Case 12: The Rainbow Warrior (PART I)

AUCKLAND CITY, AUCKLAND. In April 1985, Fernando Pereira said goodbye to his children in the Netherlands, his departing words were, “Just take care of your mom, I’ll do my trip and I’ll be home soon”.

With goodbyes said to his loved ones, Fernando travelled to Hawaii and reported for duty. 

Fernando boarded the ship that would be his home for the next six months as he travelled around the globe – the Rainbow Warrior.

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Hosted by Jessica Rust
Written and edited by Sirius Rust

Music sourced from:

Kevin MacLeod (
“Day of Chaos”, “Organic Meditations Three”, “Organic Meditations Two”, “Round Drums”, “With the Sea”
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0

The podcast version is the intended way to consume this story but we make a transcript available for those that would rather read instead. This can be found below.

“One day, the Earth will get sick. The birds will fall from the sky, the seas will darkle and the dead fishes will be floating on the river. When this day arrives, the Native Indians will lose their spirits. But the will get them back to teach the white man to bow to the holy Earth. And then, all the races will be united under the rainbow icon to put an end to the destruction. It will be the era of the Rainbow Warriors.North American Cree Prophecy



Ernest Rutherford was born on the 30th of August 1871 in Brightwater, a small town 20km southwest of Nelson. After studying at Nelson College; Ernest won a scholarship to study at Canterbury College

After gaining a Master of Arts degree and a Bachelor of Science. In 1895, Ernest received the 1851 Research Fellowship. A three-year research scholarship awarded to “young scientists or engineers of exceptional promise”.

At 23 years old, Ernest chose to work at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in the United Kingdom. In 1908, Ernest was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his investigations into the disintegration of elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances.

In 1918, while bombarding nitrogen atoms with alpha particles, Ernest observed outgoing protons of energy larger than that of the incoming alpha particles. With this, Ernest Rutherford had become the first person to split the atom.


In the 1930s a nuclear arms race began, all the major players had their best scientists on the job; Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States and Nazi Germany.

In 1934, building upon the work of Ernest Rutherford; two French scientists observed that splitting an atom with an atomic nucleus created man-made radioactivity.

This led US scientists to their own discovery that uranium ore was (in essence) the largest atomic nucleus to split, for it would then continue to split over and over again – releasing a huge amount of nuclear energy. This could be harnessed for peaceful or destructive means.

On the 6th of August 1945, the United States B-29 bomber Enola Gay took flight, flown by Brigadier General Paul Tibbets, the plane, named after his mother. Enola Gay made the six hour flight to Japan, continuing on to Hiroshima home to 350,000 people. Uranium Atom bomb; codenamed ‘Little Boy’ was dropped at 8.15am.

Little Boy missed its intended target of the Aioi Bridge. Ground zero became Shima Hospital – 16 kilotons of TNT were unleashed on the city. 146,000 people were killed by the explosion and the effects of the radiation in the months following. 

12km2 of Hiroshima was destroyed from the blast. if you click the link in the show notes to take you to our website – we have highlighted 12km2 maps over Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch; for those curious how large that is in relation to your own cities.

Fig 2. 12km2 blast radius area in relation to Wellington.

Fig 3. 12km2 blast radius area in relation to Christchurch.

Fig 4. 12km2 blast radius area in relation to Auckland.


In 1954, United States scientists were working on Operation Castle. They were stationed in Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands; 5,000km north of NZ – which at the time was an American colony. 

On the 1st of March, the US test fired thermonuclear weapon Castle Bravo. The result was 15 megatons of TNT, at the time, the most powerful artificial explosion in history. 1,000 times more powerful than Little Boy, which had previously been dropped on Hiroshima.

Billiet Edmond, a school teacher from the nearby Rongelap, an atoll 150km downwind from the blast zone detailed the 1st of March 1954 in his diary, “It was between five and six [am] when the first flash came… from that overwhelming and most frightening event… As the lightning faded, a huge and fiery sun-like object rose up in the western part of the lagoon. It was the sun, for it was round, but it was much bigger than our sun. It was a sun for it was lighting the sky and giving of heat… yet its intensity was far greater and invincible, and it was much brighter, which left all of us aghast. As the terrible fireball completely rose above the western horizon, its upper portion erupted and a combination of blended particles spurted out and upward, burning. None of us could move, but everyone stared at the fireball without a word. In just one fraction of a second, the queer-looking fiery object became a giant mushroom and then another one and then another, and still another grew upon another.. The whole atmosphere turned bloody coloured – and the heat… the explosion! Louder than any 100 of the strongest Second World War bombs bursting together… the ever frightening sound accompanied by a tornado-powered wind sweeping through our land, twisting coconut trees, uprooting bushes, smashing windows, doors and overturning one house.”

