On 18th August 2022, Ireland’s new research vessel RV Tom Crean arrived in Galway Docks to commence a new era of Irish marine science, exploration and discovery. The vessel name is inspired by the Kerry born Antarctic Explorer Tom Crean, whose aspirations and achievements are hoped to inspire our future generation of marine scientists.
The story goes that Tom Crean was one of the last men to stand on the deck of the Endurance, a ship which famously sank during an Antarctic expedition in 1915. Since the ice had closed in around the ship 9 months previously, the crew had hoped that it would free itself but it became apparent that the ship would inevitably be lost. The HMS Endurance, captained by Ernest Shackleton had left England bound for South America on the 8th August 1914. It sailed to Buenos Aires and then to a whaling station on South Georgia Island before finally sailing south on Dec 5th 1914 with 28 men onboard.
Shackleton hoped to lead a party of 6 men including Tom Crean on the ‘last great journey on earth’, an 1, 800 mile trek across the Antarctic Continent from coast to coast. After just three days at sea they encountered heavy pack ice and from then on progress was slow to impossible. By 19th January 1915 the ice had closed in and the Endurance effectively ceased to become a ship as it was no longer able to determine its own passage. While there was no initial concern and the men remained aboard, the ice slowly took hold over the long winter until eventually the hull began to give under the huge pressure. The order was given to abandon ship on 27th October and the men took to the ice. The men, including Tom Crean, continued to remove what useful supplies they could but the ship was taking on water, listing badly and being slowly crushed.
The Endurance finally succumbed on November 21st 1915 as Shackleton cried out ‘She’s going boys!’ and it slipped beneath the ice. It left behind 28 men on an ice sheet in the most unforgiving environment in the planet with 3 small lifeboats, 60 dogs and a pile of rescued gear and supplies without any form of communication with the outside world. They were not expected home for at least two years and to further add to their perilous situation they had left just 4 days after war had broken out in Europe. They were lost, alone and no-one was looking for them. It is here that the legend of Tom Crean became myth.
Crean was already known as a tough and reliable Antarctic explorer. Born in Annauscaul, Co. Kerry in 1877 he joined the Royal Navy at the age of 15, before chance brought him aboard the Discovery in 1901 as it prepared for an attempt on the South Pole. Here he met, and impressed, Commander Robert Falcon Scott, joined the crew, and left for the Antarctic almost immediately. He quickly earned a reputation as a fearless mariner with an unbreakable spirit and proved himself time and again by leading others through a series of seemingly impossible situations. He again accompanied Scott, this time on his final ill-fated expedition to the South Pole on the Terra Nova in 1911.
Crean was part of the eight-man team that pushed for the pole, and he got to within 196 miles of it before being sent back with two others. Although disappointed he led his team home safely, including a final 35 mile solo effort against all odds to reach base and raise the alarm. It has been suggested by many historians that Scott was possibly aware of his own fate, and the men he chose to accompany him, but trusted Tom Crean above anyone else to lead the others home alive.
Three years later with Shackleton and the Endurance on the ice-shelf, Tom Crean again found himself in an impossible situation. At first they hoped to pull lifeboats over the ice to open water but this proved futile and ultimately the men were stranded on the ice floe for the nearly six months as it drifted in the perilous Weddell Sea. The floe itself, once over a mile across had shrunk to just 120 yards of, by now, filthy ice. The men finally took to open seas in three lifeboats on the 9th April 1916, with Crean assuming control of one. After seven further days at sea, the party made the first ever landing on Elephant Island. At that point they had been adrift for 170 days. They set up camp and began making plans for what would become one of the most celebrated sea voyages of all times. Just six men were chosen to sail back to South Georgia to attempt a rescue, remarkably this included three Irish men, Shackleton, Crean and Timothy McCarthy. The 22 others, many too weak to go any further were left behind in the hope of eventual rescue.
