Greenpeace executive director Dr Russel Norman and a climate activist have pleaded guilty to attempting to obstruct an oil industry survey ship off the coast of New Zealand, forcing it to stop its seismic blasting work.

The former Green Party co-leader and Sara Howell swam in front of the Amazon Warrior as it searched for oil off the Wairarapa coast in April last year.

They were charged under a 2013 amendment to the Crown Minerals Act, dubbed the "Anadarko Amendment", by New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals, a division of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

The amendment was designed to stop protests at sea around oil exploration and the case was the first time the amendment was enforced.

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The former Green Party co-leader swam in front of the Amazon Warrior off the Wairarapa coast. Photo / Supplied
The former Green Party co-leader swam in front of the Amazon Warrior off the Wairarapa coast. Photo / Supplied

Today, Norman and Howell appeared before Napier District Court Judge Geoff Rea via video from the Auckland District Court and pleaded guilty.

Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBie) told the court it would drop charges against Greenpeace, meaning the organisation will avoid up to $200,000 in fines.

Judge Rea dismissed the charges.

The judge also briefly interrupted proceedings as a person holding a protest sign seemingly entered the Napier District Court courtroom.

Convictions were not entered against Norman and Howell as they seek a discharge without conviction and will be sentenced later this year.

Before the hearing ended, however, Judge Rea told Norman and Howell if they wanted a discharge without conviction then "leaping in and doing the same thing again is not the best way to go."

Herald cartoonist Rod Emmerson's take after Russel Norman was charged following his protest. Cartoon / Rod Emmerson
Herald cartoonist Rod Emmerson's take after Russel Norman was charged following his protest. Cartoon / Rod Emmerson

The 125m Amazon Warrior was 50 nautical miles off the Wairarapa coast, where it is exploring for Arctic driller Statoil and US oil company Chevron, when it was targeted by Greenpeace.

Statoil and Chevron have permits to drill to extreme depths of up to 3km if oil is found.

The ship collects data about oil reserves by blasting regular sound waves at the sea floor, travelling in straight lines in a grid pattern.

Forcing the ship to deviate from its path would have made the data unusable, Greenpeace said.

Last week, Greenpeace said the pair would plead guilty and seek a discharge without conviction.

The environmental non-governmental organisation said a discharge without conviction was justified on the basis that their conduct was necessary to bring about required change to government policy.

Sara Howell and former Green Party Leader Russel Norman plead guilty to attempting to obstruct an oil survey ship in the Auckland District Court today. Photo/Greg Bowker
Sara Howell and former Green Party Leader Russel Norman plead guilty to attempting to obstruct an oil survey ship in the Auckland District Court today. Photo/Greg Bowker

Since the April 10 protest, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern banned future offshore oil exploration, saying the transition to a zero-carbon economy "must start somewhere".

"Unless we make decisions today that will essentially take effect in 30 or more years' time, we run the risk of acting too late and causing abrupt shocks to communities and our country," she said during the announcement this month.

The ban on new offshore oil and gas permits is effective immediately, but will not affect existing permits or onshore exploration in the energy-rich Taranaki region over the next three years.

Ardern also promised no job losses as a result of the policy, while Norman said the move was a sign "the tide has turned irreversibly against big oil in New Zealand".

Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges said the ban was "a wrecking ball" for regional New Zealand.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces an immediate ban on oil exploration.

Both Norman and Howell faced a potential fine of $10,000 for the offence of interfering with or coming within 500m of an offshore ship involved in oil exploration.

The law also allows for punishment of up to 12 months' imprisonment or a fine of up to $50,000.

Outside court, Norman and Howell both claimed their protest was necessary and a win against oil exploration as part of Greenpeace's war against man-made climate change.

Norman has said the Amazon Warrior protest was part of an almost decade-long campaign to end fossil fuel exploration in New Zealand waters.

Howell, from Wales, added it had been encouraging to see how effective peaceful protest can be.

"I'm proud and humbled that I had the opportunity to contribute to an incredible, people-powered movement that's resulted in an end to new offshore oil and gas exploration permits," she said.

"I will take responsibility for what I did, [but] I believe it was necessary because all of the life on this planet - in its oceans, mountains, rivers, forests, and cities - is marvellous and brilliant. It is delicately balanced and too special to destroy."