In 2016, an ecological organization based in the UK called the Natural Environment Research Council invited its members and the British public at large to name the latest acquisition to its fleet of research vessels: a £200 million ($330 million) state-of-the-art polar research ship.
The vessel, which was to be built in Liverpool, was essentially a floating laboratory, which the NERC would use in its ongoing work studying the effects of climate change in the polar regions. Filled with enthusiasm for what this ship would bring to their work, the Council eagerly announced their #NameOurShip campaign on social media and handed the task of naming the vessel over to the public. As often is the case in these situations, however, the public were perhaps not the best people to ask…
Shortly after the campaign was launched, a BBC journalist named James Hand, who was working for a radio station in Britain’s Channel Islands, jokingly commented that the vessel should be named “Boaty McBoatface”, a reference to a popular internet meme featuring an owl at a British zoo, which the zoo’s visitors had decided to christen “Hooty McOwlface.” Hand’s suggestion, however, proved instantly popular with the station’s listeners, and when news of its popularity was announced online, “Boaty McBoatface” took on a life of its own.
Likely much to the NERC’s chagrin, “Boaty McBoatface” quickly began to garner the most votes in their #NameOurShip poll, and as voting came to a close, “Boaty McBoatface” remained the front runner in the campaign. Finally, the public had spoken: The votes were counted and the Council’s new and much-publicized £200 million research vessel was, it seems, to be called the RSS Boaty McBoatface.
As much as the public might have taken to the idea, however, calling a hugely important research vessel “Boaty McBoatface” is not such a good idea. As a result, the NERC decided to accept the results of the poll but take matters into their own hands.
Instead of “Boaty McBoatface,” the Council decided to go with the second most popular name in the public poll, and name their ship in honor of the legendary broadcaster and naturalist, Sir David Attenborough. In a fitting tribute, the NERC’s decision was announced just days before Sir David’s 90th birthday.
“I am truly honored by this naming decision, and hope that everyone who suggested a name will feel just as inspired to follow the ship’s progress as it explores our polar regions,” Sir David said at the time. “I have been privileged to explore the world’s deepest oceans alongside amazing teams of researchers, and with this new polar research ship they will be able to go further and discover more than ever before.”
For their part, however, the NERC were fully aware that they couldn’t just ignore the public’s voice completely.
“The NERC Name Our Ship campaign has engaged the public with the ship’s mission on a huge scale,” they commented at the time, “and we are very grateful for the support and enthusiasm shown by the public in contributing to naming for our new research vessel the RSS Sir David Attenborough.” “We are also very happy,” they went on, “to recognize the overall popular choice, through naming one of the ship’s robotic vehicles Boaty McBoatface.”
The RRS Sir David Attenborough, as it was ultimately known, was launched three years later in 2019. On board was Boaty McBoatface, a specialized submarine-like autonomous underwater submersible, used to conduct research and experiment in arctic waters. The two vessels continue to monitor the polar landscape under the NERC’s guidance to this day.