The ends of the Rainbow...

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.

Ten minutes, two explosions, and a tragic loss of life later, the 400-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 10 July 1985. ‘It was agents of the French secret service who sank this boat.’

This was the first end of the Rainbow.

Following the sinking the 40 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 Northland’s chain of recreational wrecks and amongst the world’s most poignant.

The entire history of the Rainbow Warrior is 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.

The sense of anticipation is already palpable. Arriving 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 unmistakable red of pohutukawa trees.

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

Ours was a small group of divers with ages from 20 to 65 years. 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 would have been three years old at the time of the original sinking. ‘It was a hugely significant event,’ said a 65-year-old New Zealander, ‘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 10+ metres and diversity of fish species to get an ichthyologist mildly excited.

We arrival at an understated surface buoy and a detailed dive and wreck orientation briefing helped gauge what lay on the 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.

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 Marelle his eight year-old daughter, May 1985.

Ten metres more and there she was: the Rainbow Warrior. Lying on a slight tilt with the port deck at 18 metres and the starboard deck at 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 in closer detail, and in addition to Jason’s 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 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 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. 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.

Her port side 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 recollections of the dotted fluorescent jewel anemones: the return journey to Kerikeri was different.

‘It’s a simply stunning dive,’ said Dave, proprietor of Dive North. ‘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. 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 10 years,’ said Dave.

The second end of the Rainbow.

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 experience of diving the Rainbow Warrior begins a long time before you pull on your wetsuit,’ repeats Dave.

‘There will always be a Rainbow Warrior. You cannot sink a rainbow.’