Peter Willcox, Captain of the Rainbow Warrior © Greenpeace/Tom Jefferson
The Rainbow Warrior's American captain, Peter Willcox, stands in the ship's bridge surveying the electronic chart display system. His course up Australia's east coast has been a series of zigzags, tacking and jibing every few hours to avoid the two-knot current running south. Now he's anchored off the coast of Bowen in north Queensland, having made it through the maze of colour-coded zones denoting permissible activity within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
"The thing you have to realise," he says, "is that to navigate safely inside the reef probably takes a four-year law degree to pull off correctly."
A law degree - or 40-plus years of professional sailing experience.
Andrew Morrell represents the Bowen area's traditional owners © Greenpeace/Tom Jefferson
Willcox, 60, a stocky sea dog wearing an "FUBP" protest singlet and a tattooed wedding band, began sailing as a child around the harbours of New England. In his 32 years with Greenpeace, he has played chicken for an hour with a 120-metre cargo boat, dodging helicopters and warships, to protest Soviet whaling; jumped in front of a US Navy destroyer doing 18 knots carrying nuclear weapons into a Danish nuclear-free zone; and, using a forklift, driven a container of toxic waste left by an American air force base in the Philippines into the gates of the US embassy.
In other words, he has been around - although he is best known for ending up on Auckland's wharf in his "birthday suit", as he puts it, after his ship, the original Rainbow Warrior, was bombed by the French government in 1985. Willcox claims to rarely think about that night, except when asked by journalists. But he still catches up with the children of the crewman who was killed.
This is the third Rainbow Warrior, and her evolution from an old fishing trawler to a state-of-the-art "green" vessel gives a sense of how Greenpeace has changed in the intervening years. "We have research scientists, we have a laboratory, we have lawyers, we have lobbyists," says Willcox, as though he barely recognises his surroundings.
Greenpeace makes its point at Abbot Point © Greenpeace/Tom Jefferson
On board, there's the atmosphere of a super-disciplined youth hostel, with 11 nationalities - and various body piercings - among the 16-strong crew. Athletic, tanned deckhands move about at Willcox's command, adjusting the rigging of the two huge A-frame masts (the ship is primarily powered by the wind), while others work below deck with the satellite communications system so that footage of their "actions" can reach the world with as much speed as possible.
Whatever Greenpeace is about to do in these waters, Willcox will not reveal. But the ship has been pulling into harbours along Australia's eastern seaboard while the crew conduct boat tours, trying to engage people in its protest against the expansion of the coal industry along the Great Barrier Reef. As the Rainbow Warrior gets closer to Abbot Point, 25 kilometres north-west of Bowen, authorities are expecting something more dramatic, and Willcox is now being followed by a police boat wherever he sails.
Abbot Point has one coal terminal, the 99-year lease of which was recently purchased for $1.8 billion by the Indian-owned Adani Group. For a long time, this terminal only exported 15 million tonnes of coal a year, a relatively small output. After a recent expansion, it is on its way to having a 50-million-tonne capacity, of which only 30 per cent is currently being used.
Tub Wilson steers his tinny around the Caley Wetlands © Greenpeace/Tom Jefferson
However, to capitalise on the coal booms of the future, five new export terminals are proposed at the site: Terminal 0 will also be owned by Adani; Terminal 2, by BHP Billiton; Terminal 3 - which has already won federal approval - by the Indian conglomerate GVK; Waratah Terminal, by Clive Palmer's Waratah Coal; and AP-X, for which the Queensland government is currently inviting tenders. This would make a total of six terminals with an export capacity of more than 400 million tonnes of coal. The biggest coal terminal in the world will sit right beside the Great Barrier Reef.
A dredging project to expand the port is now awaiting final approval by the federal environment minister, Tony Burke. If it's granted on July 9, three million cubic metres of dredge spoil will be dumped off the coast of Bowen in the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
"When I started working for environmental groups 40 years ago, I never thought we'd be in the situation we're in today," Willcox says. "I thought the environment would be relatively easy to clean up." Instead, climate scientists argue that these coal developments will double Australia's carbon emissions in the next decade. This will make conditions impossible for the reef's survival, all while a highway of coal ships runs right through it.
Coal reclaimers at Abbot Point © Greenpeace/Tom Jefferson
"The [Australian Maritime Safety Authority] pilots today told me a story: a coal ship came down from China, right through here" - Willcox points on his screen to a protected area of the reef - "and right down into Mackay. They called the captain on the radio, they were hailing him, he didn't pay any attention. They got here, and the captain and the first mate got arrested." The reef could have wrecked their ship, creating a massive oil spill. "And so then the shipping company flew in a new captain and mate, and the new captain looked at the electronic chart and then went straight back out the same way."
