Rainbow Warrior and the launch of direct green action

Diagram highlighting features of Rainbow Warrior III with insets showing the earlier Rainbow Warrior vessels

Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior II is retiring, but Rainbow Warrior III will soon take its place. How did the protest ship anchor itself in the public imagination - and can it continue to do so in future?

It has foiled and frustrated the efforts of governments, it has brought big business to its knees. For more than 30 years, the most enduring image of environmental activism has been a little ship on a roiling sea, the distinctive white dove on its hull dipping in and out of the waves.

"It's a small boat, a little untidy," said the Dalai Lama, when he visited the Rainbow Warrior in 1992.

French security forces on Rainbow Warrior French commandos boarded the Rainbow Warrior II in 1995 - 10 years after bombing its predecessor

"But it is a very powerful symbol and the spirit on board made my spirit stronger too."

In 1977, when the UK Ministry of Agriculture retired an old fisheries research boat, it sold it off to Greenpeace. Rusty old Sir William Hardy acquired a coat of colourful paint and a new identity, and began life as a protest ship. Soon, it became a campaigning icon.

"In the beginning, it was the romance of the story," says Kevin DeLuca, author of Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism, "a few individuals battling the evil empire of the Soviet Union, a primary propagator of whaling."

The ship delivered activists to far-flung regions where they chained themselves to harpoons, and positioned rubber rafts between whalers and whales.

They blocked the waste discharge pipes of factories and flung green paint on the coats of baby harp seals, rendering them commercially worthless.

Often, there was no immediate result - factory smoke swirled freely, seal pups continued to be killed - but the world began watching, simultaneously outraged and enthralled.


According to Rex Weyler, a co-founder of Greenpeace International, the organisation struck a chord because it adopted a form of civil disobedience - it did for the environment what the civil rights movement did for the dispossessed.

Rainbow Warrior Legend

Rainbow Warrior

In Native American legend, a 12-year-old boy asks his grandmother, Eyes of Fire, why such terrible things have happened to their people.

She answers: "There will come a time when the earth grows sick, and when it does a tribe will gather from all the cultures of the world who believe in deeds and not words. They will work to heal it... they will be known as the 'Warriors of the Rainbow'."

"Although we were by no means the first to advocate these ideas, we extended the concept of compassion to more than just people," he says.

In the organisation's parlance, each expedition of the Rainbow Warrior launched a "media mind bomb", eliciting a groundswell of public protest.

"The activists at Greenpeace were sophisticated media artists," says DeLuca. "A number of them were journalists - such as Robert Hunter, the first president of Greenpeace - and so knew exactly how to use images to exploit the infinite possibilities of television."

But in a perverse twist, what came to be the organisation's most famous mind bomb was one it had not planned.

In 1985, the Rainbow Warrior led a fleet of ships to protest against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Exasperated French intelligence services bombed the vessel, killing one activist and triggering widespread public outrage.

With characteristic determination - and with the slogan "You Can't Sink a Rainbow" - Greenpeace launched a second ship.

After 22 years of service, this second vessel is now retiring from service.

Unlike its predecessor, which was sunk as an artificial reef, Warrior II will serve as a floating hospital in Bangladesh, a country with a severe shortage of hospital beds.

In its place is the custom-built Rainbow Warrior III - and unlike Greenpeace's gas-guzzling vessels of yore, it will be among the most environmentally advanced ships of its size.


Start Quote

We thought Greenpeace had won the fight against whalers but we now know that's not true”

End Quote Kevin DeLuca University of Utah

Greenpeace and its flagship today make fewer headlines. Environmental direct action is no longer new and mind bombs are not quite as easy to explode.

"Images that worked in the 1970s may not be revolutionary in the media any more," says Rex Weyler.

So Greenpeace has diversified its techniques.

"Sometimes you can slap a big, thick report on the desk and it has the impact you want and sometimes you need to do a direct action to raise the profile, or sometimes you need to use an artist or somebody else from the creative industries," executive director of Greenpeace UK John Sauven told the BBC in 2008.

According to DeLuca, the Rainbow Warrior may now merely be a remnant of a more radical, more hopeful past.

"One appeal [of the ship today] is nostalgia, for a time when we thought we could win certain battles - we thought Greenpeace had won the fight against whalers but we now know that's not true. Japan still whales, Iceland still whales a little..."

Rainbow Crew

Railing on Rainbow Warrior II
  • At any one time, the 20 or so crew may include up to 15 nationalities
  • Crew members often include scientists, doctors and engineers, and at least some will have been trained to scale buildings
  • They sail for three months at a time - members share cabins and a cupboard the size of a gym locker with at least one other person
  • All eat together around a curved bench - with a skylight above and plants swinging from the bulkhead

Another factor, he says, is that Greenpeace now has a broader remit, and some of its battles are less "clear-cut".

In America, he says, the organisation has always done best when "it sticks to seals and whales". There is a more ambivalent response to more recent battles - against overfishing for example, which affects people's livelihoods, and consumerism.

"What does it mean to fight consumerism anyway?" he asks.

When the Rainbow Warrior returned to New Zealand on the 20th anniversary of the 1985 bombing, it received a mixed reception. Local fishermen made clear their opposition against its campaign to ban bottom-trawling.

Not that this grass-roots criticism deterred Greenpeace: "Bared buttocks and paint bombs we can live with," skipper Pete Willcox told the BBC at the time.

For those most closely associated with the ship, however, there's life in the old girl yet.

There are countries, China for instance, where Rainbow Warrior publicity stunts may not generate much media coverage, but Sean Lang, head of the Action and Investigation Unit for Greenpeace East Asia says the new environmentally friendly ship can still set an example.

"Let's talk about it in a positive sense: for China, who is ranked first for wind energy potential, the Rainbow Warrior holds a special meaning - it proves that renewable energy is possible."

Manuel Pinto, who served as engineer and electrician on Rainbow Warrior II, agrees. Greenpeace is finally acting upon what it has preached for so long - and this sends out an important signal.

"Now perhaps others will begin surfing our wave too."

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