The Rainbow Warrior Shipwreck

By Dr J Floor Anthoni (2009)

The bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace's flagship, was nothing less than an act of war committed by the French Government, which caused huge resentment world-wide. But under water, the wreck lives on, providing a refuge for sea creatures, and a destination for divers. This chapter documents the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior to prepare visitors what to expect, and how to understand the wreck's ever changing underwater world. Interestingly, the wreck has become a voluntary marine reserve, even though it is far too small to have a beneficial effect on its surroundings.
History of the Rainbow Warrior and timeline relating to the present shipwreck
The shipwreck behaves somewhat like an artificial reef, created from scratch. But over time the rust began.
Tips for diving the Rainbow Warrior and for nightdiving.
Time has proved that the location for the ship wreck was chosen with care
Photo gallery of photos taken under water at the Rainbow Warrior shipwreck
 external links
  • : an extensive account of the Rainbow Warrior with links
  • a good and readable article by an insider
  • a Greenpeace page memorizing 20 years since the bombing
  • a detailed timeline compiled by Mike Andrews of the Dargaville Maritime Museum mirrored here to be sure it is not lost.
  •  a police account of the bombing, with photos of the main culprits
  •  Rainbow Warrior; Jun/Jul 2005; article by Roger Grace
  • internal links
  • Index to New Zealand's marine reserves: all New Zealand's marine reserve at a glance (growing)
  • underwater photography: an essential course in advanced underwater photography (large)
  • The Poor Knights Islands: diving and appreciating the Poor Knights; its habitats, creatures and mysteries (large)
  • Goat Island: coastal diving around Goat Island, New Zealand's first marine reserve (large)
  • Marine conservation: what works and what does not work in conservation (large)
  • further reading
    Books and references (on this page)
    what's new?
    A log of recent changes to this section (on this page)
    A diver at the bowsprit of the Rainbow Warrior shipwreck
    A diver at the bowsprit of the Rainbow Warrior shipwreck, interacts with young demoiselles and blue maomao.

    Dense encrusting life around the anchor chain chute
    Looking up through the anchor chute. This spot is well protected, yet in the main current, hence its abundance. Dust cannot settle on these delicate organisms because they reside upside down in the anchor well.

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    History and timeline
    The story of the Rainbow Warrior wreck will forever stand out from all others. Bombed by French secret service agents while moored safely in Auckland Harbour, it sank quickly while photographer Fernando Pereira died from the second bomb explosion. An act of war or of state terrorism against innocent New Zealand and an organisation championing for peace, that will never be forgotten nor forgiven.
    It happened in the waning days of the French empire, still in competition with the biggest war machines in the world, the USA and the British. The race for bigger and better bombs made the tiny atoll of Mururoa with its secret nuclear testing, of extreme importance to the French nation.

    The Rainbow Warrior was sent to New zealand to lead a flotilla of voluntary yachts protesting against the French' nuclear testing at Mururoa. The Rainbow Warrior had been there before, being boarded by French commandoes. The French Secret Service infiltrated Greenpeace Canada and was thus aware of all plans. Then they decided to do the unthinkable: bomb the ship while in an innocent small country.

    the hole in the side of the Rainbow Warrior
    The hole made by the first bomb explosion was very large and immediately sank the ship which was moored in shallow water. It needed to be patched before the ship could be transported. Also valuable items were removed, as well as fuel oil.
    the moment of sinking the Rainbow Warrior
    The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in 1987 became a festive event. In the distance the new Greenpeace flagship. In the far distance the main island of the Cavalli Islands, Motukawanui. The ship points in an easterly direction.

    the Rainbow Warrior monument with propellerMonument (and photo) by Chris Booth . Commissioned by Ngati Kura and New Zealand China Clays (near Matauri Bay) to commemorate the sinking of the Greenpeace ship ‘Rainbow Warrior’ by French agents in 1985. Obtaining the local materials by sea was fraught with difficulties as this is the Pacific Ocean and storms were prevalent that year. Despite giving time for the project, funding was hard to come by. However, local support was generous. Reparation funds from the French government paid the final bills.

    According to Greenpeace, the Rainbow Warrior’s name is taken from a North American Indian prophecy - “There would come a time when the earth would be ravaged, the seas blackened, the streams poisoned and the birds fall from the sky. Just before it was too late, said the prophecy, people of all races and creeds would rise up and band together to become Warriors of the Rainbow and return the earth to its natural beauty and harmony". The spirit of this ancient story became the inspiration for the early Greenpeace activists, and a valued part of the Greenpeace legacy.