A traditional mariner, Willcox still teaches the younger sailors how to use a sextant. He leaves his own first mate to watch that the anchor isn't dragging, and walks onto the top deck to look out at the stars that "don't lie". The only other visible light is that of a nearby police boat.
The captain's main concern is that if this latest protest lands him in jail, he could miss the high school graduation of one daughter and the college graduation of another. "They'll be really upset with me. But if it means coming back in August and going to jail for three months, I don't have a problem with that at all. Not at all."
Among the people who visit Bowen's harbour to look at the Rainbow Warrior is local indigenous man Andrew Morrell. At 196 centimetres, bearded and with a deep, easy laugh, he is one of the traditional owners of Abbot Point. When Andrew was a toddler, his father, William, would put him and his brother on the back of loggerhead turtles, which they'd race to the shore.
The Morrells say they have watched Bowen's industry slowly fall away. The town, with its wide streets and grand Victorian council chambers, was meant to be the "capital" of north Queensland. These days, the meat works and salt works have closed and the once vibrant harbour, an entrance to the Whitsundays, lies dormant.
Coal trucks and trains rattling along Bowen's outskirts seem like the harbingers of a great fortune. And the Morrells, despite feeling conflicted about the environmental damage to their land, hold out hope that the coal terminal's expansion could be what turns the town around.
Father and son drive me to Abbot Point, and William, 73, climbs over a gate to walk towards the beach where he spent his childhood hunting and fishing. Along the way he stops to point out bush tucker: wild passionfruit, wild cucumber, pandanus nut. Generations ago, part of Abbot Point was an Aboriginal burial ground, and the surrounding dunes were also a gathering place for different tribes.
"Here you are," says Andrew, "civilisation as far as the eye can see." Middens with layers of discarded shellfish and rock blades, like kitchen implements, are embedded in the rolling dunes all the way through to the terminal itself.
In June 2007, Anna Bligh's Labor government deemed this a State Development Area, commissioning the Abbot Point Land Suitability Study, which was released to the general public for 14 days before being recalled as a cabinet-in-confidence document. The study reported that the state's Environmental Protection Agency had deemed the majority of Bligh's SDA, which fell on the wetlands of the Caley Valley, was of international environmental importance. Any pollution of the surrounding soils would mean a high risk of the wetlands and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park also being contaminated.
Nevertheless the Bligh government offered up the site to industry, and, so as not to hold up any deal, also pushed for Native Title to be registered for the seven family groups, comprising "thousands" of people, according to Andrew, who traditionally owned this stretch of coastline. The families were legally obliged to surrender the area slated for development, but they did negotiate with North Queensland Bulk Ports (NQBP) - the government subsidiary overseeing Abbot Point's expansion - to be employed as caretakers of the wetlands. NQBP have since done a deal with Adani Mining, which hopes to clear a large section of coastal vegetation by the end of the year to build Terminal 0, the first phase of their massive development.
It's some irony to be granted official custodianship of the land so it can be partially razed, but the Morrells are reluctant to criticise the proposal. "You can't stop development," William says, and his son, the acting manager and sole employee of a company representing the traditional owners, hopes in the new financial year to take on more personnel. "We need to keep that vision and make it grow for our own people."
Behind the middens lies tea-tree scrub growing 300 metres back to the current terminal's coal stockpile. Six massive stacker reclaimers line the horizon, and out of one pours coal, forming an endless chain of black dust.
Andrew Morrell outlines Adani's plans: 20 metres from where we stand, there will be a fence, a road and then six new stockpiles, each 50 metres wide, running for a couple of kilometres.
"So all that's really going to remain are the middens," I say.
"Yes, that's all that's going to remain," he says, adding that there are concerns the middens could be destroyed by the acid from the coal dust.
William comes over and tells his son he's found a circle of white bailer shells, different to all the others, which he thinks marks a play area. Long ago, the children of a tribe had a game going equivalent to bull's eye. And now in the distance, a coal conveyer stretches down to the terminal, where three coal ships are at anchor. This whole area has become a target.
Down the road from Abbot Point lives Tub Wilson, who openly opposes any further expansion. An ex-horse trainer with rheumy eyes and a nicotine-stained blister on his bottom lip, Wilson is in his late 60s - "Put a number on the end if you like" - and he takes me around in his leaking tinny to have a look at the Caley Wetlands. "Might taste a little of duck shit," he warns, "but otherwise it's perfectly fresh water."
