Diving The Legend

The story of the Rainbow Warrior


Tom Sanders

 Each time I dive the Rainbow Warrior, as I am descending through the waters of New Zealandís Matauri Bay, checking gauges and equipment and looking down in anticipation of my first glimpse of the ship, a kaleidoscope of thoughts and images pass through my mind.  I am diving the Don Quixote of sunken ships, the original Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace  legend.   

 Dramatic Greenpeace newsreel clips of the 1970ís  gave visual credence to the romantic and idealistic notion of the uniquely painted trawler emblazoned with rainbows  and peace doves and her rag tag crew waging global war, albeit non-violent, against the polluters of the world and despoilers of the environment.

     During the seven years the  Rainbow Warrior sailed the oceans under the Greenpeace flag, the ship and those men and women who sailed aboard her chalked up an impressive record.  They had waged successful non-violent protests against the whaling industry, seal massacres, nuclear and other toxic waste dumping, and commercial driftnet fishing.  Governments had been the target of protests as well as private industry.  

It was in 1985, when the Rainbow Warrior joined the battle for a nuclear free Pacific, that the war to save the environment turned ugly and revealed the extremes one country was willing to go to silence Greenpeace and the Rainbow Warrior. 

     The ship was dockside in Auckland as the crew made final preparations to lead a flotilla of ships from New Zealand to Moruroa to protest French nuclear testing.  Late on the night of July 10th, French secret service agents diving from an inflatable boat placed two limpet mines against the hull of the Rainbow Warrior.  The explosion of the saboteursí bomb ripped a massive hole in the Warriorís hull.  Captain Peter Wilcox, jolted awake, took one look at the damage and ordered an immediate Ďabandon shipí.  

  Greenpeace Photographer Fernando Pereira had been talking with other crew and friends in the shipís mess.  He thought he had time to retrieve his cameras from his cabin below.  It was a fatal decision.  Pereira had made it to his cabin  when the second mine exploded.

     A police investigation confirmed what Greenpeace suspected.  The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior had been a deliberate act of sabotage ordered at the highest levels of French government and carried out by agents of the French secret service.  New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange called the bombing Ďa sordid act of international state-backed terrorismí.  Two of the French saboteurs, Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur, were captured trying to flee New Zealand.  Originally charged with murder and arson,  they eventually entered guilty pleas to lesser charges of manslaughter and willful damage and were sentenced to ten years in prison.  In a deal brokered by the United Nations Secretary General, France apologized and agreed to pay compensation of NZ$13 million (US$6.5 million.  In return, New Zealand agreed to turn Mafart and Prieur over to the French custody to serve out prison terms reduced to three years.  The French agents were taken to a French military base on Hao Atoll.  They spent less than two years in an idyllic island setting before they were freed and allowed to return to France.  Both later resumed duties with the French secret service and were subsequently promoted.

   Meanwhile, the Rainbow Warrior remained sunk at her moorings in Auckland harbor,  acorn barnacles already beginning to attach to the hull.  When marine surveys confirmed that the Warrior could never again be made seaworthy,  Greenpeace began searching for a final resting place.  The New Zealand Underwater Association offered the solution,  that the Rainbow Warrior be scuppered to become a living reef for the benefit of marine life and the enjoyment of recreational divers.  The Maori, the native and indigenous people of New Zealand, took an interest and played an active role in efforts to find the appropriate location. The site selected, the Cavalli Islands off the east coast of New Zealandís North Island, is an area rich in Maori heritage and steeped in maritime history.  In December, 1987,  the Rainbow Warrior, her hull patched for the journey, was towed north from Auckland. 

Putting the Warrior to rest

On December 12, with full Maori ceremony, her sea cocks were opened and the Rainbow Warrior slipped below the surface of Matauri Bay. Diver Dover Samuels was in the water as the Rainbow Warrior went down.  His comments reflect the feelings of many who have since had the experience of diving the Rainbow Warrior.  Said Samuels, ďTo me the Rainbow Warrior is not just a steel structure.  Itís a ship with a living heart and the dignity and manna that a warriorís burial carries with it.Ē

 Today she rests in on her keel with a slight list to starboard on a sand bottom 80 feet (24 metres) down.  The Rainbow Warrior provides a safe and enjoyespecially during New Zealandís summer months when the water is  more temperate.  Bottom time is sufficient to allow divers a thorough exploration of the 158 foot (48 metre) wreck.