In 1963, the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union all signed the ‘Partial Test Ban Treaty’ to abandon atmospheric nuclear testing, instead to detonate the weapons underground. France was not one of the signatories, believing it was in need of its own nuclear deterrent.

France chose two uninhabited atolls in French Polynesia as test sites for their nuclear initiative; Mururoa and Fangataufa, about 4500km northeast of NZ. Winiki Sage the president of the Economic, Social and Cultural Committee of French Polynesia told journalist David Robie in 1985, when he asked if the testing was safe; he was assured it was, “We didn’t understand what was happening, a lot of Tahitians and Polynesians went to France for the war. And, when Mr de Gaulle (the French President from 1959 to 1969) came here and said ‘we’re going to do some tests,’ no one could imagine it was going to be so bad for us… All the Tahitians were led to believe that it would be safe, I can tell you that in the house of my grandmother there was a nice picture of a big nuclear bomb test, and everybody was thinking it was something nice. We didn’t really know that it was something bad for us.”

French atmospheric testing continued into the 1970s. In March of 1973, NZ Prime Minister Norman Kirk wrote a strongly worded letter to the French Government; claiming the testing was a “violation of New Zealand’s rights under international law”.

In May 1973, NZ and Australian Governments took France to the International Court to cease nuclear testing in the Pacific. Radiation had been detected in both countries in the aftermath of the tests. France refused to follow the court’s ruling to cease the tests. 

During this time, NZ’s sent the HMNZS Otago, an 85m Navy frigate, to Mururoa to protest French actions; with Rules of Engagement to, “fire upon French vessels in self-defence if the need arose.”

The Minister for Immigrations and Mines Fraser Colman was selected to sail on the Otago. During a dockside press conference, Fraser said his mission was to “ensure that the eyes of the world are riveted on Mururoa”.

The ongoing protesting and overall negative attention led to France taking their nuclear testing underground in 1974. The Evening Post saw this as a victory for the people of NZ, they wrote in an editorial at the time, “The full effect of the protest can only be speculated upon. But let there be no doubt that New Zealand’s stand has captured worldwide attention and admiration. Perhaps those among us who were inclined to dismiss the New Zealand government’s decision as a senseless and theatrical gimmick may now re-form their opinion.”


In 1984, campaigning on an anti-nuclear policy; a Labour government was brought to power with David Lange at the helm. During the late 1970s to early 1980s, NZ had been dealing with the issue of US nuclear powered navy ship docking at NZ ports.

The previous National government had relaxed its anti-nuclear sentiment and allowed nuclear powered US ships to dock at NZ ports. This was unpopular with the public, in a 1984 poll; 30% of NZ agreed with allowing US warships to dock, while 58% disagreed.

In February 1984, Lange refused entry of US warship USS Buchanan to NZ ports. This action created a strain on US/NZ relations. As the US refused to disclose which ships contained nuclear material; Lange refused all US ships from docking in NZ.

In March of 1985, David Lange participated in a debate at the Oxford Union in England with US conservative political figure Jerry Falwell. It was here, David said perhaps the most famous line in NZ politics:

In 1985, protests around French underground nuclear testing continued with hope that France would cease their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction altogether. The French government refused, it saw its nuclear testing programme as essential for the republic’s security. France over 30 years, tested 193 atmospheric and underground nuclear weapons.



Fernando Pereira was born in the town of Chaves in Portugal on the 10th of May 1950. In his youth, Fernando joined the armed forces – serving as a pilot. Fernando, a man of principal, refused to fight in the government’s war to maintain control of the Portugese colonies of Angola and Mozambique

This refusal led to Fernando fleeing his homeland for Spain to escape the corporatist authoritarian government that ruled Portugal until 1974. Eventually finding his way to the Netherlands by way of hitchhiking, where he settled. Fernando married a local Dutch woman and had two children, a daughter – Marelle, and a son – Paul

Fernando always had a passion for photography as well as having a deep interest in environmental issues. In 1985, Fernando combined these two passions when he became a freelance photographer for Greenpeace on their six month voyage of peace through the Pacific Ocean.