    Behind the business of scuttling ships is the idea that they may become artificial reefs, thus hopefully enhancing the environment. An artificial reef created on a monotone expanse of sandy bottom, indeed becomes like an oasis where everything is found what the sand habitat lacks: substrate and shelter (and elevation towards the light). If a wreck is large enough, it could even maintain its own ecosystem where everything depends on and lives from everything else. Had ships been made from concrete, this ideal could indeed be reached. However, ships are made of steel, and they rust.
    The Rainbow Warrior was made of two metals: the body of steel and its superstructure of aluminium. The refit was done in a shoddy way. Rather than welding the aluminium sheets, they were bolted together on steel joining ribs. Above water steel and aluminium appear to tolerate one another, but under water they fight to the death. One serves as an anode and the other as a cathode, with an electric current running in-between. It so happens that aluminium is the superior conductor, and thus the anode (+), attracting the most corrosive negative ions of chlorine (Cl-) and oxygen (O--). The steel is better off, acting as cathode (-), and attracting the harmless positive ions of sodium (Na+) and hydrogen (H+). Thus the steel is preserved and won't rust until the aluminium has been sacrificed. This mechanism kept the steel in virgin state for over a decade. Only attentive observers would notice the pockmarks on the aluminium, from which gas bubbles burst at times. Then the aluminium sides of the steering house and elsewhere came apart from their steel ribs, and were blown off the ship by storm waves. Since that moment the steel parts are rusting rapidly.
    However, the decade of respite has given the encrusting life the upper hand for now, covering the steel so densely that oxygen can't reach the metal. But then there are the dark places, particularly those without circulation, where the rust can develop. Here and there the blanketing crust becomes damaged, and the rust wins.
    The bottom line is that the Rainbow Warrior is not a bad little wreck in the world of wrecks for now. It is in fact still beautiful but in the end also destined to become a heap of rust.
    rusting railings remove encrusting life
    f008323: the slow growing blanket of life has been damaged on this railing, and the hydroid firs cannot keep up with the speed at which the peeling rust removes them.
    a solid cover of jewel anemones
    f021309: jewel anemones have formed a solid living blanket over the railing, preventing oxygen from reaching the steel. Their lives depend on it! Magenta jewel anemones by day.

    Immediately after the ship was scuttled, it became a giant settlement experiment. The first organisms to settle were pesky barnacles, covering the entire ship while hiding the white peace dove. But easy come, easy go, and the barnacles disappeared to make room for more durable life. That was given to bryozoa (moss animals). Huge balls of finely branching bryozoa hung off the railings and these eventually made room for plants, anemones, sponges and the life that can be seen today. Attentive observers would have noticed that many organisms were removed at the rate that the paint began to peel, and that the successive waves of settlers repeated themselves many times.

    Eventually the master plan became visible: seaweeds on the sun-lit surfaces and animal life on the dark surfaces. The bowsprit is still being fought over because shaded sides and sunlit sides join, and animal life benefits substantially from being out in the open where an unstoppable convoy of planktonic food passes by. Note that animals can blanket the steel better than plants.

    Rainbow Warrior bowsprit
    f040815: the bowsprit is still being fought over: plants against animals. Plants on top, animals below. Still no rust in sight.
    Balanus barnacle catching food
    f021322: acorn barnacles came and went early on in the settlement race, but this barnacle is of the Balanus genus, large, single and long-lived. The photo was snapped while it had its hairy catch arms out.

    Because of its many 'caves', the wreck soon attracted nocturnal fish in search for a place to sleep. The most numerous of these are the bigeyes and slender roughies. Normally one can find them side by side in dark holes, but on the Warrior they strangely segregated: the more numerous bigeyes in the rear cabins and the slender roughies in the forecastle. By night these little fish swim in the open around the wreck and it is miraculous that they find their way home before dawn.

    bigeyes Pempheris in a cabin by day
    f022713: a diver enters a cabin seething with bigeyes (Pempheris adspersa).
    slender roughies Optivus in a wreck
    f022717: the forecastle has been commandeered by slender roughies (Optivus elongatus).

    As the life on the wreck became more dense, it could maintain local predators like moray eels and scorpionfish.

    northern scorpionfish scorpaena cardinalis
    f021330: a red scorpionfish (granddaddy hapuka) (Scorpaena cardinalis) is always on alert, day and night. Its only pleasure in life is to ambush unwary fish.
    grey moray (Gymnothorax nubilus)
    f008307: a grey moray (Gymnothorax nubilus) hunting for small prey in the many tight recesses, pipes and tunnels of the wreck. This is the smallest of moray eels in NZ.

