Recently I was set up on a blind "date" SCUBA diving with a lady named Ellen thanks to my friends Rod and Heidi Roddenberry. As a minor SCUBA celebrity (in my own mind?), I was invited to be the guest of the Roddenberry Dive Team aboard the Sundiver Express on a trip to the oil platforms off Long Beach. Yes, the same ones we see as we approach the mainland coast heading into the port there. Several years ago I dived Platform Grace off Ventura and found it to be a site rich with marine life... but also challenging to video. Being out in the open ocean with direct exposure to the incoming swell is a lot different than diving the (usually) calm waters of Casino Point! Try remaining focused on your subject when the swell is moving you up and down, up and down, up and down (need I repeat?).
I hopped on board an afternoon Catalina Express boat to Long Beach the Saturday before, did a little shopping (all a dive bum can afford) and headed down to the Sundiver berth in Alamitos Bay. Two divers were already there, one from my hometown of Chicago, and we decided to head over to The Crab Pot for dinner. I stuffed my face and ample belly with seafood fettucine and enjoyed our conversation. Yes, I eat my friends from beneath the sea... except for sharks. decades ago I made an agreement with them... I won't eat shark if they won't eat me! After dinner we returned to the boat and chatted with Nicole, one of the crew members I knew. By 10:30 it was bedtime for Bill (Bonzo wasn't there), and I retired to my berth below deck.
In the morning the marine layer was extremely thick and it was drizzling steadily. The Sundiver crew questioned whether we would be able to go to the oil rigs since that requires at least 1/4 mile topside visibility. There was even the suggestion by Capt. Kyaa we might go out to Catalina instead. I've had that happen before on mainland dive boats, and I would have greatly preferred to dive some of the local reefs over on that side of the puddle. However, one must accept both the prevailing conditions and the captain's wisdom. Captain Mike took us out toward the rigs and the marine layer lifted a bit, granting us the opportunity to dive them. Several of the divers were probably thinking about a previous trip to the oil rigs that had to be canceled because a pregnant 16-17 ft great white was picking sea lions off the rig for crunchy snacks. I had no fear because no self-respecting shark would confuse my flailing dive style for that of a graceful sea lion!
Our first dive was on Ellen, one of the "twins" along with Elly. I once dated twins (Carol and Suzi) but it was 25 years apart and with their blessing. I hope I don't have to wait that long to dive "with" Elly. Because the water at these offshore sites is very deep (over 700 ft for Eureka), there is no anchoring and Capt. Mike had to drop us off and pick us up by "live boating." My dive buddy Derek and I jumped in after Mike put the boat in neutral on close approach and we swam over to the platform. Since we were both shooting images, we wanted to stay reasonably shallow (above 70 ft) to get as much bottom time as possible. Unfortunately, as I had learned off Ventura, staying shallow subjects one to the swell and makes filming much more difficult. However without the huge 120 cu ft SCUBA tank that I used when diving up north, I could not descend down to the 100-130 ft level where the water would be calmer and visibility much greater.
The water was fairly green near the surface and visibility was somewhat limited. Before I turned on my video lights, the scenery was really quite drab. However, once I powered up my Sola 1200s the incredible beauty of the oil rig became obvious. A week before this trip my entire video rig had rolled out of my golf cart as I pulled over for rapidly approaching uphill traffic. Fortunately, other than the cosmetic damage to my new gear, the only thing that broke was a $35 ring that mounted the arm to the video housing. I felt incredibly lucky since I had not yet put the new housing or lights on my insurance list. I immediately ordered a new part, fixed the housing and took it for a few dives at Casino Point to make sure nothing was amiss.
The dive on Ellen was certainly a productive one, especially since my buddy and I pretty much stuck by two of the upright "pilings." Heck, I'd be willing to go on a second "date" with her any time if she is willing! I shot about 30 min of video on a 53 min dive. We surfaced and the boat took us over to platform Eureka for our second dive. The section of structure we dove there was quite different than where we dove on Ellen. The uprights were spaced more closely and there was a lot of horizontal structure, providing "shelves" for marine life including normally bottom dwelling fish like rockfish. I was surprised to see a lot of garibaldi on this rig, including a male tending a nest with fresh yellow eggs. Mating has pretty well ceased at Casino Point (at least for those damsels), but the colder temperature on the rig (57 F) was just below the trigger point for garibaldi mating. Maybe Gary's unfortunate relatives there had to wait until the water warmed up!
I'll be writing in more detail about the critters I filmed on these two rigs in later columns. Over the course of 105 minutes submerged, I shot over 60 minutes of video indicating just how rich the subject matter was. It took me a full day to edit that video down to about 40 minutes since I wanted to remove as much of the "motion of the ocean" effect as possible. Wouldn't want viewers of my cable TV show to get seasick while "diving dry" with me. The result will be some of the most colorful footage I've shot since my dives in the tropics. However, I think I will warn my viewers to take some dramamine or meclazine before watching any of these episodes!
The oil rigs off southern California and elsewhere around the world pose an interesting environmental question. No, I'm not going to rant about the environmental damage done by Big Oil and their "horrendous" profits. I do buy about 15 gallons of gasoline a year for the Dr. Bill Mobile, so I am a part of that problem (albeit a very small part). What do you do when it is time to decommission the older rigs? In the past, the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) which overseas drilling required the rigs to be removed, but later began pursuing a strategy (Rigs-to-Reefs) of converting the rigs to artificial reefs for divers and for anglers. Here in California the cost savings from doing this are partially given to fund environmental work by the State. On the surface this sounds like a win-win situation. However, if you look at the issue with greater "depth," there are other factors in decommissioning rigs that need to be considered.
A major environmental issue linked to offshore drilling is the mound of debris that develops around the base of the rig. The "billions and billions" of mussels, rock scallops and other critters that attach to the rigs eventually die and most fall off. Add to these shells the fluids leaked from the rig itself and well seepage from below. These mounds contain significant concentrations of toxic substances including hydrocarbons and heavy metals such as lead, zinc, cadmium, arsenic, chromium, copper and zinc. Quite a witch's brew! That's another reason I stayed shallow while diving the rig! Of course an even better reason is that if I tried to dive to the base, I'd probably be dead half way down! Then whose columns would you read or cable TV episodes would you watch? I always have my adoring public in mind.
© 2011 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!
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Oil rig Eureka (Ellen was too shy to have her picture taken) with my dive buddy at its base before descending;
dense growth of mussels and uprights covered with colorful (and not-so-colorful) anemones.
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