A peace dove painted on the bow and distinctive rainbow stripes on the hull forward of amidships were still clearly visible then.  Today the rainbow colors are those created by prolific marine growth.  Yellow and pink sponges, purple, brown, blue and white anemones,  pink and green algae flourish in abundance about the wreck.  Fish and shellfish are also plentiful. Lobster, moray eels, triggerfish, snapper, leatherjackets and a variety of blennys are among inhabitants. Jack mackerel school near the bow.  Kingfish and barracuda often cruise the wreck.  

 Rainbow Warrior has in fact become such a popular dive site that increasing concerns are being voiced in the dive community about itís preservation.  There have been incidents of divers pirating souvenirs from the wreck and spearing  resident fish.  Greenpeace and the local Maori community are working together to promote a proposal to have the Rainbow Warrior designated by the government as a protected area or marine reserve. 

The ultimate objective is to ensure a fitting memorial for the Rainbow Warrior, a ship at rest after a life  protecting the environment, and to honor the memory of Greenpeace Photographer Fernando Pereira.

TRAVEL INFORMATION  The wreck of the Rainbow Warrior is located near the Cavalli Islands, off the Northeast coast of New Zealandís North Island.  The area is an easy days drive over good roads and highways from Auckland Airport which has numerous international and domestic connections. Paihia and Whangaroa are among towns and villages closest to the dive site that offer good scuba facilities and a variety of places to stay and eat. 

  Paihia is a seaside resort town that also serves as a gateway to New Zealandís famous Bay of Islands.  It offers everything from budget minded backpacker style hostels to resort accommodations with pools and hot tubs. Dining options are also numerous with dozens of cafeís and restaurants serving everything from simple inexpensive fare to fine cuisine accompanied by wine lists featuring excellent New Zealand wines.

 Close by Paihia is the Waitangi National Reserve, site of the signing of the historic treaty of 1840 between Maori Chiefs and representatives of the British government.  The reserve is home to the Maori Whare Runanga (meeting house),  and the largest war canoe in the world, the magnificent hand carved Maori war vessel Ngatokimatawhaorua.  Itís a great way to spend and afternoon and learn about New Zealand history and Maori culture.  Another must stop, especially for scuba divers, is Kelly Tarltonís shipwreck Museum,   Housed aboard an old sailing ship the Tui are an eclectic mix of valuables, mementos and other salvaged items from famous New Zealand shipwrecks.  Most everything in the museum was recovered by the late Kelly Tarlton, a colorful pioneer of New Zealandís diving fraternity.

 In contrast to Paihia, Whangaroa, located just to the north of the Rainbow Warrior dive site,  is a quiet fishing village, one of those unique end of the road places with the eccentric character to match.  Located 6 km off the main road, Whangaroa and its harbor offer picturesque bays and inlets surrounded by rugged cliffs.  The dive shop makes regular trips to the Rainbow Warrior and sea kayaking is also a  popular sport.  There are several good places to stay and eat.  An evening sharing drinks with the locals in the pub at the Marlin Hotel down by the wharf is an evening you will likely never forget, that is if you can only remember.

    A short drive from Whangaroa to Matauri Bay is the Rainbow Warrior memorial.  The stone structure, on a headland overlooking the wreck site, incorporates the shipís bronze propeller, a rainbow arch of boulders, and two stone circles in a simple yet moving design.  Just before sunset is an especially good time to visit the memorial, enjoy the peaceful surroundings and beautiful view and perhaps remember the history of the Rainbow Warrior and contemplate what it signifies.

This article first appeared in the august 1997 edition of scuba world magazine.



photo credits:  greenpeace and new zealand diver  MIKE GLOVER





Author's Note:  Alison, my best friend, wife,  lover,     and dive buddy for 15 years and counting.  We share a love for the beach, the sea, and most of all, for each other.