We're surrounded by spoonbills, ibis, pelicans, water hens, ducks, swans, egrets, a circling wedge-tail eagle. And Wilson, a kind of bush ecologist in an Akubra, with two working buttons on his shirt, gives a running commentary on what we're seeing.
Taking a bend in the wetlands, he spies the roof of his old house - one he built himself after buying 40 hectares in 1980. He'd just given up rodeo-riding after breaking one too many bones, and he began training racehorses on the beach of Abbot Point. "I'd come upon enormous numbers of turtles and get some lively rides, I tell you."
One day while chatting to a navvy at the pub, he found out about the redevelopment of Abbot Point. Soon after, he was approached by the then state-owned rail company QR National, wanting some of his land for a duplication of the coal railway line. He held out. Then the power company Norweb, now Origin, came calling. "I said, 'Come on, I'm not living with a bloody 60,000-volt power line right over the top of me house.' "
Finally, "the Ports mob came". Sensing the direction things were heading, Wilson organised a meeting with the stakeholders and his local MP.
"I just went in there, and I said, 'If you are to take any land off me at all, take the bloody lot.' " He sold it to them before it was compulsorily acquired.
"It knocked me arse in," he says of losing his home. He sold his horses and drove a caravan onto a friend's property a few kilometres away, next to which he's built a lean-to, walled only in the direction from which most of the area's rain comes.
The expansion of Abbot Point, however, only tells half the story of Queensland's coal future. If Adani's proposed Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin of western Queensland wins federal approval - which it looks set to do - it will produce 60 million tonnes of coal a year, making it twice the size of Australia's current biggest coal mine. Climatologists claim that if the Galilee Basin's hydrocarbon deposits are mined and burned, they alone will account for 6 per cent of the "carbon budget" available in the international effort to limit the rise of global temperatures by two degrees, leading to environmental catastrophe.
Adani and GVK also propose building two coal railway lines, hundreds of kilometres in length, to run from the Galilee Basin back to Abbot Point over agricultural land, then the wetlands. The surveyors have been out, and markers for one line are already in the ground.
Wilson worries that the vibration and noise of the coal trains will disturb the wetlands as much as the coal stockpiled next to it. "But I'm no bird expert, just a busted-arse ringer."
He has grounds to feel pessimistic. For its application to build Terminal 3, GVK provided preliminary documentation that did not include new data on the significance of the wetland's bird life. Greenpeace found - via a Freedom of Information request - that GVK knew there were significantly more birds than it had stated. Yet the day after Greenpeace's discovery, federal environment minister Burke signed off on the project.
Greenpeace has written a letter of demand to GVK, stating it is an offence to use misleading and false information to win approval. The Federal Environment Department says it is investigating the allegation. In the meantime, the approval has not been suspended.
For Terminal 0, Adani's Environmental Impact Study is based on a desk-top review of recent literature and one short visit to the area to count turtles in a season when they don't nest. Burke put it on public exhibition last year, satisfied that Adani had fulfilled its statutory requirements.
It's worth noting Adani's environmental record in India. The courts of the state of Gujarat have found that construction in the port town of Mundra was occurring without environmental approval, and that Adani "deliberately concealed and falsified material facts". In central Chhindwara district, in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, locals are currently protesting the illegal diversion of water to a coal-fired power plant project. And to the south, in Maharashtra state, the government has recently knocked back Adani's proposal to clear 1400 hectares of forest to mine next to the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, but Adani is rumoured to be searching for a new block.
In the Caley Wetlands, Wilson steers his tinny around the tributary that used to mark the boundary of his land. "The big part that distresses me is what's been done to the ocean," he says. "I was there prior to [the expansion of] Abbot Point and I know how pristine the water was. I could go down and catch a fish every time I wanted.
"I won't even bother any more. The last time I went out, I sat all night with the one bait. It's all gone. And the only thing that's changed is that bloody Abbot Point's been put there. So work it out for yourself. I'm the only one who ever lived out there and I didn't do it, I don't think."
With concerned parties all now waiting for Tony Burke's final decision on whether to give the federal government's green light to proceed with the Abbot Point dredging project, and to allow North Queensland Bulk Ports to dump their spoil off the coast of Bowen, I ask NQBP's CEO Brad Fish by telephone whether he's confident his organisation will win the approval.
"We believe so," he says.
After criticism for planning to dump the dredge spoil near the wreck of a World War II Catalina flying boat, which is presumed to contain 14 war dead, NQBP now states that the spoil will be "relocated" to an unspecified "zone not recognised as a notable or significant biodiversity site [that] does not contain any valuable heritage attributes".