Journalist David Robie, who would travel with Fernando during this time, described him as, “His charming Latin temperament and looks betrayed his Portuguese origins. He liked tight Italian-syle clothes and fast sports cars. Pereira was always wide-eyed, happy and smiling.” 

In April 1985, Fernando Pereira said goodbye to his children in the Netherlands, his departing words were, “Just take care of your mom, I’ll do my trip and I’ll be home soon”.

With goodbyes said to his loved ones, Fernando travelled to Hawaii and reported for duty. 

Fernando boarded the ship that would be his home for the next six months as he travelled around the globe – the Rainbow Warrior.


The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was a government department of the United Kingdom; established in 1955. The department was created to handle the responsibilities of the British food industry.

In the same year, the Ministry commissioned a research ship to be built. The boat would be a trawler, a commercial fishing vessel. Trawling is a method of fishing that involves actively dragging or pulling a trawl (which is a large fishing net) through the water behind one or more trawlers.

The boat was built in Aberdeen – a city of 200,000 on the northeast coastline of Scotland. Hall, Russell & Company built the 49m and 418t vessel. The ship was the first diesel electric ship built in the UK; diesel-electric ships work by fuelling multiple diesel engines, with each driving an electric generator, which produced electric power that energised electric motors connected to the propellers. This had the benefit of lower fuel consumption, less pollution and more maneuverability.

The boat was finished in 1955; the vessel was named after a former archivist of Scotland’s National Archives: Sir William Hardy.

By 1978, Sir William Hardy had completed her tour of duty for the UK; the Ministry was looking to sell the old research boat. They had an interested party as well – Greenpeace.


Greenpeace is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) started as anti nuclear committee, ‘Don’t Make a Wave’ in 1969 – formed in Vancouver, Canada to protest the United States government testing nuclear weapons on the small island of Amchitka in Alaska

In their protest, the committee captained a boat to the island; the mission was halted when they were turned back by the US Coast Guard.

During one Don’t Make a Wave Committee meetings; one member said ‘Peace’ to farewell another member – to which the other member responded ‘Make it a green peace’. In 1972, the committee formally changed its name to the Greenpeace Foundation

In 1978, Greenpeace was trying to scramble £37,000 together (equivalent to approx. $236,000 in 2019 dollars) for the downpayment on Sir William Hardy. The ship would lead their protests of commercial whaling in Iceland.

With help from the Dutch branch of the World Wildlife Fund, who agreed to help finance the purchase to help the whales. Greenpeace took ownership of Sir William Hardy in 1978 their first vessel in Europeon waters.

Referencing the North American Cree Indian prophecy: ‘When the world is sick and dying, the people will rise up like Warriors of the Rainbow…’, Sir WIlliam Hardy was given a fresh coat of paint with rainbow patterns accenting its green hull. A white dove carrying an olive branch was painted on the bow. On the 2nd of May 1978 the boat was relaunched as the ‘Rainbow Warrior’.


In 1985, Rainbow Warrior received an upgrade. The fitting of sails allowed the ship to travel further distances. This was to prepare the boat for its voyage into the Pacific Ocean later in the year. With this the Rainbow Warrior became Greenpeace’s flagship vessel.

In April of 1985, the Rainbow Warrior set sail on its ‘Pacific Peace Voyage’. To protest French nuclear testing in the pacific. A ship was manned by a crew of 13 including, Skipper – Peter Wilcox, Chief Engineer Davey Edward, freelance journalist David Robie and freelance photographer Fernando Pereira.

First stop was Rongelap Atoll, which had been polluted by American nuclear testing from 1946 to 1962. The Pacific Islanders living near the fallout site were suffering from the nuclear radiation decades after the testing; this manifested as cancer, leukemia and birth defects. 

In May of 1985, Greenpeace began their relocation of the Rongelap islanders to the safer Mejato Island. During that time, one Rongelap native John Anjain described the ‘day of the double sunrise’ to journalist David Robie; the day the US government exploded H-bomb Castle Bravo, a bomb 1,000 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima, 150km upwind at Bikini Atoll: 

“[One sun rose from the east, and another from the west] We heard a noise like thunder. We saw some strange clouds over the horizon. But the sun is the west faded away… In the afternoon something began falling from the sky upon our island. It looked like ash from a fire. It fell on me, it fell on my wife, it fell on our infant son. It fell on the trees, and on the roofs on our houses. It fell on the reef, and into the lagoon. We were very curious about this ash falling from the sky. Some people put it in their mouths and tasted it. One man rubbed it into his eye to see if it would cure an old ailment. People walked in it, and children played with it.”

