The Ends of the Rainbow…

As published in Dive New Zealand here.

Sub-tropical currents, storms and constant rust erosion will see one of the world’s most famous wrecks washed away within the next decade. Kevin Keith travels to the Cavalli Islands in Northland, New Zealand, to explore the latest end of the Rainbow Warrior.

Months of meticulous planning. Detail to a degree that discounts improbability. Nothing left to chance, everything left to choice, the slow measured approach begins. Silence [beat] except for the sound [beat] of breathing [beat] being interrupted [beat] by a pounding heart. A mind of total concentration: control, precision, faultlessness. Another check of the watch: 23-38 local time.

Ten minutes, two explosions, and a tragic loss of life later, the four-hundred tonne Rainbow Warrior was at the bottom of Auckland Harbour. “The truth is cruel,” declared the French Prime Minister several months after the terrorist act of July 10th 1985. “It was agents of the French secret service who sank this boat.”

This was the first end of the Rainbow.

Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour after bombing by French secret service agents.

Trees split the breathtaking beauty of the surrounding countryside. It appears almost animated, like through a zoopraxiscope, as to my right Dave Wadsworth, proprietor of Kerikeri-based Dive North, drives to Whangaroa Harbour.

“I must be close to my 600th dive on her now,” said Dave, who since his arrival in New Zealand seven years ago has become the most experienced Rainbow Warrior dive charter still operating. “Every time I dive the Warrior it’s different: it’s a joy.”

Following the sinking in Auckland Harbour the forty metre long former fishery trawler was re-floated and taken south west of Motutapere Island, near to the Cavalli Islands in 1987. A Maori funeral process known as a ‘tangi’ took place as the Rainbow Warrior became the first of the Northland’s chain of recreational wrecks and amongst the worlds most poignant.

“It is much more than a wreck,” said Dave. “More so than any other dive in New Zealand. The entire history of the Rainbow Warrior has been based on ‘looking beneath the surface’ and that still applies today – the experience of diving the Rainbow Warrior begins a long time before you pull on your wetsuit; we complete the experience rather start it.”

He is right. The sense of anticipation is already palpable. Dave’s enthusiasm for the Rainbow Warrior continues en route with testimony after testimony, experience after experience, story after story, until we arrive at Whangaroa Harbour.

The surrounding ridge systems of eroded volcanoes feel like a natural amphitheatre: its steep banks carpeted with some of the country’s last remaining diverse coastal forest and dotted with the unmistakeable red of pohutukawa trees.

Whangaroa Harbour is located 15 kilometres south west of the Cavalli Islands and is one of several smaller harbours suitable for boats departing for the Rainbow Warrior. Larger charter operators, including Dive North, depart from Paihia, some 30 kilometres south east of the Cavalli Islands, where other ‘Rainbow Warrior’ specialists are located.


It was a relatively small group of divers who climbed aboard the now kitted-up ‘Lady Rose’ with ages ranging from 20 to 65 years. In contrast to the diversity of age, there was a clear commonality of motivation with regards to why people chose to undertake this dive: ‘It is the Rainbow Warrior; it is what it stands for,’ said one who was also completing a PADI Advanced Course and who would have been three years old at the time of the original sinking. ‘It was a hugely significant event,” said a sixty-five year old New Zealander, who impressively was undertaking her first PADI Adventure Dive: “The attack on the Rainbow Warrior was an attack on what we stand for.”

A first dive at Nukutaunga Island gave a taste of things to come: water temperature of 16 degrees, visibility of 10+ metres and enough diversity of fish species to excite an ichthyologist.

It is the origination and combination of warm currents from the Sub Tropical water mass and cool currents influenced by the Sub-Antarctic water mass, which lead to such diversity of fish. Coriolis forces bring warm and cool, via the Tasman Sea, together to form the East Auckland current. This serves the east coast of the Northland, sometimes at speeds of up to half a metre per second, and brings surprising visitors, like the Lord Howe Coral fish usually found in the Coral Sea, to the subtropical water mass surrounding New Zealand.

The Lady Rose passed over the Pacific towards the Rainbow Warrior in relative silence as the group sat packed into full wetsuits until our arrival at an understated surface buoy. “Half a dozen times a year you can lean over the boat and can see the ripples in the sand,” said Dave. Views over the edge of the boat confirmed this was not going to be the case today, but a detailed dive and wreck orientation briefing helped gauge what lay on sand floor 26 metres below.

As wreck divers we are ‘imagineers’: masters of the second-take; the look-and- look again. We are people who see things for what they are and what they were. It is the second-take that enters the water with us: a view of how it ‘used to look’ based on research, historical reference; on conversation from the boat above.

The more you know the more second-take you have and the more you can fill in the gaps to imagine what it ‘must have been like’: to see 2012 and 1985 in the same dive. This is what makes wreck-diving such a fulfilling pursuit.