I ask Fish, "Isn't this zone without heritage attributes in a World Heritage area?"
"Oh yes, the whole area is World Heritage," he replies, "but that doesn't mean every single part of it has these unique attributes at all.
"We try to relocate this material for a like-for-like environment. There's not a lot of ecological values ..." Fish stops himself, then adds, "Everything's important, so don't take that the wrong way, but there's no unique attributes of the area we're dredging, so what we want to do is relocate it to a site of a similar standard."
Even if Fish doesn't find it unique, the dredging site is home to a variety of vulnerable marine life, including the most endangered nesting turtle in Australia, the loggerhead. And despite his assurance that the spoil will end up in a "similar" site, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has recently found that NQBP's modelling of the dredging project does not take into account ocean currents, which could spread the spoil from a dump site up to 50 kilometres further on.
Nathan Rynn, a third-generation Bowen fisherman, believes the dredging of Abbot Point will force him out of the industry, turning the blue zones where he's currently allowed to fish into what he says will be "brown zones" due to the spoil.
Rynn, 26, claims that in the seas near Gladstone, after a recent dredging project for a coal terminal expansion, "We've seen mackerel fisheries lost because of the turbidity in the water." In Weipa, on the Gulf of Carpentaria, he says "there was a phenomenal grey and Spanish mackerel fishery" before another NQBP dredging project began. "But they just dumped all the dredge spoil at sea. Now that fishery is gone. It's finished. That's what we're fearing here." Rynn imagines he'll need to cut his losses and look for a job in the mining sector. But he adds, "You can't eat coal. We're a growing population. We've got to have secure food resources."
If Rynn, like other Bowen residents, hopes to pick up work during the terminals' construction, he may be disappointed. Brad Fish claims most of it will be built by fly-in, fly-out workers. And although the Queensland government receives royalty rates of 7-15 per cent of the coal's value per tonne, the vast majority of the Abbot Point profits will also disappear offshore. This adds force to the economic argument for protecting the reef, which the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority calculates contributes nearly $5.5 billion a year to the Australian economy.
The largest living structure on earth, the Great Barrier Reef can be seen from space. It began growing 20,000 years ago in its current form, although coral deposits have been found dating back a further half million years. It is composed of countless billions of tiny coral polyps, half of which, the Australian Institute of Marine Science announced in October last year, have been lost from reefs along the developed coast in the past 27 years. "If the trend continues, coral cover will decline by a further 40 per cent by 2022," claims Dr Peter Doherty, a research fellow at the institute.
Jacquie Sheils, a marine biologist and tour guide based in the Whitsunday Islands near Bowen, has worked in mass tourism on the reef for more than 15 years. In a small RIB (rigid inflatable boat), which is followed by two police boats, she takes some of the Greenpeace staff from the Rainbow Warrior snorkelling.
"In the beginning everyone came because they wanted to see this great international icon," comments Sheils. "Now they come and they say they want to see the Great Barrier Reef before it dies. Up until about five, six years ago, you never heard that. Now you hear that every day."
Fish says more ships in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park does not mean "more risk. The fact you've got more planes flying today doesn't mean there's more risk of them crashing into each other."
To Sheils, however, that is not the point. "If you tear up all the life on the seabed, pulverising [it] into fine sediment, which is what the tackle of the ships is doing, you are going to have lots of suspended sediment, which harms not just the reef but all the inter-reef habitat: the seagrass beds, sponge gardens, sea whips ...
"In Mackay, what they've noticed is the beaches have changed colour. [Some locals] say that since there's been big ship queues off Mackay, the beaches have got darker, which means they get hotter, which means the turtle hatchlings [dependent on temperature for their sex] all end up female.
"As soon as someone comes up with one of these big proposals, it almost inevitably gets approved one way or another," continues Sheils. "You're losing a bit of habitat here, a bit of habitat there, water quality here, water quality there. It's death by a thousand cuts. You have that cumulative loss and that is something that no one has been keeping tabs on."
Later, we are snorkelling around the northernmost island of the Whitsundays, Holbourne Island, just 30 kilometres from Abbot Point. This is where NQBP had, at one stage, planned to dump the dredge spoil. Underwater, we see lilac staghorn coral and light-blue tabletop coral. Weaving among them are butterfly and angel and damsel and parrot fish. Flashes of vivid life. It's a strange, poignant thing to witness this world and its creatures while knowing its days could be numbered.
Back aboard the Rainbow Warrior, crew members huddle together as they fret over the planned action. Will it have an impact? Will it end with the entire crew in jail?