    It appears that the small wreck could provide sufficient food for those organisms that can adapt their diets, the 'catholic' feeders of 'food switchers', such as leatherjackets.

    young leatherjackets (Parika scaber)
    f049837: schools of young leatherjackets (Parika scaber) feeding on a great variety of food, from algae to sponges. Once they grow bigger, they also become territorial and leave for larger territory.
    rough thinfinger sponge (Callyspongia ramosa)
    f022728: a rough thinfinger sponge (Callyspongia ramosa) has a very tough skeleton, too rough for leatherjackets.
    seven armed star (Astrostole scabra)
    f008324: a seven armed star (Astrostole scabra) typically hunts sea urchins but these have remained absent.
    spanish lobster
    f008327: a spanish lobster () or slipper lobster lives gently from a smorgasbord of species but crayfish never established here.

    The wreck also attracted 'hotel guests', visitors from the sand flats, looking for a place to sleep. One of these is the john dory (Zeus faber). It is amazing how these fish can find their way back home from their fossicking journeys far away (see night dive below).

    sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) and a red Gigartina
    f040835: a collection of red and green seaweeds has heaped up by the bow. Red towel weed (Gigartina sp) and green sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca). There is apparently enough light on the sandy bottom for these to thrive.
    diver and female red pigfish Bodianus unimaculatus
    f040830: a diver watches a female red pigfish (Bodianus unimaculatus) go about her business, under the bowsprit of the Rainbow Warrior.

    We finally must not lose sight of the fact that a number of reef organisms did not establish themselves on the artificial reef:

    The Rainbow Warrior shipwreck can be reached only by boat, either by small boats from Matauri Bay where one can camp, or by charter boats departing from Paihia in the Bay of Islands. It is a long trip from there, reason why the second dive is made somewhere on the return trip.
    A dive on the Rainbow Warrior is a deep dive that will certainly exhaust one's bottom time, so one should keep a wary eye on the decompression meter. Because it is a small ship, it is a safe dive, for one cannot get lost inside. At the time of writing, much of the super structure had disappeared and lies scattered around on the sand. Because it was made of light aluminium sheets, waves were able to distribute them over a wide area. Over the years the ship has sunk deeper and deeper in the sand, and is not likely to be moved by large storms. It has always heeled to its starboard (righthand) side, which exposes its port side to the light, as this side also faces north towards the sun. So the difference between the two sides of the ship is large. On the sunlit side one finds all kinds of seaweeds, trimmed by industrious leatherjackets that also eat sponges. On its shaded side the plants are absent and a kaleidoscope of filter feeders (like sponges) takes their place. Because these grow much slower, they often can't keep up with the rate of rust formation.

    Although the marine life here is reasonably robust, you have to watch out not to kick it or to accidentally be pushed into it by the current.

    In any case, a dive on the Warrior usually consists of descending from the surface buoy down the heavy anchor chain to about 15m depth. Often the wreck is not visible when visibility is poor, and one needs to swim a magnetic east course to see the hull loom up out of the green void. From here the swim is often a round tour from the stern to the bow and back. On the return, a safety stop is done off the anchor chain.

    The currents are usually mild, enough to foster rich marine life but insufficient to worry divers. However, it can sometimes be a nuisance, particularly at the surface. Visibility is usually poor in spring (Sep-Dec) but improves during summer and autumn (Jan-May). Water temperatures are highest in Feb-Mar. It is not advisable to dive in a short wetsuit or a long suit thinner than 3mm, even in summer.

    boats cueing for a dive on the Rainbow Warrior
    f219322: boats queuing off the buoy (not visible) and divers swimming against the current to the chain.
    f049805: we found a plaque but can anyone enlighten us? A dolphin jumping over a railing?
    diver before the bow
    f022725: a diver hangs motionless by the bow where rich marine life can be found.
    decaying deck of the Rainbow Warrior
    f049808: the decking has been eaten away by ship worm. Cables messed up. Some aluminium panels are still standing with white electrolysis pockmarks.
    f021415: divers crowding the anchor chain on their ascent. 

    Night diving
    The Warrior makes a beautiful night dive with all its colours and variety but be aware that all dangers amplify. One can easily become disorientated, lose sight of safe bottom time, fail to find the chain, and so on. Ascending safely in open water, in the dark is just not easy. The charter boat which is moored to the buoy, can not easily pick you up either. So take extra care.

