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Rainbow Warrior returns to track environmental damage

Rainbow Warrior returns to track environmental damage
Storied Greenpeace vessel brings 21 crew members back to Lebanon to survey oil spill, collect oyster samples and knit during their downtime

Most of the rainbows glimmering on the surface of the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Lebanon are the unfortunate results of the attack by Israeli warplanes on the Jiyyeh power plant on July 12 and again three days later.

However, a larger, bolder and more ecologically correct rainbow has now entered Lebanon's harbor, hoping to lend a hand, or a fin, to the clean-up efforts - the Rainbow Warrior, pride of the Greenpeace fleet.

The Rainbow Warrior is a Greenpeace boat licensed in the Netherlands but designed to serve the world. It just returned to Lebanon for the second time in as many months. The Warrior's crew is neither trained nor equipped for oil-spill clean-up, but Greenpeace has partnered up with Italian scientists and academic researchers at the American University of Beirut to help track the movements of the oil slick and collect oyster samples for study.

"This trip is quite different than other Greenpeace missions. It came up suddenly and we had to react. We usually work with more advanced planning," says Captain Mike Finkin of the operation, the first Greenpeace mission he has led. A member of Greenpeace for 10 years, he previously campaigned for the salvation of blue-fin tuna off the coast of Marseille. He has been sailing for 20 years.

Jim Footner, a British member of Greenpeace's land-locked team, agrees with Finkin's assessment: "An oil spill is an extra-curricular activity. The regional team is not prepared to deal with such an event on top of their normal duties, so we send in help."

Greenpeace deployed the Rainbow Warrior "to assess how oil has contaminated the water," Footner explains. "The damage here has been fairly prolific and oil spills are region-wide problems. You can't just put a box around the oil."

The Warrior is one of three in a Greenpeace fleet that includes the Esperanza and the Arctic Sunrise. When it first came to Lebanon last month, the Warrior helped transport over 75 tons of essential medical supplies, including dialysis equipment, drugs and fuel, part of a collaboration between Greenpeace and Medecins Sans Frontieres, from August 2-10. At the time, the Warrior dared to sail during the Israeli-imposed sea blockade while larger ships remained docked far off shore in safer waters. A white-and-red Medecins Sans Frontieres banner still hangs over the cargo hold of the Warrior.

Everything else about the boat, including the color, is green. The Warrior does not use a motor but sails to move among the waves. The ration for necessary electricity on board is 0.3 cubic meters of fuel a day. Running a motor would increase fuel usage by 1.7 cubic meters. Plus, smiles Finkin, "she moves faster anyways with the sails in the right wind."

All metal components of the Warrior's exterior are painted green, with a bold rainbow displayed on either side (one side has been repainted more recently but the difference is minimal). The Warrior is currently flying the Dutch, Lebanese and Greenpeace flags. There is a red hammock swinging on deck for crew members who desire even more rocking motion.

For Finkin, originally from South Africa, the oil has become an additional yet unwanted guest on a ship that already has a crew of 21, representing 15 nationalities.

"It's dirty. Really, it gets everywhere. Our divers come back and it's on their gear, on their skin. I was looking at footage of the operation off the coast of the power station. It's horrific. The tar is a foot thick," Finkin says.

When the crew is not sailing or diving, most prefer quiet time or individual relaxation during their downtime, of which their isn't much.

"I write stories," Finkin admits. "Some knit. Others play cards or read. The electrician is learning to play the fiddle. He can do the wedding march."

Below deck and away from the oil sludge are double-occupancy sleeping cabins, an information-technology room filled with countless dials and switches, a library with dozens of Lonely Planet guidebooks and photos of past Greenpeace aquatic endeavors. There is a sewing machine with colorful spools of thread in the cargo hold as well - ready to be used by the more domestically minded members of the crew for making promotional material for their activism campaigns.

This is the second Greenpeace ship to take the name Rainbow Warrior. The first Warrior, built in 1957, was bombed on July 10, 1985, by French secret service agents in Auckland harbor. The first ship was thus a casualty in the campaign against nuclear testing. One crew member was killed in the explosion.

Although this current mission is being carried out in coordination with the Lebanese Navy and the ship appears to be out of harm's way, the crew cannot ignore the tragedy that occurred in Lebanon during the summer's war.

Finkin's only visit to the dry land of Lebanon nearly brought him to tears. He and his crew took a half-hour look at Beirut's southern suburbs, an area that the Israelis bombed on a daily basis during the war.

"I saw huge lorries going past with rubble and I stood watching people and my heart grew heavier. If I had stayed any longer I would have started to cry," the captain says.

Meanwhile, underwater, Greenpeace diver Regina Srerichs explores the damage Israel has wrought on Lebanon's seas.

"The first dive at the power plant there was a lot of oil on the seabed, everything was covered in oil, it was between the stones and a viscous layer on the water's surface," she says. "This dive was cleaner."

Srerichs, a diver since 1986, has witnessed such an oil spill before - after the collision of two oil tankers in the Baltic Sea. "This is worse," she declares.

For oil to settle into the seabed it is necessary that it finds something to grab onto or it will it keep moving with the current. The Greenpeace diving team started at Jiyyeh and worked its way north up the coastline, helping to map where the oil has, or has not, settled.

"There is not much left above the water. It's all sunken below," says Footner, noting the importance these maps will be for the oil clean-up crews.

"Most of the poison you can't see," adds Srerichs, who has been diving since 1986. "I won't touch the fish, not north of Jiyyeh until I hear the results from the scientists. It all depends on their results. Maybe the sample will bring good news."

As samples, the team collects 60 oysters from each dive spot and averages three dives a day. As the Rainbow Warrior sails her way from Beirut to the Palm Islands off the coast of Tripoli, with a possible stopover in Byblos, and then eventually away from Lebanon altogether, her crew will continue to test the seas, anxious about what will be found next, along with the rest of the world.

Beirut,10 02 2006
Iman Azzi
The Daily Star
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