The Rainbow Warrior was built in 1955, in Aberdeen, Scotland, as a trawler named Sir William Hardy, and entered service with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. She served until 1977 when she was put up for sale by the Ministry. She was acquired by Greenpeace at a cost of £40,000 and underwent a four month refit. She was re-launched on April 29, 1978 as Rainbow Warrior, the first ship to serve with Greenpeace. Further modifications followed, with the replacement of the engines in 1981 and the fitting of sails in a ketch rig in 1985.
In early 1985 Rainbow Warrior was in the Pacific campaigning against nuclear testing. In May, she evacuated some 300 Marshall Islanders from Rongelap Atoll, polluted by radioactivity from past American nuclear tests at the Pacific Proving Grounds.
She travelled to New Zealand to lead a flotilla of yachts protesting against French nuclear testing at the Mururoa Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago of French Polynesia. During previous nuclear tests at Mururoa, protest ships had been boarded by French commandos after sailing into the shipping exclusion zone around the atoll.
For the 1985 tests Greenpeace intended to monitor the impact of nuclear tests and place protesters on the island to illegally monitor the blasts. The French Government infiltrated the Canada-based organisation and discovered these plans.
The Rainbow Warrior, then captained by Peter Willcox, was sabotaged and sunk just before midnight NZST (1pm BST, 8am EDT) on July 10, 1985 by two explosive devices attached to the hull by operatives of the French intelligence service (DGSE). One of the twelve people on board, photographer Fernando Pereira, returned to the ship after the first explosion to attempt to retrieve his equipment, and was killed when the ship was sunk by the second larger explosion.
The wreck of the Rainbow Warrior was refloated on 21 August 1985 and moved to a naval harbour for forensic examination. Although the hull had been recovered the damage was too extensive for economic repair and the vessel was scuttled in Matauri Bay in the Cavalli Islands, New Zealand on 2 December 1987, to serve as a dive wreck and artificial reef to promote marine life.