Oil in LA: Underwater Edition

Ransom Riggs

Two weeks ago, my photo essay Oil! in LA took a look at Southern California's modern-day oil industry, and the many oil rigs around the city, hidden and in plain site, built to suck up all that black gold. This past weekend, I decided to put my scuba certification to good use and check out the other half of Southern Cal's oil industry -- the half that's offshore. There are thousands of oil rigs near the coastline, but only a few that will allow divers near them. That's because those few are just pumping stations -- they're not actively drilling, and there's not a lot of intense work going on at the sites -- and divers love them because the huge, steel armatures that hold up the oil rigs are absolutely festooned with an amazing array of colorful sea life. Apparently globs of congealed oil can occasionally be found floating on the surface of the water, but luckily we didn't see any, or have to reenact our own personal Exxon Valdez disaster.

Above is the dive site. Known as the Elly (on the left) and the Ellen (on the right), they're twin oil rigs connected by a gangway that runs between them. (That's the Eureka! in the background.) I'd never been this close to an offshore rig, and the amount of machinery they can pack into a relatively small space on one is impressive -- it's a Blade Runner-like maze of pipes, exhaust tubes, little vents that occasionally spit fire, flashing lights, and signs warning boats not to get close to the rig. Our dive boat had a special agreement with whoever owns the rig, so we pulled right up to it. They look a lot smaller from further away; when you're right below them, they're massive, towering, nightmarish things indeed.

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We got a quick briefing, lined up and jumped into the chilly-even-in-summer Pacific, and made our way along the surface over to the pilings beneath the Elly. Greeting by a chorus of barks, we discovered that the yellow walkways beneath the rigs were crowded with friendly sea lions. Divers with underwater cameras began snapping away -- I never bought the absurdly expensive underwater housing for my DSLR that I'd need to take it in the water, so my camera stayed on the boat.

The rig's steel support structure is some 300 feet deep, with crossbeams every 30 feet. My dive buddies and I decided to go as deep as we could -- the recreational limit of 130 feet -- and then work our way up. So we dropped down, and the light green sea began to turn dark green, and then dark dark green, and by 130 feet the overcast sun was barely penetrating to our depth, and the water temperature had dropped from a relatively balmy 64 to about 50 degrees; we were freezing, and it was so dark we couldn't see the oil rig at all, even though it was probably just 20 or 30 feet from us. We slowly surfaced, feeling dumb.

The second dive, however, was amazing -- we stayed between 60 and 80 feet, and discovered along the pilings and crossbeams an amazing wonderland of colorful sea life, in stark contrast to the bizarre, industrial shapes surrounding us.

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In the photo above, you can see how deep water dulls color -- you need a strobe light (a flash) like this photographer used in order to bring out the full spectrum of color when you're below 30 feet or so; otherwise, everything becomes a dull shade of gray-green.

At some point while we were underwater, a few guys who worked on the oil rig began to shoo the sea lions off the walkways and into the water so they would play with us. Sea lions -- the docile females, at least -- are a lot like dogs; they swim around you, barking underwater, doing flips, showing off. Just to give you an idea, here's a quick video of a sea lion playing with a diver beneath an oil rig --

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