Wreck to reef-the transfiguration of the Rainbow Warrior

A memorial to the Rainbow Warrior was unveiled on July 15, 1990. A memorial to the Rainbow Warrior was unveiled on July 15, 1990. Gil Hanly
On December 12, 1987, hundreds of well-wishers watched as the bombed Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was laid to rest off the island of Motutapere in the Cavalli Islands. Now, after nearly seven years on the seabed, the ship has been transformed into a living reef where new life springs from old in a kaleidoscope of color.

On a clear day the sea mirrors the rose tint of dawn across the Cavalli Islands. The Rainbow Warrior lies here, her final resting place; a sunken treasure in 22 metres of tranquil water.

Bordered by Northland's rolling hills and bush remnants, Matauri Bay and the adjacent Cavalli Islands are steeped in maritime history. The ancestral Ngapuhi waka Mataatua came ashore here some 800 years ago. Six centuries later, in 1769, Captain Cook on board the Endeavour exchanged "cavalle" fish (horse mackerel) with local Maori in a small flotilla of canoes, prompting Cook to name the islands the "Cavalles."

However, this early encounter was less than auspicious. According to the account kept by Joseph Banks, the Maori began chanting and throwing fish, pelting the ship with sticks and stones and behaving "most abominably saucy." After an exchange of musket shot and stones the skirmish came to a close as foul weather forced Cook south to the Bay of Islands.

Truly abominable was the encounter which led to the latest piece of maritime history enacted at these islands. In 1985, as she was preparing to sail for Moruroa Atoll to protest against French nuclear testing there, the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was bombed as she lay in the port of Auckland.

In the dead of night on July 10, French secret agents donned diving gear and attached limpet mines to the ship's hull while she was moored at Princes Wharf.

Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira was killed in the resulting explosion, and the ship damaged beyond repair.

The bombing sparked international outrage as the news flashed around the world, with Prime Minister David Lange branding it "a sordid act of international statebacked terrorism." Within days Auckland police had arrested French agents Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur, two members of a larger team of saboteurs.

At first the French government denied any involvement, but was gradually forced to admit to the sabotage as evidence against its agents began to mount. The scandal rocked the French establishment and forced the resignation of defence minister Charles Hernu and the sacking of Admiral Pierre Lacoste, head of the secret service.

The United Nations ordered France to pay compensation of $13 million and make a formal apology. Greenpeace used the money to build a replacement Rainbow Warrior II, which sailed to Moruroa in 1992. French commandos arrested the new Warrior, but immediately following the ship's release the French government announced the suspension of nuclear tests. It seemed that the campaign to halt testing had finally been won.

Additional Info

  • Author: Michael Szabo and Roger Grace
  • Start page: 88