“Later on, in the evening it rained, the rain fell on the roofs of our houses. It washed away the ash. The water mixed with the ash which fell into our water catchments. Men, women and children drank that water. It didn’t taste like rainwater and it was dark yellow, sometimes black. But people drank it anyway.”

“Then, the next day, some Americans came to our island. They had a machine (geiger counter for detecting radiation) with them. They went around the island. They looked very worried and talked rapidly to each other. They told us we must not drink the water in our catchment tanks. They left – without explaining anything. By now most of the people were sick. Many vomited and felt weak. Later, the hair of men, women and children began to fall out. A lot of people had burns on their skin.”

“On the third day some ships came. Americans again came on our island. They explained that we were in great danger because of the ash. They said, “If you don’t leave, you will all die”.

The Rongelap residents were moved by the American Navy 160km away to another island. Three years later, American scientents declared Rongelap safe, although admitting it may still have, “slight lingering radiation”. 18 years later, John’s son, who was only one-year-old when Bravo exploded, passed away from acute myelogenous leukaemia; along with numerous others in the fallout zone.

On the 12th of May, two new nuclear tests were announced by the French government. Crew from the Rainbow Warrior sent the French President Francois Mitterrand their feelings on that idea, “We wish to express our outrage over these tests not only for what they represent in terms of the nuclear weapons race, but also because of France’s callous disregard for the wish of Pacific peoples everywhere to make their oceans a nuclear free zone. We are now engaged in an evacuation of the people of Rongelap Atoll… [who] were heavily contaminated by American nuclear tests in the 1940s and 1950s – and their island remains dangerously reactive to this day. Must France continually repeat the mistakes of the United States and Britain in the Pacific? Must France continue to pompously ignore the tide of public opinion regionally and around the world which says, ‘enough’?”

Fernando Pereira was there to photograph the event. His photographs of the evacuation were described as, “profoundly moving”.

The relocation to Majuro was completed on the 12th of June 1985. As the Rainbow Warrior set sail for NZ; with Majuro in the distance – Chief Engineer Davey Edward reflected on how the evacuation had affected him to journalist David Robie, “When I joined Greenpeace my contribution was to be mainly technical – but the evacuation saw that approach take a back seat. We were faced with uprooting a people from their homeland and setting them down on a place which, to them, may as well have been light years away. The first encounter had me scurrying for the engine room: an old lady on the welcoming launch looking tearfully, forlornly at the island which would have, should have, been her final resting place. The farewell on Ebeye had really got to me. We ate, we drank, we sang, we danced; they shook our hands, they gave us money; I cried. How could anyone do to these shy, gentle people what has been done? The only excuse of the guilty was: ‘it’s for the good of mankind’.”


On the 7th of July 1985, the Rainbow Warrior harboured in Auckland. The large 40m ship was to spearhead a flotilla of vessels to Mururoa Atoll, located 4,500km northeast of New Zealand to protest upcoming French nuclear tests.

In the years leading up to 1985, Greenpeace had many encounters with French military. These confrontations escalated in 1974, while protesting nuclear testing in the pacific; Greenpeace yacht Vega was boarded by French commandos.

The French Military viciously assaulted Skipper David McTaggart as well as one other crew member. McTaggart was hospitalised as a result of this attack and lost vision in one eye for several months.

The French government claimed McTaggart’s injuries were from a fall but photos from the Greenpeace crew told a different story. This caused outrage toward France from the international media.

10 JULY 1985

The evening of the 10th of July 1985. The Rainbow Warrior still remained docked in Auckland port. Gearing up for the big voyage. The 10th of July was a special day for one crew member: Steve Sawyer; he was celebrating his 29th birthday.

Margaret Mills, the ship’s cook had baked Steve a chocolate birthday cake with a jelly bean rainbow. The Rainbow Warrior was open to the public and others from the protest to come join the celebrations. On board, people enjoyed the jovial atmosphere – eating, drinking and socialising.

About 30 people were on board the Rainbow Warrior. ‘Birthday boy’ Steve saw an unusual looking man at the ship’s bow. Steve noted, the man in his mid 20s looked more like a bank clerk than a peace activist. When the man left, he said to Steve, “Happy Birthday! I hope you make it to Mururoa.” The man was French.