“It is like a story book of 25 years under the ocean,” said Dave. “It sounds strange but it does have an atmosphere. When you pass down the line and there it is… that is a feeling I have only felt on that wreck.”

The story had begun. Five metres into the descent, a shadowy outline appears, second-take in overdrive: ‘Rainbow Warrior Sinks after Explosion,’ BBC 1985; ‘France Must Pay Greenpeace $8 Million in Sinking of Ship’, The New York Times 1987; ‘Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior personally sanctioned by Mitterrand’, Daily Telegraph 2005.

A strong westward current forces a tensing of grip to the anchor line. A further five metres; further detail, further thoughts; conversations, repercussions, symbolism: ‘A hole measuring six feet by eight feet was found in the boat,’ BBC 1985; “Just take care of your mom… I’ll be home soon”; murdered Fernando Pereira to his eight year-old daughter, in May 1985.

Ten metres more and there she was: the Rainbow Warrior. Lying on a slight tilt with the port deck at around 18 metres and the starboard deck at around 21 most divers approach the Rainbow Warrior from the stern and move towards the bow and back.

The stern hull on the starboard side provides the first of many microhabitats that make up this vessel and underlines the simplest of principles with regards to surface space: where there is light there is plant; where there is darkness there is animal.

Without sunlight the starboard side is a kaleidoscopic carpet of filter feeders covering every last available surface space: sponges, sea squirts, bryozoans and fluorescent pink jewel anemones. All of these take advantage of the currents’ provision of planktonic food, which in turn benefits the schools of young leatherjackets, porae and goatfish.

Look at the starboard side of the wreck in closer detail, and in addition to Jason’ nudibranch and grey moray eels hunting for small prey amongst tight recesses, you also see clear evidence of rust.

This damage is more extreme as you move along the starboard side towards the bow: the original blast hole in the keel is now under the sand, replaced by another hole caused by recent storms; the remnants of the wheel house lie broken on the sandy sea floor; the funnel is quite simply no more.

Arguably the most photographed part of the Rainbow Warrior is the bowsprit. Sat perpendicular on the sea bed and looking up at a spearhead silhouette, it is not hard to see why. This is the ‘warrior’ of the wreck: the unswerving, through gritted-teeth, follow-me-we-are- going-in sense of direction that would so often lead this peaceful ship into dangerous waters.

As if to impress the bowsprit nature has made this surface space the key battle ground for animal versus plant as both wrestle on the border of no sunlight and sunlight.

At the foot of the bow is one of many dark rooms that can be penetrated on the Rainbow Warrior. Less water circulation means less plankton means less animals, but not less fish: cave-dwelling big eyes, slender roughies, snapper, red mullet, John Dory, and an infamous scorpion fish named ‘George’, waiting for his next meal.

The port side of the Rainbow Warrior faces north towards the sun. Seaweeds grow quickly here trimmed regularly by hungry leatherjackets. This continues on to the surface of the vessel where ecklonia kelp and seaweed mix with hydroids, algae and bryozons.

The steep banks of the Whangaroa Harbour are now replaced by thoughts of the steep banks of the ‘starboard side’; the dotted red pohutakawa trees making way for recollection of the dotted fluorescent jewel anemones: the return journey to Kerikeri was different.

“It’s a simply stunning dive isn’t it,” said Dave. “Did you notice as you came out of the lounge, past the engine, that big hole on right hand side? That was not there three months ago.”

Previously the aluminium superstructure conducted rust away from the steel infrastructure but years of storms has left much of the steel exposed on the boat. Whilst sun-seeking plants quickly colonise surface space on the port side it is a slower process for animals on the starboard side hence more rust. In places where there is no circulation, no plankton, no light, there is also no protection, and so rust develops.

“The trouble with ships is that the transition between a wreck you can dive and just a wreck can be a very short space of time. I anticipate it will only be there for another maximum 10 years,” said Dave.

The second end of the Rainbow.

As the truck entered Kerikeri, Dave described how when Rainbow Warrior II was in Auckland, he dived with the majority of the original crew of its predecessor: “They all made a pilgrimage and most of them were keen to get out of there and see it again.” The word ‘pilgrimage’ reinforced Dave’s earlier point that the Rainbow Warrior was ‘much more than a wreck’.

The ability to see things for what they are and what they were, our imagination, it is this that distinguishes us from the nature. I posed this to Dave as we loaded the kit off the back of the truck and asked what would happen to his ‘story book’ once the Rainbow Warrior had rusted away.

“The experience of diving the Rainbow Warrior begins a long time before you pull on your wetsuit,” repeats Dave. “So in many respects, even when the physical wreck is no longer there, there will still be a Rainbow Warrior.”

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