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DISCOVERY sets sail to rescue Shackleton and his crew

DISCOVERY was the first vessel to be constructed specifically for scientific research. She was built in Dundee for the 1901 British National Antarctic Expedition, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Dundee was then a major whaling centre, and its shipyards had long experience of constructing ships robust enough to travel through pack ice.

DISCOVERY in Simon's Bay, South Africa, on her way to Antarctica (copyright IWM)

Following her return to England from the Antarctic in late 1904 she was sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company to carry supplies to the trading posts in the Hudson Bay, and to bring furs back. After the start of the First World War she was used to transport munitions and food between North America and France.      

Ernest Shackleton had been third officer on Scott’s 1901-04 DISCOVERY Expedition. This was his first experience of the polar regions, but he was sent home early on health grounds. He determined to make amends for this perceived personal failure, and returned to Antarctica in 1907 as leader of the NIMROD expedition. He later planned further expeditions; he spent several years planning his Imperial Trans-Antarctic (ocean-to-ocean) expedition, and was finally ready to leave in early Summer 1914. His ship ENDURANCE was brand new, and was delivered to London in June 1914. On 1 August 1914 she set sail, initially for Plymouth.

With the declaration of war on 4 August Shackleton called his men together. He stated that they were free to join the war effort, and then placed his ship, ENDURANCE, her stores and her staff at the disposal of the Admiralty. The Admiralty declined the offer, as did most of the crew. On 8 August 1914, ENDURANCE sailed from Plymouth for Buenos Aeres, docking there in early October 1914. She left for Antarctica on 26 October 1914.


The subsequent destruction of ENDURANCE meant the expedition had to be abandoned and plans made to be rescued. Shackleton later undertook an epic voyage with two of his men in the JAMES CAIRD lifeboat from Elephant Island to South Georgia, a distance of 800 nautical miles leaving the rest of his crew to endure 4 months of hardship on Elephant Island. The JAMES CAIRD was launched on 24 April 1916 and reached South Georgia on 10 May 1916. Shackleton reached the whaling station Husvik on 20 May 1916. This triggered the rescue effort in which DISCOVERY was to play a part.

Several attempts to rescue the remaining men on Elephant Island were made but failed. Shackleton, Worsley and Crean left on the British whaler SOUTHERN SKY, which had been laid up for the winter bound for Elephant Island on 23 May. She could not get through because of ice, and had to return to Port Stanley. A second attempt was made in late May in a Uruguayan survey ship, the INSTITUTO DE PESCA. She too failed to get through, and had to return to Port Stanley.  

The predicament of Shackleton and his crew received widespread media and particularly newspaper attention in Britain. His arrival at the whaling station was received with great excitement; photographs were published in the Daily Mirror on 10 July 1916. The Times reported on 24 July 1916 that ‘in view of the possibility of the failure of the third attempt now being carried out by Sir Ernest Shackleton in a small vessel, to rescue the 22 men of his party left on Elephant Island, South Shetlands, and at his most urgent request, the Government have now decided to despatch a vessel from England as soon as she can be fitted out, no suitable wooden vessel being available in any South American port.’

DISCOVERY’s send-off to bring back Shackleton and his crew was arranged with extensive publicity. An Admiralty Order instructed that ‘ships are to cheer when DISCOVERY passes down harbour today’. A memorandum was sent from the Commander-in-Chief Devonport to the Commanding Officer of HMS DISCOVERY ‘showing the arrangements which have been made for taking photographs and filming the voyage of the DISCOVERY’.  The filmed rescue of Shackleton would hopefully be a good news story and a welcome diversion.

Discovery was accompanied by the collier POLESLEY, which initially towed her. Her captain was instructed to ‘keep a good look out for and avoid any suspicious vessels which may endeavour to close you’.  His Orders (‘to be destroyed by fire on arrival at destination’) included a note that he would ‘be escorted by two Patrol vessels for a certain distance after leaving this port’. 

On 11 August 1916 The Times reported that ‘the Antarctic relief ship DISCOVERY, which has been fitted out at Devonport dockyard for a fourth attempt to relieve the 22 men of Sir E. Shackleton’s party stranded on Elephant Island, left Plymouth Sound last night. She will proceed to Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, to embark Sir E. Shackleton.’

Shackleton himself referred to the departure of DISCOVERY in his account of the expedition, South:

We reached Port Stanley in the schooner [EMMA] on August 8 [1916], and I learned there that the ship DISCOVERY was to leave England at once and would be at the Falklands Islands about the middle of September. My good friend the Governor said I could settle down at Port Stanley and take things quietly for a few weeks. The street of that port is about a mile and a half long. It has the slaughterhouse at one end and the graveyard at the other. The chief distraction is to walk from the slaughterhouse to the graveyard. For a change one may walk from the graveyard to the slaughterhouse.

I could not content myself to wait for six or seven weeks, knowing that six hundred miles away my comrades were in dire need. I asked the Chilean Government to send the Yelcho, the steamer that had towed us before, to take the schooner across to Punta Arenas, and they consented promptly, as they had done to every other request of mine. So in a north-west gale we went across, narrowly escaping disaster on the way, and reached Punta Arenas on August 14 [1916].   

On 22 August 1916 DISCOVERY arrived at Point do Sol, Cape Verde, and on 11 September 1916 at Montevideo, Uruguay. It was here that the Captain, Lieutenant-Commander J. Fairweather RNVR, of Dundee, learned that Skackleton had already been rescued. The Chilean Government had eventually offered the use of YELCHO, a small steamer. This successfully reached Elephant Island at lunchtime on 30 August 1916. YELCHO subsequently arrived at Punta Arenas in Chile on 3 September with all the crew on board. On 15 September she departed from Punta Arenas for Valparaiso, Chile.

Thus DISCOVERY was not needed, and waited at Montevideo for further instructions. On 17 September 1916 she set sail initially for Buenos Aeres, Argentina, leaving there bound for home on 30 September, after calling in at several ports en route. These included stops at Pirnambuco, Brazil, on 16 October, and at St Vincent in the Caribbean on 8 November. She left St Vincent bound finally for Devonport, UK  on 15 November 1916, arriving at Devonport on 29 November 1916.  The last page of the log book records; ‘voyage completed. All crew finished with ship’. She was decommissioned.

Shackleton himself was anxious not to return to the UK before rescuing the members of his expedition who had set out from New Zealand to provide supplies and support to the team on their arrival at the Ross Sea. On 8 October 1916 Shackleton and Worsley left Buenos Aeres by train for New Orleans, where they again set off by train for San Francisco. Here they caught a steamer, the SS MOANA, to Wellington, New Zealand. From there they caught up with arrangements for the rescue of the Ross Sea team.

After decommissioning DISCOVERY was returned to the Hudson Bay Company, and for the remainder of the war she continued with her duties carrying food and munitions between North America and France. After the war DISCOVERY returned to the Antarctic region two more times as part of the Oceanographic Expedition 1925-1927 and BANZARE  1929-1931.


Where is she now?

DISCOVERY is on public display at Discovery Point, Discovery Quay, Dundee, DD1 4XA. Summer opening hours (April – October) are Mon – Sat - 10am-6pm (Sun 11am). Winter Opening hours (November – March) are Mon – Sat - 10am – 5pm (Sun 11am). It is closed on 25th & 26th December and 1st & 2nd January.



 Discovery’s log books 1916, The National Archives, ADM 53/39960, ADM 53/39961. 

 Discovery fitting out for rescue of Shackleton polar expedition 1914-18, The National Archives, ADM 131/83.

 Shackelton, E. (1919) South: The Endurance Expedition. London: Penguin Books Edition 1999.



 National Register of Historic Vessels entry

 National Museum of the Royal Navy entry

 Dundee Heritage Trust