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The Cable

Boaty McBoatface Makes Inaugural Voyage to Antarctica

The little remote-controlled underwater research submarine that could.


Boaty McBoatface is back. The remote-controlled underwater research submarine that captivated the world last year is making its first ever trip this week to Antarctica to capture climate change data — and also our hearts.

Boaty McBoatface has all the bells and whistles one could ever ask for in a remote-controlled underwater research submarine: the ability to travel under ice, transmit data to its mothership, and reach depths of nearly 20,000 feet.

Like many heroes, Boaty McBoatface’s story was borne out of tragedy. A British government agency spurned the results of an online poll last year to name their new, $287 million polar research ship Boaty McBoatface. It was instead named RRS Sir David Attenborough, after the famed BBC broadcaster and naturalist. But to placate the masses, who had voted overwhelmingly to name the ship Boaty McBoatface, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) named its new unmanned research sub after the crowd favorite. And thus, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Boaty McBoatface was reborn.

It quickly became an Internet sensation, even spawning its own (unofficial) Twitter account:

The NERC said Boaty’s first trip is all business. “Cute though it sounds, this unmanned submarine is part of a fleet of some pretty intrepid explorers,” the NERC said in a statement.

Boaty will be collecting the bulk of its data on the Orkney Passage, a submerged valley over 2 miles below the Antarctic, as part of the Dynamics of the Orkney Passage Outflow (DynOPO) project to assess how the ocean is responding to climate change. It will “’fly’ through submarine waterfalls and rapids, shedding light on how global warming is changing our oceans,” the NERC said.

Boaty’s throngs of fans on the Internet are already sending well-wishes.

But Boaty’s meteoric career rise won’t stop there. In 2019, scientists will equip Boaty with chemical and acoustic sensors to track underwater activity in the North Sea. And the British National Oceanography Center said it hoped Boaty could make the first ever unmanned under-ice crossing of the Arctic Ocean.

Boaty isn’t the only vessel who got spurned by the higher game of politics. Across the pond, the U.S. Coast Guard is struggling to sustain a presence in the Arctic and Antarctic with a small budget that could be gutted further if the White House has its way. Maybe the U.S. Coast Guard just needs cooler names for its ships.

Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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