Sailor helps young scientists’ global mission in Darwin’s footsteps

A Royal Navy sailor has helped lay the groundwork for young scientists following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin.

Leading Seaman Jennifer Whalley spent five weeks aboard tall ship TS Pelican as it gears up for a two-year scientific adventure sailing around the world, retracing the route the legendary naturalist took in HMS Beagle nearly 200 years ago.

The 31-year-old from Bournemouth in Dorset works with the Royal Navy’s mobile hydrography unit based in Plymouth, travelling wherever the Fleet needs the latest data about the oceans to support front-line operations.

At the end of August, however, she joined the 75-year-old tall ship in Liverpool on a voyage through the Irish Sea, past the Hebrides, through the Pentland Firth and down the East Coast of Scotland and England, before sailing up the Thames.

While aboard, the leading seaman helped install a bathymetric recorder – used to measure the depth of ocean. It’s bread and butter work for Jennifer in her day job – but not to the Pelican, which typically gives people the chance to experience a more traditional life at sea in old-school sailing vessel.

Next year, Pelican will lead the Darwin 200 project, which is intended to attract 200 scientists, naturalists and conservationists, taking them around the world to conduct research and inspire as many as 200 million people in science, conservation and the environment.

Ahead of that epic adventure, the Pelican has been sailing around the UK in preparation, testing new kit such as the bathymetric echo sounder.

It’s far simpler than the one Jennifer is used to in Royal Navy vessels – but then she found pretty much everything more basic than life in the Hydropgraphic flotilla: cabins for six rather than two, particularly cramped living conditions (Pelican is just seven metres – 27ft – wide) and a huge open deck where the sailor performed watch, fully exposed to the elements night and day.

“It was tiring work – the ship’s wheel is about five feet in circumference, heavy,” she explained. “I’ve steered Royal Navy ships. The wheel is tiny, you’re inside, shielded from the elements.

“Also while some of the phrases and activities on board are the same as in the Navy – sailors clean the ship for the captain’s evening rounds, there are regular watches and meal times – there were times when I had to double take.

“To me ‘square away’ means to make sure everything is safe and secure in the Royal Navy. On the Pelican it means setting the sails a particular way.

“I’ve also come to appreciate food in the Royal Navy a lot more. The galley was about half the size of those on ship’s I served in. The chefs did their best but…”

As well as getting the instrumentation set up for next year’s mission, Jennifer’s time aboard Pelican has sowed the seed of an idea in the minds of organisers for a possible permanent Royal Navy presence throughout her circumnavigation.

Late summer storms kiboshed some of Pelican’s planned visits during her five-week voyage from Liverpool to London, and the pandemic ruled out calling in at larger ports, and made for some uncomfortable periods at sea as the tall ship has a habit of corkscrewing.

But Jennifer and her 45 shipmates nevertheless stopped at some of the most remote places in the British Isles such as the Outer Hebrides and Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth.

“Bass Rock is home to half a million gannets – the whole rock looks white from a distance. It’s absolutely unbelievable – but so is the stink,” she said.

“I was also at the helm when we passed through Tower Bridge with people lining the main mast. That was very special. But the whole voyage was. It was the trip of a lifetime.

“I’ve met people from different walks of life and that has given me the chance to show to them that there is more to the Royal Navy than just firing guns.”

I’ve met people from different walks of life and that has given me the chance to show to them that there is more to the Royal Navy than just firing guns.

Leading Seaman Jennifer Whalley