Murder in the Pacific: the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior and what happened next

March 3, 2023

Learn more about the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, and discover the rest of the story.

A new BBC documentary ‘Murder in the Pacific’ recounts the 1985 bombing of Greenpeace’s ship the Rainbow Warrior.

The show tells the story of ‘Operation Satanique’ – a plot by the French government to sink the Rainbow Warrior while it was docked in New Zealand.

Read on to learn more about the Rainbow Warrior and discover the rest of the story.

How did the Rainbow Warrior sink?

The French government sank the Rainbow Warrior on 10 July 1985, using underwater explosives. The Greenpeace ship was moored in Auckland, New Zealand, with plans to confront French nuclear testing in the Moruroa Atoll.

In an effort to sabotage the protest, French secret service agents attached two bombs to the side of the ship below the waterline.

The first bomb blew a large hole in the hull. After an initial evacuation, some of the crew returned to investigate and film the damage.

On-board photographer, Fernando Pereira, had returned below deck to grab his camera equipment when the second bomb detonated. The Rainbow Warrior sank four minutes later and Pereira drowned. The father of two had recently celebrated his 35th birthday.

At first, the French government said they weren’t involved, but their denials quickly unravelled under scrutiny. Prime minister Laurent Fabius eventually admitted that the government had ordered secret service agents to carry out the operation.

Consequences of the bombing

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior caused widespread public outrage, and failed to stop the protests at Moruroa Atoll. Greenpeace gained a huge amount of support in New Zealand and around the world following the bombing, and if anything it had the opposite effect to what the French government wanted.

Fernando Pereira’s death made many protesters more determined to go and protest at Moruroa. Donations and offers of help continued to flood in. Greenpeace International was able to send its other large ship, The Greenpeace, to lead the protest at Moruroa Atoll.

In 1987, an international tribunal ordered France to pay Greenpeace US$8.1 million in damages for deliberately sinking the Rainbow Warrior.

Most of those involved in the bombing have simply disappeared, and only two agents ever stood trial. Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart were sentenced to 10 and seven years at a military base in French Polynesia, but they were released in less than two years.

Where is the Rainbow Warrior now?

After the bombing, the Rainbow Warrior was placed on the seabed in nearby Matauri Bay, in the north of New Zealand. Over the years, it has become a haven for sea life and a popular destination for divers.

You can take an interactive tour of the wreck here.

The wreck of the Rainbow Warrior was quickly colonised by ocean life, and has become a popular destination for divers. © Greenpeace / Roger Grace

Greenpeace replaced the Rainbow Warrior with a new ship of the same name. Ironically, this was funded by the compensation payment from the French government. The second Rainbow Warrior put in 22 years service on campaigns around the world.

The third Rainbow Warrior took to the seas in 2011, and is still in action today.

The Rainbow Warrior III gets a dolphin escort as it sails in the Cook Strait in New Zealand. © Nigel Marple / Greenpeace

What is Greenpeace doing now?

Of course, Greenpeace’s vital work continues, with millions of supporters and active campaigns in over 50 countries.

From the injustice of climate change to the horrors of industrial fishing, we confront the world’s worst polluters and help solve its biggest problems.

In February 2023, Greenpeace activists confronted and then occupied a Shell oil platform at sea. As part of its campaign for climate justice, Greenpeace is demanding that giant oil companies stop drilling and start paying for the climate damage they’ve caused. © Chris J Ratcliffe / Greenpeace

Here are a few ways Greenpeace has made a difference in the UK recently.

  • Destructive bottom trawling is now banned in four vital ocean habitats after Greenpeace and small-scale fishermen teamed up to protect the UK’s seas.
  • Under pressure from Greenpeace, the UK government announced it will end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 — a full decade earlier than planned.
  • Greenpeace spent years pushing UK politicians to invest in wind energy. Thousands of offshore turbines are now installed around the coastline, and the government has promised to power every home in the UK with offshore wind energy within a decade.

You can see more Greenpeace victories here.

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