
Under such difficult conditions, a sense of humor was a valuable asset onboard and greatly appreciated by all. Official Photographer Alfred Saunders noted Kennedy's amusing ways of speech:
He had a persistent but unwitting habit of mispronouncing names. One of his jobs was to look after chemical and other scientific stores in the hold. To him sulphuric acid became 'sulfricated acid', hydrochloric acid became 'hydraulic acid', and formalin became 'formamint'. Once when he met a sailor who had had a violent fall on deck still walking about, he said that he thought he had 'discolated' his leg.
In these brief writings, it is impossible to do justice to the many achievements and adventures of Discovery II and those who served aboard her. However, the drama of one particular incident during the ship's second commission (1931-33) deserves the spotlight; during this period, Discovery II became the fourth vessel to circumnavigate Antarctica and the first to accomplish this feat in winter.
In January 1932, the ship was on her first voyage deep into the Weddell Sea — the first steel ship to penetrate those waters and the sixth of any ship. Near where Shackleton had first met ice in 1916, Discovery II was caught in a frozen trap and her hull and rudder sustained damage (including a leak in her starboard fuel tank).
At one point, on January 26, the captain wrote, "Scientific staff and all spare hands employed this day poling ice floes clear of rudder and propeller." It was only with great difficultly that the ship was extricated from her perilous situation. In spite of such danger, the surroundings never failed to make a marked impression on the senses. One crewman recalled that, "it is impossible to describe the stillness and the quietness in the Antarctic, not a sound to be heard."
It was during Discovery II's third commission (1933-35) that she made a major impact on Admiral Byrd's Second Antarctic Expedition. On Feb. 5, 1934, Byrd was faced with a severe crisis. His only doctor was plagued with high blood pressure and would have to return home on the support ship Jacob Ruppert, leaving only a medical student with the expedition. Byrd could not even consider keeping 95 men in the Antarctic with no doctor. He later wrote, "I determined then to get a doctor, or else cancel the expedition."
The previous month, Byrd had been surprised to hear Discovery II's radio operator tapping out morse messages on the airwaves. Not that far from each other, the expeditions exchanged greetings. Now, Byrd fired off a radiogram to the captain of Discovery II, which was still at Auckland replenishing her supplies. In the end, Dr. Louis Potaka, a New Zealander, sailed on the ship to rendezvous on February 22 with Byrd's Bear of Oakland in the Ross Sea — Byrd's expedition was saved.
After two more voyages, the onset of the Second World War prevented Discovery II from venturing into the Southern Ocean again. She plied Antarctic waters just one more time, during a 1950-51 commission.
Serving through six Antarctic seasons aboard the Discovery II between 1929 and 1934, Kennedy received the bronze Polar Medal for his contributions to the Discovery Investigations — being one of only two Netmen so honored. He had long since left the ship when he was serving as the Boatswain of HMS Alice at the beginning of the War. By the time of The London Gazette announcement of his Polar Medal in October 1941, Kennedy was still serving as a Boatswain.
Without the detailed research of the Discovery Committee, its scientists and sailors, both on land and aboard ship, no whale conservation would have been possible. It was the greatest scientific effort in the history of exploration, and by 1963, the research filled 34 volumes.
4.5 meter plankton net.
RRS Discovery II in the pack ice. (South Latitude)
Some of the Discovery II 's crew, pre-1935. (Malcolm Worker)
Coleman-Cooke, J. Discovery II in the Antarctic: The Story of British Research in the Southern Seas. (London: Odhams Press Ltd.; 1963)
The London Gazette. (Oct. 3, 1941).
Mercantile Marine Records. (National Archives, UK).
Metcalfe, Keith. Interview with Mr. William Arthur Peachey (Fireman/Greaser, RRS Discovery II, 1931-35). (9 June 1991).
Ommaney, F.D. South Latitude. (London: Longmans, Green & Co.; 1938).
Setting Out on Antarctic Voyage. (Oxford Mail; December 1929).
Reader's Digest. Antarctica: The Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent. (Surry Hills: Reader's Digest; 1990).
Rice, T. British Oceanographic Vessels 1800-1950. (London: The Ray Society; 1986).
Saunders, A. A Camera in Antarctica. (London: Winchester Publications Ltd.; 1950).
Yelverton, D.E. The First Environmental Campaign Medal: the bronze George VI Polar Medal. (Parts I & II). (Medal News; April & May 1989).
copyright 2008 Glenn M. Stein, FRGS