During the second half of the twentieth century, the Royal Society mounted a number of scientific expeditions to different parts of the world. These expeditions varied considerably in their objectives, size, complexity and duration. Brief outlines of the main Royal Society expeditions of this period and their origins are given, together with mention of resulting Royal Society Discussion Meetings. Reference is also made to some long-term investigations involving the Society in collaboration with other countries' scientific institutions.
The Royal Society has a long tradition of promoting scientific expeditions to distant parts of the world. This goes back to such notable work as Edmond Halley's geomagnetic surveys of the Atlantic Ocean in 1699–1700, the voyages of James Cook in 1768–71 and 1772–75 and of James Clark Ross in 1839–43, and the round-the-world oceanographic voyage of HMS Challenger in 1872–76. Thus there was a sound precedent for the programmes in the second half of the twentieth century.
There were many expeditions funded by grants from the Society or encouraged by it, including those contributing to the International Biological Programme, but this short paper is limited to considering only the main expeditions actually organized by the Society and put into the field by its Expeditions Department. It focuses on the scientific objectives and results of the expeditions. More detailed information about individual participants (such as chairmen of committees, leaders of expeditions, scientific coordinators, directors of stations, and team leaders) can be found in the various published expedition reports listed at the end of the paper.
The first two, in the 1950s
Geophysics in Antarctica
The first of the Society's expeditions in the 1950s was the establishment of a major, static, geophysical observatory in the far south of the Weddell Sea as part of the UK's contribution to the International Geophysical Year (IGY), July 1957 to December 1958. Treasury funding for the UK's IGY programme was approved in August 1955; there followed three months of urgent preparation. Fortunately, the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS)—now the British Antarctic Survey—had, with the invaluable support of the Crown Agents for Overseas Governments and Administrations, agreed to make available their long experience of maintaining Antarctic stations by undertaking to organize all the logistics for the Royal Society operation, thus leaving the Society free to concentrate on the scientific aspects.
To ensure that everything was ready in time for the start of the IGY observing period, it was essential to send an advance party out at least a year earlier to find a suitable location south of 75° S, to erect the main base hut for the station and to start a modest scientific programme. A small ice-strengthened ship, MV Tottan, left Southampton in November 1955 with an advance party of 10. After various encounters with heavy sea ice and two failed reconnaissance landings, a suitable site for the station was found on 6 January 1956 at 75½° S (figure 1). The bay in which landfall was finally made was subsequently named Halley Bay, as 1956 was the tercentenary of the birth of Edmund Halley, Secretary of the Royal Society from 1713 to 1721.
The advance party was followed a year later by a 20-man main party that sailed from London in November 1956 aboard MV Magga Dan with the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. At the end of the IGY, the station was handed over to FIDS.
The results of the expedition were presented at a Discussion Meeting at the Society in February 1960; the observations made were worked up in the UK and published in four large volumes between 1961 and 1964.
Biology in southern Chile
The second expedition in this period was a small mobile biological expedition to the remote islands and fjords of southern Chile in the southern summer of 1958/59 as part of the Society's celebration of the centenary of the publication of Darwin's On the origin of species. The expedition was designed to further understanding of the biological relationships between New Zealand's South Island and southern South America. The expedition consisted of five scientists, three of whom were New Zealanders, and lasted just five months. The results were presented at a Discussion Meeting entitled, ‘The biology of the southern cold temperate zone’.
One conclusion of that Discussion Meeting was that there was much further work to be done throughout the Southern Hemisphere. The committee that had planned the Chilean expedition was continued but, as it did not want its geographical area of interest to be constrained by its title, in 1961 the Council of the Society agreed to change the name of what had been the South Pacific Expeditions Committee to the Southern Zone Expeditions Committee. In 1964 its name was changed again to the Southern Zone Research Committee, and that committee became the main focus for promoting expedition activity—although sometimes the Council also established separate committees to develop detailed plans for specific instances of field work.
As a result of the experience acquired in the planning and mounting of these first two postwar expeditions, the Royal Society's Council in 1959 also approved the setting up of a Scientific Expeditions Advisory Service and of a new Expeditions Department within the Society's administrative structure.