    Jewel anemones (Corynactis haddoni) occur in a wide variety of colour. During the day they look like colourful crowns squatting on the substrate with no room to spare.  But only this magenta variety extends itself by night, sometimes to finger-height. On wrecks it colonises and grows around railings as seen here.  For more jewel anemones , click here in our selected images.


    magenta jewel anemones extended at night
    f021319: the magenta jewel anemones extend themselves far out only by night. Other jewel anemone species do not display this behaviour. Here is a fully clad railing by night.
    closeup magenta jewel anemones
    f021315: magenta jewel anemones by night, thronging for space. Jewel anemones reproduce quickly by splitting, so we are looking at a single individual here, cloned many times over.
    white-tentacled anemones
    f021311: white-tentacled anemones can reproduce by splitting new ones, thus rapidly colonising a good spot. Do not rub against these because they sting.
    john dory (Zeus faber) at night
    f021327: some fish come to the wreck for sleeping such as this john dory (Zeus faber) who normally hunts over the sand flats, even though there is so much fish on board.

    On the map above we've marked two alternative dive sites, definitely our favourites. The most important one lies just north of the Warrior in the shelter (south) of Horonui Island. This is an ideal spot for your second shallow dive, as it has an interesting terrain with narrow canyons hugging the island and gradually sloping shallows with lots of tame fish. It is also a very good nightdive.

    The second spot is Truelove Reef on the exposed side (north) of Horonui Island, of which two pinnacles poke above the surface. This reef descends to 27m with the most spectacular schools of demoiselle and blue maomao. Deeper down the variety of life remains impressive. Although you can go deep, it is a safe dive because you can spend time decompressing in the shallows, while still observing an abundance of life all around. Note that the swell can be prohibitive.
    Rainbow Warrior drawingThis drawing of the Rainbow Warrior shows its basic shape with a deck over the forecastle (above the peace dove) and rear cabins. The main deck in front of the steering house and alongside the cabins is bordered by solid railings. At the time of writing, the steering house has disappeared and also the funnel and its surrounds. So the engine room can be seen (and dived into) from above. The site of the first bomb is now under the sand but the two holds can still be accessed from hatches above. Wherever there are rooms with side-ways (rather than top-down) access, one can find large numbers of nocturnal bigeyes and slender roughies. The latter species appears to have commandeered the forecastle (with side-way entrance). The second bomb did not explode on this side of the ship but on the other side, to the rear where the ship is strongest. It invited carpet sponges.

    It was not easy to find a suitable location for scuttling the Rainbow Warrior for it had to be a place remote from any reefs, because scientists thought that the wreck would affect the environment in a bad way (which proved to be nonsense). It had to be in a sheltered place so that northerly storms would not wreck it too soon while scattering steel plates everywhere. It had to be shallow enough for safe diving, yet deep enough to be out of reach for most waves and for navigation. And perhaps it could be located in a slight current that would greatly benefit marine life.
    That place was found after the local Maori consented to have the wreck sunk at the Cavalli Islands, north of the Bay of Islands. The place was scouted and then affirmed by Parliament and gazetted. It was later discovered that the actual resting place of the Rainbow Warrior was hundreds of metres out, a mistake made by those who marked the site.
    According to the chart, the wreck lies on 22m of sandy bottom, with its top securely under 12m depth. Divers will notice a depth of 23m and the top deck at 16m. The wreck lies in an easterly direction with its bow pointing east and its stern pointing west. The ship heels (tilts) over to starboard (righthand side) such that the place of impact of the first bomb cannot be seen unless one descends into the hold.

    Although a large buoy was placed at the stern (rear) of the wreck, it mysteriously disappeared at times. Some say that it was done to force divers to join charter trips; others say that storms did it. In any case, it was later replaced and is now considered an important safety item. The buoy has a long chain which connects to a large concrete block at the bottom, located a few metres from the stern. Divers can easily locate both the ship from the buoy at the beginning of their dives, and the buoy from the ship on their return.

    visual bearings to surrounding islands
    Visual bearings to nearby islands. The buoy and chain have been replaced.

    chart to navigate to the Rainbow WarriorEven though the buoy can be seen from some distance, it pays to also know how to locate it from local visual bearings. The easiest of these runs almost due east (magnetic), just 'joining' Hamaruru Island in the foreground with Haraweka in the distance. The other bearing runs almost due north (magnetic) such that a small pinnacle in front of Motutapere Island just begins to separate from it. The chart shows the buoy on the wrong side of the wreck and locates the wreck at 34º58.50' S, 173º56.10' E . The actual GPS co-ordinates are: 34º58.60'S 173º58.14'E. (Click the chart for a larger version, 400KB)
    The wreckage is scattered to the south (starboard) of the wreck which leaves its shallower side to the north free for anchoring. When anchoring here make sure to drop the anchor some 20-30m away from the wreck so that the chain will not touch it. Swim in a magnetic S direction towards the ship and make a mental picture of where this is relative to the railings and super structure. On the return one may not see the anchor warp from the wreck, so swim back from the point of arrival in a magnetic N direction.
    panoramic view of the Cavalli Islands
    Distant view of the Cavalli Islands from the monument. The Rainbow Warrior lies on left behind the Kaitirehe rock in the middle.
    The leftmost island is Horonui; the conical peak is Motutapere, the main island on right Motukawanui.

