clock menu more-arrow no yes

Boaty McBoatface, explained

RRS Sir David Attenborough.
RRS Sir David Attenborough.
NERC/Twitter

When the United Kingdom's Natural Environment Research Council asked the people of the internet to name its newest research ship, the group floated ideas like RRS Falcon or RRS Endeavor. The internet returned with RRS Boaty McBoatface.

But alas, the RRS Boaty McBoatface is no more, the NERC announced Friday, deciding to name the research vessel after famed British TV presenter and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who turned 90 on Sunday.

"It is a fitting tribute to a man who has done so much to explain the wonders of the natural world to all of us," NERC said in a statement.

As a compromise, Boaty McBoatface lives on as the name of the RRS Sir David Attenborough's high-tech remotely operated subsea vehicle, NERC said:

The ship, which will embark on research expeditions to Antarctica and the Arctic Circle beginning in 2019, has reached internet celebritydom since NERC asked the public to help name it in March.

As internet polls go, ideas were more creative than expected: "It's Bloody Cold Here," "What Iceberg," "Science!!!," and "Big Metal Floaty Thingy-thing," were among many suggested names for the $288 million world-class polar research vessel.

The man who suggested Boaty McBoatface captured the essence of the online poll best in his Twitter bio: Boaty McBoatface is "the reason we can't have nice things." Or it's the reason millions more know about a research ship looking to address the ever-important issue of climate change.

How did Boaty McBoatface come to be?

In March, NERC launched the #NameOurShip campaign to involve the public in naming its new world-class research vessel.

The ship, which will study the impacts of climate change for the British Antarctic Survey, an institute dedicated to researching polar regions, will be part of the most advanced floating research fleet in the world.

Jo Johnson, the UK's science minister, said in a statement in March that the campaign was meant to give everyone across the UK the "opportunity to feel part of this exciting project and the untold discoveries it will unearth."

"Can you imagine one of the world's biggest research labs traveling to the Antarctic with your suggested name proudly emblazoned on the side?" Johnson said.

Fitting for a boat so prestigious, some (a few) suggested names like "Shackleton," after the Sir Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer who led three trips to Antarctica; and Attenborough, who wrote and produced the BBC's natural history series Life, which aired as nine separate miniseries between 1979 and 2008.

But others (most) took a sillier route, like James Hand, a former BBC Jersey radio presenter and current communications manager, who proposed Boaty McBoatface.

"I would say 90 percent of the entries at that point were really quite funny, so I thought, I’ll throw one into the ring and just see what happens," Hand told BBC Radio Jersey.

Hand's joke struck a chord with the public. Boaty McBoatface rose to the top of the polls, and by the end of voting the name had accumulated about 124,000 votes.

Boaty McBoatface took the world by storm

When Hand suggested the idea, Boaty McBoatface became so popular that NERC's polling site crashed with the traffic. It became an internet phenomenon: People named other things in Boaty McBoatface fashion, Boaty McBoatface got its own Twitter handle, schisms were formed between invested boat namers, and a #TeamBoatyMcBoatface hashtag arose that Stephen Colbert endorsed on The Late Show.

It even caused a rift in government, when Johnson said the ship would need a more suitable name than "Boaty McBoatface," prompting British Culture Minister Ed Vaizey to go on the record supporting the "will of the people."

"I think trust in politics is going down, and we have to respect the will of the people, and I think Jo should agree that it is called Boaty McBoatface," Vaizey told the Sun.

The controversy prompted the Science and Technology Committee in British parliament to review whether public engagement campaigns were appropriate for naming royal research ships and the like, hearing evidence from NERC representatives.

Hand apologized for the entry and for causing NERC's website to crash with all the excitement about Boaty McBoatface.

But the people at NERC didn't seem to be fazed by it. "A bit of fun is good for us all," NERC spokesperson Julia Maddock tweeted back at Hand.

According to the Guardian, this wasn't even the first time Hand had suggested "Boaty McBoatface" in a naming contest. The name was also a losing entry in a poll looking to name a ferry between Poole, England, and the Channel Islands. (The company, Condor Ferries, decided to go with "Liberation" instead.)

Now Hand has taken to offering his services to other prestigious organizations in need of naming help.

People love David Attenborough, but they wanted RRS Boaty McBoatface

It's not surprising NERC went with Attenborough in the end: The famed BBC presenter and naturalist has long been considered a national treasure, and the announcement comes in time for his 90th birthday.

"I am truly honoured 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," Attenborough said in light of NERC's announcement.

"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."

Chief among the many reasons Attenborough is a fitting choice is likely that engraving "Boaty McBoatface" on a nearly $300 million state-of-the-art research vessel didn't seem quite right.

Even Hand, while excited about the engagement and popularity that came with Boaty McBoatface, said he too voted for RRS Sir David Attenborough.

Nevertheless, the people were not pleased, taking to social media to express their frustration.

Boaty McBoatface has given the NERC an unprecedented amount of international attention

While the people still champion Boaty McBoatface and a parliamentary committee reviews whether online naming polls are good practice, one thing is for certain: NERC and its research received an unprecedented amount of attention from around the world.

According to reporting on Forbes, searches for NERC on Google rose more than 100 percent in the months the poll went live, a testament to how effective public engagement campaigns can be for scientific research.

Geologist Trevor Nace wrote:

Viral campaigns can be a trigger for change in the future and present the spark needed to entice new investment and interest. This viral boat naming campaign hopefully sparked the imagination of youth, otherwise unaware of environmental research. It will be imperative that we understand how and why polar regions are changing so dramatically in the previous decades. This information will undoubtedly help lead global policy discussions and impart a sense of urgency in world leaders. That’s a tall order for a ship that may be named Boaty McBoatface.

And for those who were not happy with the decision to name the ship after Attenborough, they have new goals: petitioning for Sir David Attenborough to change his name to Sir Boaty McBoatface.

I'll just leave you with this Change.org page.


Watch: Meet the enormous boats that carry your stuff