“Rainbow Warrior”, the Messenger of the Sea


Pete Willcox was shocked beyond measure; he heard a loud bang while he was fast asleep on the deck of his ship. Everything was suddenly pitch black and metal fragments were scattered everywhere. Willcox immediately got up to find the cause of the loud sound. He assumed the sound came from the collision that hit the vessel. Not long after, there was another bang and this time louder. As the captain of the ship, Willcox ordered the entire crew to immediately save themselves by jumping into the sea as quickly as possible because at this point, the ship immediately tilt, almost sinking. In an instant, the ship known as the Rainbow Warrior was sunk. The incident occurred on July 10, 1985, in the Harbour of Auckland, New Zealand.

Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Amsterdam Harbour awaiting departure to Newfoundland, 2 March 1981

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior shocked many. Moreover, the ship is owned by Greenpeace–an independent organization supporting environmental conservation which at that time was against the big powers in terms of nuclear testing. Is this purely an accident or intentional act by those who do not like what they are doing? An in-depth investigation was immediately carried out by local authorities. One crew member named Fernando Pereira was declared dead because he failed to save himself when the ship was about to sink. And it was also revealed that the ship sank due to two bomb explosions. This is where the search for suspects begins. Armed with information from a member of the Auckland Outboard Boating Club who saw suspicious movements of people on the pier just before the explosion occurred, two days later two of the perpetrators of the shipwreck were arrested. The perpetrators were Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur, Swiss tourists visiting New Zealand for their honeymoon. Upon further examination, it was revealed that the two were using forged passports and were intelligence members of the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) or the French intelligence service. In the action, they use a stolen boat and then dive to attach a bomb to the hull of the ship. This operation is codenamed “Operation Satanic”. 

France’s involvement in the Rainbow Warrior incident is closely related to the actions of Greenpeace several years earlier. Since its establishment in 1971, Greenpeace has been active in anti-nuclear campaigns around the world as a reaction to the massive nuclear tests carried out by major countries such as the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France. Greenpeace often uses ships as representatives of the organization to spread anti-nuclear propaganda around the world. Greenpeace’s actions were appreciated worldwide and made the anti-nuclear campaign even more popular. But on the other hand, this action is very detrimental and humiliating the countries that Greenpeace opposes, including France. Even though they claim, the nuclear test step is a decision to save the world in the context of defence and security. But for Greenpeace, even though it saves humanity from military threats, these actions still damage the environment and do not bring good to humanity. 

On August 27, 1985, the results of the investigation came out. The French government acknowledged the involvement of intelligence, but not about the sinking but only spying on the ship. This statement angered the public and continued to urge the French government to take responsibility. The climax occurred on 23 September 1985; French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius finally acknowledged the involvement of the DGSE in the sinking of the ship. Shortly after, New Zealand authorities held a trial to indict the two suspects. As a result, they were sentenced to ten years in prison by the judge because they were found guilty of sinking the ship and murder. On the other hand, the boycott action made by New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange to France in his press conference in July, turned out to bring bad luck to the country’s economy. In January 1986, New Zealand’s exports to Europe stagnated due to heated relations with France. This condition is feared to destroy the New Zealand economy. Finally, the two countries sat down together at the negotiating table facilitated by the United Nations. In July 1986, the two countries reached an agreement. The French government formally apologized to New Zealand, paid compensation fees, and normalized trade relations between the two countries. While the New Zealand government allowed French intelligence to return to duty in the Pacific region. On the other hand, Greenpeace also benefits. They received compensation of US $ 8.1 million from France after fighting in an international arbitration court.

The wreck of Rainbow Warrior was refloated on 21 August 1985 and moved to a naval harbour for forensic examination. Although the hull had been recovered, the damage was too extensive for repair and the vessel was scuttled in Matauri Bay in the Cavalli Islands, New Zealand on 12 December 1987, to serve as a dive wreck and artificial reef to promote marine life. The hull is now covered with a large colony of varicoloured sea anemones. The masts were salvaged and now stand outside the Dargaville Museum. On the fourth anniversary of the bombing of her predecessor, Rainbow Warrior II was officially re-launched in Hamburg on 10 July 1989. The vessel was built from the hull of the deep-sea fishing ship Ross Kashmir (later Grampian Fame), which had been built by Cochrane & Sons of Selby, North Yorkshire and launched in 1957. Greenpeace gave the vessel new masts, a gaff rig, a new engine, and several environmentally low-impact systems to handle waste, heating, and hot water. Over the course of her career, Rainbow Warrior II participated in activist campaigns such as blockading the Russian whaling fleet, protesting French nuclear weapons testing, and stopping ships with cargos of coal and palm oils, as well as humanitarian activities such as evacuating the inhabitants of Rongelap after the island was contaminated by nuclear testing, and providing aid after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Rainbow Warrior II, piloted by skipper Mike Fincken, docked at the Legazpi City port in Albay on 22 May 2008 for a one-month-long “Quit Coal, Save the Climate” Philippine’s tour and campaign aimed to educate people on the effects of the use of coal on the environment, specifically on climate change. The tour proposed alternative energy sources such as geothermal and solar energy. Rainbow Warrior damaged the Tubbataha Reef, a world heritage site in the Philippines in 2005. Greenpeace was fined $7,000 for damaging almost 1,076 sq. ft of the coral reef. Greenpeace blamed faulty maps provided by the Philippine government for the accident, however, they paid the fine. Rainbow Warrior II was retired in August 2011 and sold to Friendship, a Bangladesh-based NGO, to serve as a hospital ship, renamed Rongdhonu, Bengali for rainbow. 

Rainbow Warrior II in port at Wellington in 2008

Rainbow Warrior III was launched in October 2011 and has replaced Rainbow Warrior II after further improvements and maintenance of the older ship had been shown to be impractical. The vessel is the first Rainbow Warrior that is not converted from another vessel. Her hull was constructed in Poland, and she was built in Germany, to provide state-of-the-art facilities for the group’s use, including advanced telecommunication kit, specialised scientific equipment and a helicopter landing pad. The ship is also constructed to be one of the environmentally friendly ships afloat, and to display this quality; it runs primarily using wind power, with a 55 m mast system which carries 1255 sq. meters of sail. On board the ship can store up to 59 cubic meters of greywater and blackwater, avoiding the need for disposal at sea. All materials, from the paintwork to the insulation, have been chosen with a view to sustainability, and each component has been supplied with transparent ethical sourcing. The ship was in part funded by a crowd funding project set up by Greenpeace. Supporters were encouraged to buy parts of the ship through a specifically designed website. Supporters in turn received a certificate for their contribution and had their names etched onto a digital artwork on board the vessel. The website live-streamed names and messages, tying people directly to the part of the ship they contributed to. The multimedia site was also accompanied by a webcam allowing people to follow the ship’s construction up to its launch date. The project received over 100,000 donors from around the world. After its launch, the new Rainbow Warrior toured ports in Europe (Hamburg, Amsterdam, London, Stockholm, and Barcelona).

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