The party set off on Easter Monday, 1916 bound for South Georgia on the same day that Ireland began its own quest for freedom. Much more has been written of this voyage but the basic facts are that the party sailed over 800 miles in 17 days, in a small converted lifeboat, across the most treacherous seas in the world on minimal rations using only three reliable sextant readings. Following that ordeal and after landing almost miraculously, on the west coast of South Georgia, it was necessary to traverse the islands interior which had never been done. Only three men were picked and again Tom Crean was chosen. They pushed over deep ravines and uncharted mountains in a continuous 36 hour push covering about 40 miles before reaching a whaling station they had last seen 522 days previously. They returned to it with no provisions and only the tattered clothes they had on. In the coming days and weeks the rescue of the remaining stranded men was effected and all the ships party eventually returned home alive (Dates taken from Smith 2000).
It remains one of the most celebrated Polar expeditions of the ‘Golden Age of Exploration’ but what of the Endurance? Although its last known co-ordinates were recorded on the day it sank, they were not precise due to the lack of sun and the fact that the vessel had been drifting on the ice for 6 months. Numerous attempts to find it proved unsuccessful until March of this year when the Endurance22 expedition finally found the ship at a depth of 3,008m. The search team used a combination of Multibeam Echosounders and a new Autonomous Underwater Vehicle called Sabretooth with the ability to travel beneath the ice and reach sites 100 miles away. The vessel was discovered only 4 miles from where the Endurance Chief Navigator Frank Worsley last marked its position 107 years previously.
It is mostly overlooked today but all the famous Polar expeditions including those of the Discovery, the Terra Nova and the Endurance carried scientists of various disciplines intent on documenting, exploring and charting the unknown. In Ireland that tradition remains strong today and as a nation, we can be proud of an advanced program of marine science helped in no small part by its research vessels. The RV Celtic Voyager, RV Celtic Explorer, RV Keary and RV Mallet have helped build a better picture of Ireland’s marine environment and will be joined this year by the new RV Tom Crean named in honour of perhaps our most famous explorer and which will continue to push the horizons of our understanding.
The new state-of-the-art multi-purpose marine research vessel will be used by the Marine Institute and other State agencies and universities to undertake fisheries research, oceanographic & environmental research and seabed mapping surveys. It will maintain and deploy weather buoys, observational infrastructure and Remotely Operated Vehicles and enable the Marine Institute to continue to lead and support high quality scientific, surveys that contribute to Ireland's position as a leader in marine science.
The DECC funded INFOMAR programme has extensively mapped the Irish seabed utilising both the Marine Institute partner RV Celtic Voyager and RV Celtic Explorer and the Geological Survey Ireland partner inshore vessel fleet – RV Keary, RV Mallet, RV Geo, RV Lir and RV Galtee. INFOMAR recently undertook the Voyager’s last ever survey and are privileged to undertake the first survey on the newly commissioned RV Tom Crean. Its capabilities will help to deliver Ireland’s ambitious mapping targets, to comprehensively survey the entire national seabed area by 2026. The new vessel is fitted with a state-of-the-art hydrographic EM2040D Multibeam Echosounder, a Knudsen Chirp System for sub-bottom profiling and a magnetometer. The bow is specifically designed to reduce bubble wash over the hydrographic sensors further increasing the efficiency and mapping capabilities. The RV Tom Crean’s first survey is anticipated to resume INFOMAR mapping in the Celtic Sea, approximately 140 miles southwest of Cork.
It is fitting that the science that helped to locate the Endurance which was lost in 1915 is the same science employed on the maiden survey of Ireland’s new research vessel. A vessel named in honour of the man who may have been the last to stand on the HMS Endurance. This exceptional explorer from Kerry who inspired others to enter the world of discovery, as will his namesake, the RV Tom Crean. Survey operations officially commenced on the 27th July 2022 as part of an INFOMAR seabed mapping programme, it was the 84th anniversary of Crean’s death.
INFOMAR is Ireland’s national seabed mapping programme and is funded by the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications (DECC). It is jointly managed by Geological Survey Ireland and Marine Institute and is tasked with fully mapping Ireland’s territorial waters for the sustainable development of Ireland’s marine resource. INFOMAR will continue until the end of 2026, enabling effective management and accelerated growth to support Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth.
Smith (2000) An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer (2000) by Michael Smith. The Collins Press.