Shortly, the ship will be at sea for a minimum of 10 days, and although she's nervous, Julie Macken, Greenpeace's senior communication officer, hopes the protest will provide a lightning-bolt moment illuminating the hazards of unchecked coal-related development.
Macken sits in the Rainbow Warrior's communications room, while other activists tweet and answer media enquiries. An ex-journalist herself, she says she feels a moral obligation to her daughter to now work full-time as an environmentalist - and it is a measure of how thoroughly the issue of climate change has lost traction that this can sound extreme.
Hers is not the simplest job: Greenpeace's critics range from people who feel harassed by recruiters outside the supermarket, to those who believe their confrontational tactics do nothing to negotiate a path forward with interest groups, such as the coal industry, which are not going to back down. Perhaps more problematically, mining seems to be embedded not just in our economy, but in the national psyche. Drawing attention to its shortcomings is almost regarded as unpatriotic.
Macken explains why Greenpeace feels it had no choice but to undertake a direct action. "We have done everything we can within the scope of legislation to try to prevent what we think is a huge harm, being not just destroying the Barrier Reef and turning it into a super highway, but also doubling our carbon emissions. Every time [a coal company] does an environmental impact statement, we go through it with a fine-tooth comb. We have talked to the community, and asked them to get involved. We've talked to Tony Burke. We've talked to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. We have absolutely, comprehensively exhausted every single means possible."
And the result?
David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, believes if Australia's laws won't protect the environment, it's morally defensible - and indeed necessary - to break the law. In an opinion piece written for The Australianin April, he urges people to "turn our minds - as suffragettes, champions of the anti-slavery movement, anti-war protesters and others have in the past - to civil disobedience", pointing to the eminent American climatologist James Hansen, who has twice been arrested protesting outside the White House.
What would an Australian movement of disobedience look like? Should we expect to see a vigil outside Clive Palmer's compound? Or folk taking their boats en masse to clog up the sea lanes?
Macken can't tell me, but she claims, "We have watched the most powerful lobby group Australia has ever had determine outcomes for this country. And it's not okay for any single Australian to not have an opinion on this. I almost don't care what the opinion is. We're sleepwalking into disaster and when we're violently woken, we'll look around for who to blame."
Early on April 24, six Greenpeace volunteers set out from the Rainbow Warrior in RIBs towards the massive flank of the coal ship MV Meister, travelling at serious speed to South Korea with thermal coal from Abbot Point. The volunteers - from Australia, NZ, the US, India and China - pulled up beside the boat with equipment and a sign reading, "END THE AGE OF COAL."
Willcox radioed the coal ship's captain. "Please be advised, sir, we have six volunteers boarding your vessel. This is a peaceful protest. They will not interfere with your ship or its equipment, and they will remain on deck."
The idea was for the Greenpeace activists to turn the ship around, forcing her back to port. However, the MV Meister was soon in international waters, heading for South Korea. Some aboard the Rainbow Warrior wanted to follow the coal ship all the way. But the point had been to stop the ship, so after 28 hours in howling winds and mountainous waves, the activists were picked up by the same small boat that had delivered them.
Later, a senior activist told me that the quest felt symbolic of the current state of affairs: Greenpeace couldn't quite catch up with the ship, just as they can't with the coal industry. Indeed, Queensland Resources Council chief Michael Roche called the action "pointless and potentially dangerous", telling one journalist he hoped the crew enjoyed their month-long holiday along the coast. "Queensland's largest export industry did not skip a beat."
Not an ounce less coal was mined or sold. The protest didn't even make it onto the nightly news.
Watching the footage of the six young people scaling the ship, it is hard not to admire their bravery - and not to wonder if this was an exercise in futility. We're now so inured to these almost stock images of protest, they no longer seem to penetrate. How does Greenpeace step out of the frame of its own creation? And how do people break out of their apathy about the potential destruction of the Great Barrier Reef?
When the Rainbow Warrior docked in Cairns harbour after the action, police were on the dock, but no activist was arrested, perhaps to give the protest as little oxygen as possible. People had brought their children to welcome the boat with handmade banners reading "SAVE OUR REEF", and shortly afterwards 10,000 new signatures were on Greenpeace's petition to the Queensland and federal governments calling on them not to approve further coal-related coastal development.
Back on dry land, Julie Macken is adamant that the boarding of the MV Meister generated real sparks that could fire up Greenpeace's advocacy of civil disobedience. "It's what we as a community do subsequently that matters," she says. "Time's running out. If you start turning earth on these projects, it's very hard to stop them."
By Chloe Hooper. Originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald.