When people look at the oceans some only see deep blue water. Others only see fish and the bounty underneath the surface. But there are many, like Captain Peter “Pete” Wilcox who see the sea for what it truly is- a living, breathing, thriving ecosystem meant to be preserved- and even devote themselves, even risk their own lives, to protect it.

We went aboard the iconic ship the Rainbow Warrior during a recent stopover in Thailand to meet Pete who has sailed the longest distance with Greenpeace and to talk about the need for environmental activism in this day and age.

Pete: I joined Greenpeace in 1981 after spending seven years doing environmental work, primarily on the Clearwater ship in New York. The reason I joined Greenpeace was because I was very attracted to the use of non-violent direct action to achieve social change. I have some experience in the US civil rights movement and I knew from that experience how important it is to do things non-violent. Hurting people may work in a war, but we are not in a war. We try to change people’s minds and you can’t use violence to change people’s minds. That doesn’t work. Greenpeace has always had a very strong stance against any kind of violence. And I think that it is important that we still do that.

On land and at sea, the practice of peaceful protest is strictly observed by Greenpeace staff and volunteers.  Pete proudly says that no other environmental organisation with ships does peaceful protests the way Greenpeace does.

Ironically, on July 10, 1985, the Rainbow Warrior was the target of a violent attack while moored in Auckland, New Zealand. Pete remembers that night very well. At close to midnight, while most of the crew were already asleep, a deafening sound jolted everyone onboard, followed by another. In an instant, the lights went out and water rushed in forcing Pete and the others to leap out of the sinking ship.

Bombing of the RW

Crew mate Fernando Pereira wasn’t so lucky. The Portuguese photographer instantly perished. Fernando joined the Greenpeace mission to protest against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

In the end, the French government was blamed for the attack which prompted public outcry from all corners of the world, making it known to governments and corporations that ‘You can’t sink a Rainbow’.

RW commemoration in Paris

The bombing of the Rainbow Warrior was a life-changing experience for Pete, and it made him more determined to sail with purpose and fight for environmental protection and social justice.

“The ships bring us to places nobody else can go. Whether it is the Antarctic or the middle of the ocean. We need ships to do some of the campaigns we work on.” Pete said. Years after that tragic night in Auckland, ships like the Rainbow Warrior continue to be instrumental in stopping environmental crimes from happening and for raising awareness on different issues. From conducting research into the effects of climate change in the Arctic, to stopping shiploads of illegal timber leaving the Amazon, to giving aid and humanitarian relief to communities devastated by a super typhoon in the Philippines, Greenpeace ships have been at the frontlines, ready to take action for people and the planet.

RW in Songkhla

Just recently, the newest Rainbow Warrior was back to Southeast Asia for a 4-month ship tour highlighting climate change and people power.

As the most experienced captain with over 35 years with Greenpeace, Pete has seen many changes within the organisation.

Pete: We are a bigger organisation now. There were about 200 people worldwide, now there are over 3,000. We can do much more and create bigger impact. To me that is the positive change. It would be fun to stay in a small organisation where you knew everyone but we wouldn’t have been as effective as we are today. And if you want to have something to say about the planet you need to have a strong voice. And having 3,000 people in 55 countries gives us a strong voice.

The Greenpeace captain thinks that one of the biggest threats to our world is the way we produce energy.

Pete: We know that burning fossil fuels not only makes the atmosphere warmer but also makes the ocean acidic. We can’t continue to generate energy the way we are today and expect to keep our oceans. This is absolutely critical. We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuel immediately. The thing that frustrates me today is that we know from scientists what the effects of the burning fossil fuel are and we have the technology to change that. But we don’t have the political will. We have a few rich men making lots of money from fossil fuel but far as I concern, those men are selling the future of their children and grandchildren for money. They should all be in jail. They should pay the price.

More importantly, Pete has this advice to humanity.

Pete: We are on the brink of killing the oceans. We are on the brink of making the atmosphere so polluted that even if we don’t burn another drop of fossil fuel, we are still facing a thousand years of sea level rise. We’ve done this to ourselves. We have to do everything we can to mitigate the damage for the future of our children. That’s why I am still here. I care about children’s future. I will continue to work for the planet. I’m not perfect but I’m trying to make the change that is necessary.