Over the years that followed there were many overseas ventures, but despite the existence of the Southern Zone Research Committee there was never any overall strategy or long-term plan. There were simply a number of Fellows wishing to promote improvement in scientific understanding of little known parts of the world, a committee structure that could generate ideas or evaluate proposals and a department experienced in equipping and organizing expeditions.
Tropical forests became the subject of a number of very different expeditions.
There were two expeditions to North Borneo, in 1961 and 1964. Because of increasing timber extraction, the government of North Borneo (a British colony at the time) had the idea of creating a National Park of all the areas of Mount Kinabalu above 6000 feet. At some 13 000 feet, Kinabalu was the highest peak between Papua New Guinea and the Himalayas. Questions arose as to whether this 6000 feet was a realistic boundary for a national park, so the Society set up a committee to plan an expedition ‘to investigate present and planned tree felling and to make recommendations about the extent of a nature reserve’. The first expedition was from June to September 1961, the second from January to May 1964. Advice was provided to the local authorities, and later in 1964 a national park of more than 750 km2 was established.
Discussions within the Southern Zone Research Committee and with scientists in Australia and New Zealand led to the Society's mounting its largest and logistically most complex biological expedition so far, which was to the Solomon Islands in the Southwest Pacific from July to December 1965 (figure 2). Little was known about the biology of the Solomon Islands but the region was beginning to attract commercial interest in its timber resources; it was also thought that that area might well provide a key to questions of biological distribution patterns between Southeast Asia and Australasia.
The plan was for about 10 botanists and zoologists to concentrate on limited areas of the virtually unknown mountainous interiors of a few of the islands, with special attention to altitudinal variations. Because there were no regular boat services between the islands, and the possibility of local hire was remote or even non-existent, a small ship was chartered from Fiji. This ship was also to serve as the base for a marine party, which would concentrate on some of the shallow water and coral lagoons of four of the islands. The logistics of this operation were a little complicated, first to obtain maximum benefit from the ship for both the land and marine parties, and second to solve the problems of moving a party of 10 scientists with all their camping and collecting equipment up the high mountains.
A Discussion Meeting on the results of the Solomon Islands expedition led to the conclusion that the New Hebrides were substantially different from the Solomon Islands and warranted more attention. As a result, with some financial support from the Percy Sladen Trust, a follow-up expedition was sent to the New Hebrides for four months from July to October 1971. Inter-island transportation was more reliable than in the Solomons and there was no marine component of this expedition.
Mato Grosso, Central Brazil
In late 1965 the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society accepted an invitation from the Brazilian government, conveyed through the British Embassy in Brasilia, to send scientists to accompany a construction team driving a new road through virtually unknown territory. The first stage of a plan to link the new Capital, Brasilia, to Manaus on the Amazon was to be a new road from the tiny town of Xavantina in the state of Mato Grosso to a spot on the map some 600 miles distant. The route from there to Manaus, a further 600 miles, was at that time still uncertain.
The Brazilians had already built some 200 miles of the new road from Xavantina when it was realized that, because it would penetrate part of the many thousands of square miles of unknown forest land, a unique opportunity was available for scientists to study a huge virgin area before it was changed forever.
The two societies set up a committee that developed an initial plan involving a permanent leader and his wife, with Brazilian support personnel, providing opportunities for interested scientists to join for a few months at a time. However, soon after the leader had arrived in Brazil in June 1967, funding was withdrawn from the road-building project, which was then abandoned. As the road had already progressed well into forest, the societies, in cooperation with the Brazil Academy of Science and the University of Brasilia, decided to continue with their project but to modify it into a two-year study of the area around a base some 170 miles along the new road. Between July 1967 and July 1969, 44 British, 20 Brazilian and a few American scientists worked from this base camp, which was about 400 miles from Brasilia (figure 3). Results from this work were published in the regular scientific journals, and reprints were sent to Brazil wherever possible.
