Mission Log: Rig & Reef Dive August
SCIENCE OFFICER'S LOG
When I was a new diver, I recall listening to several experienced divers discuss an oil rig dive trip. "Dive at an oil rig? Why would anyone want to do that?" What could possibly be the attraction of diving among a bunch of yucky, oily, steel tubes? They are man-made monstrosities that are, at best, an eyesore off the Southern California coast, at worst an ecological disaster just waiting to happen. Right? Ironically, before boarding the Sundiver Express, I found myself chatting with a few "new" divers getting ready to board another boat. I understood their surprise when I told them that our boat was taking us to dive at the oil rigs. "You can dive at an oil rig?" one of them asked. Yes you can, my friend. To quote a Seinfeld character: "they're real, and they're spectacular". My dive buddy Kelli and I were hoping that this trip would be as spectacular as some of our previous trips to the oil rigs.
Unfortunately, we would have to face this away mission without the presence of Rod Roddenberry who would remain in sick bay for the duration of this mission. Sinus congestion and scuba diving don't mix well. Rod's company was missed, but the members of his away team would eagerly face the challenges of this assignment without him. We would not be tackling this mission without the proper personnel, as the always-entertaining Dr. Bill Bushing would be joining us on this trip. Dr. Bill is a kelp forest ecologist and marine educator, and would be invaluable as a member of the away team when it comes to identifying some of the stranger aquatic life forms we may encounter.
While boarding the Sundiver Express, our landing craft for this mission, we learned there was a potential SNAFU in the works for our trip to the oil rigs: a gravity-challenged atmospheric nebula (a.k.a. fog) was hanging over the Southern California Bight, and it was taking its sweet time to disperse. Subspace chatter began to circulate that Captain Mike of the Sundiver Express would not authorize an away mission to the oil rigs under heavy fog conditions, and alternative objectives were being discussed. Please, not again! Just a few weeks earlier on the previous Roddenberry Dive Team dive trip, we found ourselves tiptoeing around one of the oil rigs thanks to a great white shark that had learned of the tasty sea lion buffet that the rigs offer. We were not thrilled at the prospect of yet another tribble mucking in the works. Fortunately, the fog lifted, and within a short time we found ourselves in close visual range of the Elly-Ellen rigs.
Captain Mike's pre-dive briefing reminded us of the unique nature of oil rig diving. How is oil rig diving different from wreck diving or other types of diving? For starters, there is no anchoring when you're in 200+ feet of water. No mooring to the rig is allowed either. In fact, the boat typically never gets within a hundred feet of the rig. Divers are deployed in a "live drop" fashion: the boat backs up to the rig and with the engine running divers hustle off the back of the boat quickly, surface swimming to the structure before dropping down. Here the bottom is well beyond recreation depth limits. Therefore, buoyancy control is absolutely paramount when rig diving. Remember when you were a brand new diver? Recall your first few shore dives when you let the air out of your BCD and you descended until you plopped down on the bottom in a cloud of silt? You really don't want to do that on an oil rig dive. Also, strong currents are not uncommon at oil rigs, and they can sometimes commence without any warning. Thus, logic would dictate that spending your dive in proximity to the structure is a good idea. Possession of a large, highly visible "safety sausage" and the skills to deploy it: consider it mandatory. If you somehow get separated from the rig and you find yourself drifting away in the current, that safety sausage could be the only thing preventing you from an unscheduled visit to the international shipping lanes. To sum it up, situational awareness needs to be cranked up a notch or two when oil rig diving.
AWAY MISSION #1: Oil Rig Elly
Kelli and I were among the first members of the away team to hit the water. After kicking to the rig, we dropped down through the structure, passing quickly through the upper water layers which generally possess the greatest amount of surge and less-than-optimal visibility. As we reached a depth of 70 feet or so, visibility improved noticeably. Strawberry anemones and white metridium anemones compete for real estate here. A large cabezon posed for us at a piling junction, surrounded by a field of multi-colored anemones.
We continued to drop down through the structure. One hundred feet below the surface, anemone-covered scallops become more plentiful, and a few nudibranchs steal Kelli's attention. Sheephead, garibaldi, brown rockfish, and copper rockfish are just a few of the life forms we encountered on our away mission to the Elly.
AWAY MISSION #2: Oil Rig Eureka
After a short surface interval, Captain Mike relocated the Sundiver Express to the Eureka. As we did on the previous dive, Kelli and I quickly found ourselves over 100 feet below the ocean's surface in search of optimal conditions. We were not disappointed. Visibility was even better at the Eureka than it was on the Elly. We could easily see pilings over 80 feet away, even in the low ambient light at our depth.
Floating in space. If you ask me, that's what oil rig diving is really all about. Diving at an oil rig with excellent visibility gives one the sensation of floating in space. Drop down 100 feet or so below the surface, where you can't see the surface (and you definitely can't see the bottom), then look around. Observe the structure going away from you in all directions and let the imagination go. At that moment it's quite easy to imagine floating in deep space next to a space station (OK, perhaps easy for those of us with fertile, science-fiction-fed imaginations).
At the Eureka we encountered strange life forms. Salp chains, captives of the current, floated past us. On first inspection, you might think a salp is a kind of jellyfish. Not quite"€¦they are actually more closely related to vertebrates. Unlike jellies, salps possess a rudimentary vertebrate-like nervous system. Not quite as sophisticated as a true vertebrate, but more developed than a jellyfish. Salps can be considered examples of the early intermediate life forms which eventually evolved into modern vertebrates. Salps feed on phytoplankton, and are widely distributed throughout the world's oceans.
Unfortunately, we could ignore our dive computers no longer as they squawked at us to ascend to a reasonable depth. After a slow ascent, we spent a fair amount of time at the end of our dive about twenty feet below the surface watching playful sea lions perform their trademark acrobatic maneuvers.
After returning to the dock and filling our vehicles with wet dive gear, a few of us visited McKenna's for lunch and to debrief each other on the fascinating alien life forms encountered on our away mission. We did not know when our next away mission to an oil rig would be, but we knew it would not be soon enough.
Kelli Shaw is a dive instructor with thousands of logged dives. She worked for years as a divemaster on various boats in and around Honolulu, Hawaii. She is an avid photographer and is well-known for her endless energy and her love of aquatic life forms, particularly those small colorful members of clade Nudibranchia (some of us simply call them "slugs"). Kelli regularly volunteers her time in support of our oceans. She is an organizer with Power Scuba, a large dive group based in San Diego, and she serves on the board of the San Diego Oceans Foundation. Kelli resides in San Diego, California.
Photos by Kelli Shaw