The home of the last few Japanese dugongs is about to be landfilled to make way for two airstrips - part of the expansion of a US military base on the island of Okinawa. But a movement nearly 18 years old is standing up to say NO. That’s why our ship the Rainbow Warrior is en route to join them...

The first thing that drew me to Greenpeace as a young New Zealander was actually the “peace” side of things. Nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific had drawn strong opposition from local people and from Greenpeace. Ultimately, that opposition cost Greenpeace its ship, the Rainbow Warrior – bombed and sunk by the French government in an act of state sponsored terrorism – and the life of photographer Fernando Pereira. But it also helped win a nuclear free New Zealand.

I was at school, and we were studying the horrors of nuclear war, something that felt like a very real threat at the time. The bombing of the Rainbow Warrior made the issue a whole lot more real.

Many years later, after environmental studies and the start of a career in marine conservation, I found myself in 2005 setting sail with the second Rainbow Warrior to help protect Okinawa’s small population of dugongs, which were under threat from plans to construct a US military airstrip right across a coral reef.

It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful sea creature than the dugong, a hefty vegetarian sea animal that grazes on sea grasses, meanders around coastal waters and was allegedly the basis of mermaid folklore.

Japanese dugong

The campaign brought together everything that had drawn me to Greenpeace. Protecting endangered ocean creatures – not just dugongs, but the myriad of other coral reef creatures of Henoko Bay, including a huge diversity of clown fish (Nemo, and his various  colourful cousins) and other inhabitants of coral reef and seagrass ecosystems.

The struggle to protect Okinawa’s dugongs is a struggle for existence itself.

There are extremely few dugongs left, and Japan risks losing its only population. It’s also a struggle for peace for the people of Okinawa. For many decades, military bases have dominated the island, and have raised many concerns from local communities. Building a new military airstrip – on the habitat of the last few dugongs – is symbolic of military power bulldozing over local and natural values. Local values that include both “green” – protecting native wildlife and the surrounding oceans - and “peace”, building a society where non-violence finally prevails over warfare and conflict. 

Ribbons attached to barbed wire perimeter fence with SV Rainbow Warrior in background at American marine base, Camp Schwab, Henoko, Okinawa Island, Japan. 2005

For me, it's both happy and sad to return to Okinawa ten years later. It’s sad because in a decade those voices, despite their strength and defiance, have not been listened to. The plans to drill coral, pave over reefs with concrete and construct a monstrosity from which to launch military aircraft have not been abandoned, as they should have been in 2005.

But it also makes me happy. Happy to see local leaders standing up for peace and for the environment. Happy to arrive on board the new Rainbow Warrior – the third Greenpeace ship bearing this name – to Okinawa.

Once again, we have sailed here in support of the local people that want to save the dugongs, protect the ocean and spread peace.

Take action to save the dugong and Henoko Bay.

Karli Thomas is an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace New Zealand.