Night Before - Prepare
I triple checked that my dive gear was packed and ready to go, cameras had fresh batteries and a clear memory card, and I had snacks ready for tomorrow. I wrote down an intention for tomorrow, which was to learn.
Weeks before, our Captain had secured permission to dive the rigs. Each of the 23 rigs off of California is privately owned, and special permission must be obtained in order to dive on them. This is understandable, given that activity could interfere with the rig's normal operations.
6am - Wake Up
Sleepy but excited, we drove from downtown LA to the harbor in San Pedro (near Long Beach). Along the way, we passed a massive oil refinery (“Philip 66”). Although only 20 minutes from downtown, it felt like a different planet. The 659-acre refinery supplies gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel to California, Nevada, and Arizona. It's hard to wrap my head around the fact that when the refinery was built in the 1920s, the global population was about one fourth what it is today (~2BN vs 8BN).
7am - Rendezvous
We met Captain Jim on his boat next to a restaurant called the Crusty Crab; I found this hilarious because it's the restaurant name in SpongeBob. Our intrepid expedition crew included three researchers, an artist, a cinematographer, and Blue Latitudes staff. We hauled our tanks onto the boat, checked our gear one more time, and headed off.
8am - Depart Through Maze of Cargo Ships
Unlike the oil rigs off of Santa Barbara, you cannot see the rigs off LA from the shore, although the Captain said that on clear days he can sometimes see them as little blips on the horizon. It took us an hour to motor out to them, and I didn't see them until we were about 15 minutes away. What was hard not to notice though were the 30+ cargo ships waiting around the harbor. The Port of LA is the busiest port in the US (and the adjoining Port of Long Beach the third busiest), so it's always heavily trafficked. That said, regulars on the boat agreed that seeing this many waiting ships was unprecedented. Just two days before the New York Times confirmed that "[a] record-breaking number of cargo ships are waiting off the coast of California due to a backup at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach." The delay is a symptom of supply chain chaos, including changing demand and labor from COVID-19. These two ports handle 40% of all cargo containers entering the US (source: BBC), which (I think) means that if you're waiting for something overseas, there's a 40% chance I saw it last weekend.
Fellow explorers gathered around a table on deck planning our dive missions, just like our LEGO characters in the Ocean Exploration Base!
Offshore rigs cost on the order of $500M dollars to construct (source: Offshore Magazine), yet they look, well, ramshackle. Built in the 1980s, with their layers of cranes, scaffolding, decks, and piping, they looked like steampunk sculptures rising out of the blue.
Dolphins were swimming near the platforms Elly and Ellen as we approached, which our Captain reminded us is a good omen. As we got closer, you couldn't miss the bark of the sea lions.
The most important note of our Captain's pre-dive briefing was to make sure to end our dives surfacing under the rig. This is because you don't want to surface near a moving boat. He could not anchor because of the deep water (260 feet), and is not allowed to tie onto the rigs.
My dive buddy and I immediately descended to 90 feet, where the platform has its second-shallowest set of cross-beams.
View from under the rig. Try spotting the diver's head for scale.
(Image source: author).
Mussels densely encrusted portions of the underwater structure; apparently there are pyramids of fallen shells at the rig's base some 260 feet deep. (Image source: author).
We saw hundreds of fish around the legs. Much like a coral reef, the 3D structure provides refuge and food for the fish; plus, the rig is off limits to fishing. (Image source: author).
The rig seems to be teaming with life.
Underwater, I felt like I was flying around a skyscraper. When diving you can move in all directions (x, y, and z), unlike on land, where we're generally constrained to x and y. If this 260 foot structure was a building, it would be about 18 stories tall. When we stopped at 90 feet deep, it was like stopping at the sixth story of the skyscraper. The legs descended far deeper than us.
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This video starts with me laughing because a sea lion had just startled me by bumping me in the head (I turned my camera on after!). If anything, let this video help you appreciate how incredible professional underwater videographers are. I did not color correct my footage; it really does look mostly green like this to the human eye underwater. At depth, red light can't travel far, so we mostly see only greens and blues. Some of the organisms pictured are indeed very colorful though -- for example on the surface the anemones are a bright strawberry color, brittle stars deep purple and red, and my fins, which look gray in the video, are neon orange. The video ends showing the brittle stars raining down, including a dense cluster that's maybe mating (although a quick internet search indicates many brittle stars reproduce asexually, so I'll wait for the experts to weigh-in).
