With a sharp crack of breaking glass and the roar of gushing water, the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, moored in Auckland, New Zealand to protest French nuclear testing in the Moruroa Atoll, was bombed on this day in 1985. The ship soon sank, killing a Greenpeace photographer on deck.
Acquired by Greenpeace for £40,000 from the UK Ministry of Agriculture in 1977, the Rainbow Warrior was the first ship to serve with Greenpeace. She served as the organisation’s fundraising ship, traveling the world to collect money for environmental campaigns. Early 1985 found the Rainbow Warrior in the Pacific campaigning against nuclear testing.
France had been developing nuclear warheads for a submarine-launched ballistic missile project, and the warheads were being tested underwater in the French Polynesian atoll of Moruroa. Greenpeace planned to lead a flotilla of yachts to the Moruroa, including an unlawful incursion into French military zones, to protest against the testing. Greenpeace activists also planned to place protestors on the Pacific island to monitor the blasts, illegally. As this was not the first protest Greenpeace had conducted against French nuclear testing in Moruroa, the French government infiltrated Greenpeace, learned of its plans, and decided to stop the planned protest by sinking the Rainbow Warrior in an operation dubbed Operation Satanique.
On the night of 10 July 1985, the Rainbow Warrior‘s captain Pete Wilcox and many of the crew had already gone to sleep. It was close to midnight and a few Greenpeace activists were on board the docked ship, chatting around a mess room table and sharing bottles of beer. Suddenly the lights went out and a sharp crack of breaking glass interrupted the calm of the night, followed by a loud gush of water. The crew, initially thinking the ship had been hit by a tug, scrambled into action and evacuated the ship. After a short lull, a few crewmembers returned to survey the damage, shoot video, and in the case of photographer Fernando Pereira, retrieve photographic equipment. A second explosion then tore through the ship’s hull, sinking it, and with it, photographer Pereira.
Two officers from France’s intelligence agency had in fact dived beneath the ship and attached two limpet mines to her hull, detonating them 10 minutes apart. They intended first to cripple the ship and give everyone a chance to evacuate, then destroy the ship with a second blast. When Operation Satanique was revealed, it was a disaster for the French government. French Minister of Defense Charles Hernu resigned and the Prime Minister later acknowledged the French government had given orders to destroy the ship. France was later ordered to pay $8.16 million in compensation to Greenpeace.
As for the Rainbow Warrior, she was refloated for forensic examination, deemed irreplaceable, and scuttled in Matauri Bay to serve as a dive wreck and fish sanctuary. Her masts are on display at the Dargaville Maritime museum in New Zealand. On 14 October 2011 Greenpeace launched a new vessel, the Rainbow Warrior II.
Caption: The bombed hull of the “Rainbow Warrior” on 10 July 1985.