    For the underwater photographer the Rainbow Warrior shipwreck offers many opportunities, depending on the conditions. If the water is murky, the sky overcast and a swell running, one's chances become slim as wide angle photography demands clear water and bright sunshine, whereas macro photography requires a tranquil sea. The photos shown here give you an idea of what is possible.

    divers swimming over the rear deck
    f008405: divers swimming over the rear deck. Notice the bent-up railing, caused by large ships pulling up their stuck anchors.
    diver taking notes, seen through a scupper
    f008409: a diver taking notes, seen through a hole in the sun-lit solid railing (a scupper). The yellow sponges are an Iophon species.
    sponges on vertical surfaces
    f049816: the hole in the solid railing is the same as in previous photo (a scupper). Note that all wooden decking has disappeared, eaten by ship worm. Sponges prefer the vertical surfaces.
    two-spot demoiselles (Chromis dispilus) nesting
    f049809: two-spot demoiselles (Chromis dispilus) are not numerous but some have started breeding there. A deep blue male is guarding its eggs laid on a red encrusting sponge.
    diver under the bowsprit wih fishes
    f049831: a diver under the bowsprit where planktivorous fish shelter in the current. Blue maomao, demoiselles and trevally.
    railings offer holdfast to stalked kelp
    f049811: encrusted with a variety of life, railings also offer holdfast to the stalked kelp. Female sandagers wrasses (Coris sandageri) picking at the growth.
    thick mats of jewel anemones
    f008425: thick mats of jewel anemones, competing for space with seaweeds on the bow sprit. Hydroid trees further up on the railings.
    railing pulled out of shape and rusting
    f022705: a railing pulled out of shape by a boat anchor is covered in some places while rusting in others.
    yellow antler sponges Iophon
    f049804: yellow antler sponges and white anemones on the stern.
    railings and leatherjackets
    f008435: railings have interesting shapes for photographs. Two leatherjackets nibbling away at the encrusting life.

    Further reading
    All references are available from the National Library of New Zealand, and those in blue are available from the Seafriends Library

    Death of the Rainbow Warrior Michael King, Auckland : Penguin , 1986
    Eyes of fire, the last voyage of the Rainbow Warrior. 1986. Robie, David
    Rainbow Warrior : battle for the planet : an extraordinary adventure Jill Morris Tells of the birth and work of the Greenpeace Foundation and, especially, the Rainbow Warrior ship, in the fight to save the world's… Norwood, S. Aust. : Omnibus Books , 1998
    Rainbow Warrior : the French attempt to sink Greenpeace Sunday Times of London Insight Team London : Hutchinson , 1986
    Sabotage! : the diary of Rowan Webb, Auckland, 1985 Sharon Holt The Rainbow Warrior was the flag ship of the Greenpeace movement, when it was sunk by agents of the French Foreign Intelligence, while…  Auckland [N.Z.] : Scholastic , 2008
    Sink the Rainbow! : an inquiry into the "Greenpeace Affair" John Dyson, Joseph Fitchett Auckland, N.Z. : Reed Methuen , 1986
    Ten minutes to midnight Colin Lloyd Amery An account of the Rainbow Warrior affair and its aftermath. Auckland [N.Z.] : Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop , 1989
    The Rainbow Warrior affair Isobelle Gidley, Richard Shears Sydney : Unwin Paperbacks , 1985

    The Rainbow Warrior Affair. Diary compiled by Mike Andrews (Secretary of the Dargaville Maritime Museum) replicated here for ease of reference and safekeeping

    When a warrior dies A documentary about the making of the kohatu stone memorial designed by Chris Booth. (Valhalla 1992, 50 minutes, English, no subtitles) Directed by Michael Hardcastle. Available on DVD.

    The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior (1993/2004): a documentary with actors Sam Neill, Jon Voight, Tony Barry, Bruno Lawrence, Kerry Fox, John Callen, available on DVD.

    The Dargaville Maritime Museum has a scale model of the Rainbow Warrior and the masts and other memorabilia. Worth visiting. Harding Park (South of Dargaville) Tel: +64 9 439 7555. 9 am to 4 pm daily

    What's new?
    20090507 - suggestions and corrections by Mrs Myfanwy Borich
    20090420 - First published on the Web