Scuba Diving Under Oil Rig Reveals Scallops, Sardines, Anemones

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Posted by on August 24, 2005 at 22:40:09:

Aug. 25 (Bloomberg) -- As our chartered boat approached Eureka, an 80-foot-high oil rig about 15 miles off the Southern California coast, I zipped up my wet suit, adjusted my hood and gloves and slipped on my mask to prepare for the most unusual dive of my life.

I've scuba dived in Papua New Guinea, Hawaii and not far from the Brooklyn Bridge, but this was the first time I was plunging underneath an offshore rig, one of those gigantic platforms that house drilling equipment to extract oil and natural gas from underwater reservoirs hundreds of feet below.

On the surface, the rusty rigs look like an eyesore. Under water, their thick metal supporting beams act as a magnet for a vast array of marine plants and animals, creating a kind of man- made coral reef.

The sky was overcast as my husband Matt and I took the plunge earlier this month under Eureka along with 12 other experienced scuba divers accustomed to the chilly waters off the California coast.

Before we jumped, we spotted sea lions playing on the platform and dolphins gliding nearby. The idyllic scene can be misleading. Diving near rigs is often dangerous because strong currents can sweep divers into the open ocean, out of sight from most boats and into waters where sharks and other predators lurk.

Sea Lions, Scallops

The first problem I encountered had nothing to do with fearsome fish. After diving in, I forgot to immediately inflate my buoyancy compensator, the vest that a diver can inflate or deflate to control the speed of ascent and descent. I quickly corrected the situation while focusing on the 20 metal beams disappearing into the darkness below me. Peeking through the wide gaps between the beams, I saw hundreds of mackerels shoot up from the abyss like bubbles in a champagne bottle.

As we continued our slow descent to about 60 feet, we were greeted by giant schools of sardines so vast and dense that at times they blocked out the sunlight from above. They darted back and forth, shimmering silver in the blue waters while being chased by hungry sea lions.

Bass and bright orange garibaldi, California's state fish, huddled around the metal structure, which was completely covered by scallops, brittle stars, sponges and red anemones. Diving through sections of the metal maze, we tried to avoid being pushed against the beams as the swirling currents moved us around like rubber ducks in a bathtub. At times, I experienced a sense of vertigo that made me feel as if I were falling through air, rather than floating in water.

Pirouettes, Bubbles

While we were underneath it, the rig was pumping oil from 600 feet below the surface, yet we couldn't hear or see any evidence of the operation. All divers must sign a safety waiver, promising not to touch the structure or harvest any of the creatures that live on the beams.

As we headed back to the boat, we stopped about 15 feet from the surface and paused for five minutes to let our bodies adjust to the pressure change before getting out of the water.

Sea lions performed pirouettes around us and bubbles rose from below, produced by fellow divers exploring depths of more than 200 feet, an advanced technique that requires additional training and more sophisticated equipment. As we floated to the surface, mild sunlight reached into the ocean like fingers.

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