8.15pm. The skippers of all the protest vessels heading to Mururoa descended into the hold for a planning meeting. The members discussed possible rendezvous points, safety and schedules.

9.30pm. A French made Zodiac (a motorised inflatable boat) pulled up ashore at Hobson Bay. One man, wearing a wetsuit and a red woolen hat occupied the Zodiac. The man stashed the Zodiac engine under the Ngapipi Bridge before breaching the inflatable boat and concealing what remained.

Soon after, a man and a woman driving a Toyota Hi-ace campervan pulled up alongside the mystery man. He entered the vehicle and the three exited the scene. 

Members of the Outboard Boating Club on Tamaki Drive were looking out on the harbour; drinking coffee and socialising. They viewed all this from afar. Thinking something was off about what transpired – they jotted down the number plate of the van: LB8945.

11pm. The planning meeting concluded. Some members left for Piha beach, there was to be an international meeting of some of the biggest names in Greenpeace in the early morning hours of the next day.

Others, including Chief Engineer Davey Edward and photographer Fernando Pereira stayed and had a drink in the mess room; the night was still young.

11.50pm. CRUMPPPP! A massive explosion is felt coming from below. As the ship shuddered, some of the crew was violently hurled to the ground, others to the walls. Chief Engineer Edward yelled “Bloody hell… It’s from the engine room.”

The engine room was located around the centre of the ship, directly below the mess room. Edward scrambled down the stairs; he turned the crank to open the engine room. What Edward witnessed was water gushing in a sizable breach in the hull. Soon the main engine was underwater, the water started to steam. It was inevitable; the ship was going down.

Soon someone yelled from top deck, “Look out, the mast is coming down!”. Fernando Pereira was concerned about the cameras located in his cabin. He quickly travelled to the back of the ship. He descended the stairs. 

11.52pm. A second explosion came from below deck. This time towards the rear of the vessel. Skipper Peter Wilcox yelled, “Abandon ship. Everybody get the hell out of here!”. 

The crew regrouped on the dock. They watched as Greenpeace’s pride and joy, the Rainbow Warrior sank 60 seconds after the second explosion.

Wilcox did a quick headcount. Everyone was accounted for; except for Fernando Pereira.


Back in the Netherlands, it was around 1.30pm when Fernando Pereira’s family found out about his missing status. Marelle Pereira, Fernando’s daughter recalls that moment, “During the summer we went to camp, we were playing a game with a ball with my friends, then one of our teachers came up to me and asked if I could join her because she had something to tell me. My mom was there and I thought that was pretty strange. I did not know what to think of that, so I walked with her to where my mother was sitting with an uncle of mine, but over there I got a strange feeling, I don’t know how to explain that, but I knew something had to be wrong with my dad. It had to be; otherwise my mom would have come over there and talked to me. By the time that I got to my mom she was in tears. The moment that she said he was missing, all the pieces fell together and I cried together with my mom. We packed our bags that afternoon and she took me home. We waited for the news which eventually was of my dad turning up dead”.

That moment would come 4am NZ time, when Navy divers recovered Fernando Pereira’s body from his cabin. He had drowned with the straps of his camera bags tangled around one of his legs.

Navy divers also discovered a hole about two metres by three metres blown inwards on the starboard side of the ship’s engineroom, meaning the blast came from outside the hull. The second breach was similar in size around the propeller shaft.

That day, Greenpeace International sent a memo out to all 15 of its member countries:



French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius was quick to condemn the act of terrorism against Greenpeace, “I want to return to the outrage against the Rainbow Warrior… our condemnation… is an absolute condemnation against a criminal act. The guilty whoever they be, have to pay for this crime.”

— END OF PART I (1/2)


Internet Articles
Greenpeace, Rainbow Warrior educational resources, (PRIMARY RESOURCE)
Wikipedia, Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior,
Wikipedia, Greenpeace,
Greenpeace, The original Rainbow Warrior,
Wikipedia, Fernando Pereira,
Wikipedia, Manhattan Project,
Te Ara, Story: Rutherford, Ernest,
Wikipedia, Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, FRANCE’S NUCLEAR TESTING PROGRAMME,
Torpedo Bay Navy Museum, (1945-1975) French Nuclear Testing at Mururoa,
Te Ara, David Lange and the Oxford Union debate,

M. Atkin, The Boat and the Bomb, 2005,
Journeyman Pictures, The Rainbow Warrior Bomber Breaks His Silence, 2015,

David Robie, Eyes of Fire, 1986

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