Watch as Edinburgh volunteers set out plans to transform 70-year-old ship into floating museum in Leith

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The SS Explorer has been berthed in Leith docks since 1996 but remains largely unknown to many - but a group of dedicated volunteers would like to change this.

For the last 28 years, a historic ship has been hidden away in Leith docks. Unlike the Royal Yacht Britannia, which has become one of Edinburgh’s most famous tourist attractions - even voted TripAdvisor’s Best UK Attraction last year, the SS Explorer remains hidden from public view behind Forth Port’s walls. 

Regarded as a pioneering vessel that made a significant contribution to climate science and biodiversity work, the SS Explorer was in service between 1956 to 1984, and allowed marine biologists to better understand sea temperatures and pollution, British fishing levels, and helped shape knowledge of oceanography and marine life.

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Saved from the scrapheap in the mid 1990s - a group was soon established to preserve the historic ship. And now the same group of passionate volunteers has expanded their team and set out plans to transform the specialist vessel into a unique floating museum for the public to enjoy in Leith.

Members of the The SS Explorer Preservation Society hope to transform the pioneering vessel into a floating museum. The historic ship has been berthed in Leith docks since 1996Members of the The SS Explorer Preservation Society hope to transform the pioneering vessel into a floating museum. The historic ship has been berthed in Leith docks since 1996
Members of the The SS Explorer Preservation Society hope to transform the pioneering vessel into a floating museum. The historic ship has been berthed in Leith docks since 1996 | submitted

We went along to the docks to meet members of The SS Explorer Preservation Society (SSEPS) and learn about their project.

Meredith Greiling, SSEPS trustee said: “We would like to see the SS Explorer become more publicly accessible - for the last few decades the ship has been a secret behind the walls of Leith docks. Our ambition is to have a shore-side interpretation centre where people can learn about the history of the ship and why it was brought to Leith, and then make the ship itself more accessible where people can come on board and find out about it the work it did.”

She added: “It was registered in Leith throughout its career and it is absolutely one of a kind. The ship helped discover new species and developed our understanding about their life cycles and marine biodiversity. It was also the first ship to have a computer on board to process scientific data in real time - so it was very innovative and cutting edge.” 

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SSEPS members recently celebrated an important milestone in the vessel’s conservation journey, with leading maritime heritage specialists, Wessex Archaeology, completing a year-long review of the ship to produce a plan for its long-term survival and identify necessary repairs to keep the vessel afloat. 

The findings were unveiled last week as part of the conservation management plan where speakers discussed the history of the ship and why it is a valuable asset for Scotland’s shipbuilding heritage and history of marine science. The SSEPS now hope to build an onshore museum installation and to dry sock the ship for repairs. 

Ben Saunders, from Wessex Archaeology, said: “It’s been a huge privilege to be part of the ongoing conservation of this highly significant vessel.” Ben Macpherson, SNP MSP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith said: “I think the SS Explorer is a great opportunity to provide a museum vessel and a space that can be visited by families and individuals with an interest in marine science and heritage. It will be a journey to get there but today is a milestone moment.”

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