In June of 1972, David McTaggart raised a pair of binoculars from the deck of his 38-foot ketch, Vega. He and two crew had been 70 days at sea, and they were stationed in the forbidden zone outside Moruroa, the Pacific atoll where the French government tested nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.
David McTaggart on the Vega in 1981
His aim was to stop the test blast with his ship's presence. But he was unsure whether the French would detonate the bomb regardless of his defiance. That morning, June 17th, he saw the balloon go aloft which signalled detonation was imminent.
The French military had been ghosting the Vega throughout its stay in the forbidden zone, and communicated orders to leave. Helicopters had buzzed the masts. The crew of the Vega had expected to be boarded and physically removed from the area. Now it appeared that a decision had been made to simply detonate the bomb -- protestors be damned.
His fingers too swollen to write, McTaggart kept an audio diary of those days which has recently come to light. You can listen here to his entry for that evening.
McTaggart, Nigel Graham, and Grant Davison made wooden blocks to seal the vents of Vega against fallout. They made plans to throw their stove and generator fuel overboard so it wouldn't ignite.
They'd agreed that if they survived the blast and the shockwave that two would stay below and one would go up into the deadly fallout on deck wrapped in oilskins to motor them out of the forbidden zone.
They'd prepared the matchsticks they would draw to determine who that would be. And they'd radioed a telegram to their Vancouver base saying "BALLOON RAISED OVER MORUROA LAST NIGHT STOP GREENPEACE THREE SIXTEEN MILES NORTHEAST STOP SITUATION FRIGHTENING PLEASE PRAY AND ACT."
The next day, the French sent a minesweeper to "escort" Vega out of the blast zone, and when McTaggart and the crew refused, a high-seas game of manoeuvres ensued which ended with the ramming of Vega and the detention of McTaggart and his crew. The weapon was detonated on June 26th.
But the voyage of the Vega drew worldwide attention to nuclear weapons testing and renewed pressure on the French to abandon the programme from many quarters.
Greenpeace vessel Vega boarded by French commandos in Moruroa nuclear test zone.Skipper David McTaggart was hospitalised from his beating by commandos and lost the sight in one eye.
Greenpeace vessel Vega boarded by French commandos in Moruroa nuclear test zone. Skipper David McTaggart was hospitalised from his beating by commandos and almost lost the sight in one eye.
McTaggart was relentless. On his return to Moruroa in 1973, he so infuriated the French military that he and his crew were beaten to the point that McTaggart lost vision in one of his eyes for several months. The French government attempted to say that McTaggart had gotten the injury from slipping on the deck of his own ship. But one of McTaggart's crewmembers had smuggled dramatic photographs of the beating off the ship, which brought worldwide media attention, and further embarassment, to the French government.
With the entire Pacific united in outrage and opposition, the French government at last relented - partially - and moved its weapons testing programme underground. Weapons testing at Moruroa ended at last in 1996.
McTaggart went on to become Greenpeace International's first chairman, and led the organisation throughout the 80s and into the 90s. He died in a car crash in 2001.