Danum Valley, Sabah (formerly North Borneo)
Last on the theme of tropical rainforests, in the late 1970s the Southern Zone Research Committee became aware of the increasing importance of improving understanding of the recovery of tropical rainforest after disturbance, either manmade or natural. After much correspondence, visits to Southeast Asia and a Memorandum of Understanding between the Society and the Sabah Foundation signed in October 1984, a long-term programme was launched in 1985. The programme has been based primarily in the Danum Valley Conservation Area, comprising 438 km2 of virgin forest, that had been created in 1981 within the timber concessions of the Sabah Foundation. It became known as the Royal Society South East Asia Rainforest Research Programme with the defined objective ‘Restoration of tropical forest following disturbance’. By the end of 1999 more than 300 papers arising from work within the programme had been published in a wide variety of journals. These included papers presented at Royal Society Discussion Meetings in 1991 and 1999. Direct Royal Society funding support for this programme ended in 2010 after 25 years, but the Society and British scientists remain associated with the Danum Valley field centre.
Moving now to another subject, in late 1961 a volcanic eruption very close to the settlement on the remote South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha led to the evacuation to the UK of the whole of the population (figure 4). Council accepted a recommendation from the (then) South Pacific Expeditions Committee that an expedition be sent as soon as possible. With the support of the Royal Navy, a brief preliminary visit was made by two geologists in December 1961, followed by the main expedition consisting of four or five geologists and a couple of biologists from early February to mid March 1962. Advice provided by these scientists helped the UK government in its consideration of whether and when the Islanders might return.
In the light of this experience, the Society established the Volcanological Research Committee and developed a procedure for rapidly sending scientists to sites of eruptions. Over the following years studies were made of activity in many places, including Mount Etna, Soufriere in the Caribbean, Surtsey (Iceland), Agadir (Morocco) and, with the British Antarctic Survey, Deception Island off the Antarctic Peninsula.
Coral reefs and islands
Aldabra, western Indian Ocean
The Aldabra programme developed from a series of small expeditions into the building of a long-term research station. In 1966 it became known that the Ministry of Defence, with the support of the US Defence Department, had decided to establish a staging post for military aircraft on the large raised coral atoll of Aldabra, which was under the jurisdiction of the British Indian Ocean Territory. This island had no indigenous population but did support the last remaining natural breeding ground of the Indian Ocean giant tortoise (later estimated to number 150 000) and the largest breeding population in the western Indian Ocean of the lesser and greater frigate birds. Both its terrestrial and marine environments were considered to be virtually untouched and therefore to be of considerable interest to scientists.
At the instigation of the Southern Zone Research Committee, a series of small expeditions was sent to gather as much information as possible about the island before it was destroyed. This work led to a true appreciation of the value to science of this unique ecosystem, as a result of which the President and the Biological Secretary of the Society spearheaded opposition to the development plan. In parallel, the US National Academy of Sciences made similar approaches to the US Defense Department. In November 1967 the government announced the withdrawal of its defence commitments east of Suez, which meant that the development of Aldabra was no longer necessary. Through 1968 plans were made to build a small permanent research station on the island so that work could continue without a break.
After the Seychelles became independent in 1976, the lease of Aldabra and the management of the research station were transferred to the Seychelles Islands Foundation in March 1980. The interest of the Society and of British scientists continued for many years.
Other work on coral reefs and islands
In addition to the marine work of the Solomon Islands expedition and the work on Aldabra, the Society has been involved in two other activities relating to coral reefs and islands.
Cook Islands, south Pacific
As part of their celebrations of the bicentenary of Cook's first voyage of discovery in the South Pacific, the Royal Society of New Zealand planned an expedition to the Cook Islands and Tonga in the latter part of 1969 and invited the Royal Society to participate. As a result, five British scientists spent two months in the field studying the geology, coral reef structure and ecology of the islands of Tofua and Aitutaki. All the papers resulting from the Cook Bicentenary Expedition were published in a commemorative volume as Royal Society of New Zealand Bulletin 8.
Great Barrier Reef Australia
In 1973 the Society, in collaboration with the Universities of Queensland, organized an expedition to study the geomorphology and biology of the northern parts of the Australian Great Barrier Reef. The results were presented at a Discussion Meeting in January 1976.
Deep line fishing for coelacanth, Indian Ocean
In yet another discipline, in early 1969 the Society sent a small, deep line, fishing expedition to the western Indian Ocean. The primary object was to search for coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae), once thought to be extinct, in the hope of extending knowledge of its geographic range. Although no specimens were taken, the data collected on other species made a valuable contribution to knowledge of the fish fauna of these deep slope areas. Details about this expedition and the results were published by the Society in Proceedings in 1970. This was followed by a British–French–American fishing expedition to the Comores in 1972. On this expedition two specimens of coelacanth were taken, one recently dead and another on the point of death. A condensed account of some of the investigations was given in a review lecture at the Society in 1980.
The end of the expeditions programme
In addition to the main ventures outlined, there were other, smaller, expeditions in the 1980s such as a study of the coral reefs of the Cayman Islands and a botanical transect across South America at about 46° S. Then in 1985–86 there was participation in a geotraverse of Tibet and from 1989 in studies of Lake Baikal. These were not called expeditions but bilateral collaborative projects.
By the 1990s overseas work by British scientists was largely by individuals or small groups focusing on limited topics either independently or within one of the long-term research station programmes, such as Aldabra, the Danum Valley or Lake Baikal. There were now no proposals emerging for the more complex or multidisciplinary expeditions of recent years. In the reorganization of the Society's staff structure in the 1990s the expeditions department quietly disappeared, its staff members having, in any case, either retired or moved to other duties.
In addition to numerous papers in the scientific literature, the results of most, but not all, of the Society's expeditions have been presented at Royal Society Discussion Meetings and published in the Society's journals. A list of these is included below.
To complete this record, mention should also be made of some other important overseas activities in which the Society was closely involved. One was the UK contribution to the International Indian Ocean Expedition of 1959–65, coordinated by the Royal Society's British National Committee on Oceanic Research, in which the then new RRS Discovery and two Hydrographic Survey ships HMS Owen and HMS Dalrymple participated. Another was the extremely successful 1984–89 Surface Waters Acidification Programme led by the Royal Society in cooperation with the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. More recently, from 1998 to 2001, the Royal Society cooperated with the Royal Geographical Society in promoting the Shoals of Capricorn Programme, a comprehensive oceanographic study of the Mascarene Plateau in the western Indian Ocean.
Some publications arising from the Royal Society expeditions
International Geophysical Year Antarctic expedition, 1956–59
‘A Discussion on the results of the Royal Society's expedition to Halley Bay, Antarctica, during the International Geophysical Year’, Proc. R. Soc. A 256, 145–244 (1960).
D. Brunt (ed.), Royal Society International Geophysical Year Antarctic Expedition, Halley Bay, Coats Land, Falkland Islands Dependencies: vol. 1 (Introductions, aurora and airglow, geomagnetism, 1960), vol. 2 (Radio astronomy, ionospheric physics, 1962), vol. 3 (Seismology, meteorology, 1962), vol. 4 (Meteorology, glaciology, appendices, 1964) (The Royal Society, London).
Southern Chile, 1958/59
‘A Discussion on the biology of the southern cold temperate zone’, Proc. R. Soc. B 152, 431–677 (1960).
W. A. Watters and C. A. Fleming, ‘Contributions to the geology and palaeontology of Chiloe Island, Southern Chile’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 263, 369–408 (1972).
Tristan da Cunha, 1962
‘The volcanological report of the Royal Society Expedition to Tristan da Cunha 1962’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 256, 439–575 (1964).
‘The biological report of the Royal Society Expedition to Tristan da Cunha 1962’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 249, 257–434 (1965).
International Indian Ocean Expedition, 1960–65
‘A Discussion concerning the floor of northwest Indian Ocean’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 259, 133–298 (1966).
Cruise reports (Royal Society occasional publications): RRS Discovery, HMS Dalrymple and HMS Owen.
‘A Discussion on the structure and evolution of the Red Sea’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 267, 1–417 (1970). [Relevant to but not solely arising from the International Indian Ocean Expedition.]
Solomon Islands, 1965
‘A Discussion on the results of the Royal Society expedition to the British Solomon Islands Protectorate 1965’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 255, 185–631 (1969).
H. B. S. Womersley and A. Bailey, ‘Marine algae of the Solomon Islands’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 259, 257–352 (1970).
J. E. Morton, ‘The intertidal ecology of the British Solomon Islands’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 265, 491–537 (1973).
Mato Grosso, central Brazil, 1967–69
Anthony Smith, Mato Grosso (Michael Joseph Ltd, London, 1971).
J. A. Ratter, P. W. Richards, G. Argent and D. R. Gifford, ‘Observations on the vegetation of Northeastern Mato Grosso. I’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 266, 449–492 (1973).
J. A. Ratter, G. P. Askew, R. W. Montgomery and D. R. Gifford, ‘Observations on the vegetation of Northeastern Mato Grosso. II’, Proc. R. Soc. B 203, 191–208 (1978).
R. A. Furley, J. A. Ratter and D. R. Gifford, ‘Observations on the vegetation of Northeastern Mato Grosso. III’, Proc. R. Soc. B 235, 259–280 (1988).
Aldabra, 1967 onwards
‘A Discussion on the results of the Royal Society Expedition to Aldabra 1967–68’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 260, 1–654 (1971).
‘The terrestrial ecology of Aldabra’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 286, 1–263 (1979). [Discussion Meeting, March 1977.]
Cook Bicentenary, 1969
Cook Bicentenary Expedition in the South-West Pacific 1969 (Royal Society of New Zealand, Bulletin 8, 1971).
Deep slope fishing (coelacanth), 1969
G. R. Forster, J. R. Badcock, M. R. Longbottom, N. R. Merrett and K. S. Thomson, ‘Results of the Royal Society Indian Ocean Deep Slope Fishing Expedition, 1969’, Proc. R. Soc. B 175, 367–404 (1970).
New Hebrides, 1971
‘A Discussion on the results of the 1971 Royal Society–Percy Sladen expedition to the New Hebrides’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 272, 267–486 (1975).
Comores (coelacanth), 1972
N. A. Locket, ‘Review lecture: some advances in coelacanth biology’, Proc. R. Soc. B 208, 265–307 (1980). [Contains a condensed account of some of the investigations.]
Great Barrier Reef, 1973
‘The northern Great Barrier Reef’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 291, 1–197 (1978); Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 284, 1–163 (1978). [Discussion Meeting, January 1976.]
Surface Waters Acidification Programme, 1984–89
‘Management Group Final Report’, Sci. Publ. Affairs 5 (2), 74–95 (1990).
B. J. Mason (ed.), The Surface Waters Acidification Programme (Cambridge University Press, 1990). [The final conference, March 1990.]
R. H. Batterbee, B. J. Mason, I. Renberg and J. F. Talling (eds), ‘Palaeolimnology and lake acidification’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 327, 223–445 (1990). [Discussion Meeting, August 1989.]
B. J. Mason, Acid rain: its causes and its effects on inland waters (Science, Technology and Society series, vol. 8) (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992).
Southeast Asia rainforest, 1985 onwards
‘Tropical rain forest: disturbance and recovery’, Proc. R. Soc. B 335, 321–462 (1992). [Discussion Meeting, September 1991.]
‘Changes and disturbance in tropical forest in South-east Asia’, Proc. R. Soc. B 354, 1723–1897 (1999). [Discussion Meeting, January 1999.]
Shoals of Capricorn (Mascarene Plateau), 1998–2001
Papers included in ‘Atmosphere–ocean–ecology dynamics in the Western Indian Ocean’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 363, 1–307 (2005). [Discussion Meeting, January 2004.]
I should like to express my appreciation to Len Mole, who worked with me on most of the activities mentioned, for his helpful and knowledgeable comments on the draft of this paper, and to Joanna Hopkins for preparing digital illustrations from some very old colour slides. I also wish to acknowledge the vital role of Peter Collins in organizing the conference and inviting this paper, without which it would never have been written.
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