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Video by Amartya Banerjee from their dives on Eureka, Elly & Ellen in 2017. This is not my video (it's higher quality!), but looks just like what I saw. They shared, "The highlight of our dives was a series of close encounters with a colony of resident sea lions. We also got to see some pelagic invertebrates that were quite otherworldly and mesmerizing." I'd agree!
I didn't realize until after leaving this rig that it was drilling oil while we were there. In my head I'd imagined an active rig would be very noisy, rumbling like a factory, but I didn't hear anything. Even underwater, the sounds of nearby boats were by far the loudest noises.
1pm Second Dive: Eureka
SCUBA divers take a break after any dive to allow dissolved gasses to release from the body. During this surface interval, the Captain motored us towards the Eureka oil rig, which sits much deeper, in 720 feet of water. From a distance I glimpsed one of the people working on the rig. Although you can barely tell they're there, about eight employees are on each rig at all times, working one week on, one week off; I wonder what that's like.
Sea lions greeted us on this platform too. Once again, every inch of the underwater structure was teaming with life, and fish were galore. This time my dive buddy and I followed a baseball-sized remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that our team member was driving from the boat through a tether. She was trialing using the Deep Trekker ROV for video surveys. Sea lions came near us for all of the last 15 minutes of our dive.
These rigs are popular dive spots, and other divers have taken much better photos than I did. My favorites photo stories are listed below; they seem to accurately capture what I witnessed (albeit with better cameras and photography skills!):
- Jeremy Deaton and Bart Vandever for PBS ("The Dazzling Ocean Reefs Hidden Beneath Offshore Oil Rigs")
- Phillip Colla for his blog ("SCUBA Diving Beneath Oil Rigs Eureka, Ellen, and Elly in Long Beach, California")
- Andy and Allison Sallmon for Divers Alert Network ("Long Beach Oil Platforms")
- Adam Popescu for Los Angeles Magazine ("Happy Fish Are Fueling a Battle to Preserve Offshore Rigs as Artificial Reefs")
- Katherine Kornei for Eos magazine ("The Ecological Costs of Removing California’s Offshore Oil Rigs"
3pm Return to Dock
By the time we were back at the dock, my mind was buzzing with curiosity, wanting to learn more about what I just witnessed.
Hours after I drafted this, news started coming in of a massive oil spill that seems to be originating from the underwater pipe connecting Elly to shore. I’m deeply troubled by this news, and only comfort is that I hope it spurs action towards responsibly decommissioning these rigs.
"What to do with these rigs?" was a hot issue even before the spill.
This July, the federal government announced it would review plans for decommissioning rigs off California. The Notice can be accessed here. It states:
There are currently 23 oil and gas platforms and associated wells, facilities, and pipelines on the OCS [Outer Continental Shelf] offshore Southern California that were installed between the late 1960s and early 1990s and that will eventually need to be decommissioned.
Currently, eight oil and gas platforms on the OCS offshore Southern California, near Point Conception and in the Santa Barbara Channel, no longer produce oil and gas and are located on terminated leases that no longer allow resumption of production. BSEE expects to receive decommissioning applications for these platforms and associated pipelines and other facilities in the near term.
The question remains as to how California will process decommissioning. When decommissioning, the well must be capped (and a company must assume liability), any toxins mitigated, and (in most cases) any surface portions that could interfere with boat traffic must be removed. It may be possible to leave portions of the underwater structure as an artificial reef, should an environmental survey deem this appropriate. Not all rigs make suitable artificial reefs; each must be carefully assessed via an independent survey. Moreover, if reefed, the oil company must deposit significant funds to cover longterm maintenance and monitoring of the artificial reefs. California will learn from the Gulf of Mexico, which dwarfs California with its number of rigs. The Gulf has nearly 2,000 offshore rigs and has already decommissioned over 500 through a Rigs-to-Reefs program (sources: US Bureau of Environmental Safety and Enforcement).
In other parts of the US and world, there have been cases where an offshore rig is abandoned and the company owning it disappeared, gone bankrupt. This leaves the question is: Who is going to foot the tens of millions of dollars it costs to decommission the rig? This is still an open question, and it shows why the government must be involved. At this very moment legislators are debating a related bill to addresses this problem, Orphaned Well Cleanup and Jobs Act of 2021. A local newspaper summarized the standpoint of the bill's sponsor, US Representative from New Mexico, Teresa Leger Fernandez:
Leger Fernandez argued oil and gas companies needed to be better held accountable for abandoning wells, going beyond reactive funding for remediation ... and including preventative requirements before a well is drilled. “We cannot allow taxpayers to get left holding the bag,” she said.