Rigs to Reefs

The oil rig loomed above us in the pre-dawn light like a
behemoth birthday cake. It was rimmed with hundreds of incandescent lights, and
a stiff yellow flame shot up from a tower in the middle. It hissed and groaned,
and bellowed out a high pitched horn every few moments, which seemed to be
answered by the dozens of other oil platforms sitting on the purple horizon.

Our
110-foot Texas dive boat Fling drifted thirty miles off the
Louisiana coast. We had sailed out of
Morgan city the night before with
a crew of four, and a dozen marine biologists, to film an ongoing research
project about the life and underwater habitats on offshore oil rigs in the
Gulf of Mexico. The five-day job would take us to a
number of different platforms, some as far as seventy miles offshore. We would
interview the biologists about their research, and film them above and below
water gathering samples, and entering their findings. I have been diving all my
life, and have filmed many terrific things around the globe, but this was an opportunity
of a lifetime. Oil rigs attract big fish.

Dr. Paul
Sammarco was the team leader. He is a biologist and professor with the
Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. The project had been dubbed,
“Rigs to reefs”. The point being that many of the rigs have been in
the water so long, they have become prolific artificial reefs and have provided
habitat to countless fish and marine life. Sammarco swung a finger along the
horizon and said, “This area at the mouth of the
Mississippi is known as the ‘dead
zone’. Nutrients from the river flow out here depleting oxygen from the
water, coating the sea floor with a noxious mud. The rigs create a structure
that can support marine life which would not have been possible without
them”.

During
our first dive that morning, it was clear to see what he meant. Despite being
so far offshore, the water was startlingly muddy. I was using a Sony digital
video camera in an Amphibico underwater housing with battery-operated tungsten
lights. The water was so turbid, finding focus was proving difficult. Zooming
was out of the question, so I used the widest lens
possible and let the divers do their thing. Current was also a major factor,
and it picked up at different times during this and many of the following
dives. The rigs were coated with sharp barnacles. I had forgotten to put my
gloves on and had already sliced up a few finger tips. We absolutely had to
hang on to the rig or be swept away. The current was so stiff, the exhaust from
our Scuba regulators was moving laterally.

The
girders were home to an impressive number of fish – Jacks, Sheepshead and
Triggerfish among them. In one shot a big Trigger swam up and nibbled on Dr.
Sammarco’s face. He’s lucky the fish didn’t take a heftier
bite; they have very strong jaws. Some scientists chipped away at the growth
with small hammers, putting samples in zip lock bags, others shot video, or
took notes on waterproof slates.

The
scientists were working at depths varying from just under the surface to one
hundred thirty feet. I kept my depth above one hundred feet as that is where
most of the fish life seemed to be. Given the rather challenging conditions, I
was a little concerned about the quality of the material.

The
following days would bring us farther off shore, and into much cleaner water.
One morning, I jumped in, and not only could I see the entire length of the
boat, I could also see the far side of the platform! The visibility had to be
nearly two hundred feet, and huge schools of Jacks and Tuna buzzed the divers
and made for awesome shots. I was able to get a real ‘money shot’
tilting the camera upwards, getting a clean shot of the tower overhead, then
tilt down into a school of fish swarming the camera.

These
outer rigs were a diving photographer’s paradise. Every inch of the
platform is covered with colorful corals, fish, and sponges. Divers floated
from girder to girder at various depths in the distance, giving the illusion of
working at a space station.

Oil rigs
mean different things to different people. There is no doubt they can be
controversial. Dr. Sammarco said that natural leakage of oil through the seabed
is probably greater than from a depleted well. Federal law now dictates that
when a rig runs dry, the company that owns it must remove it within a year.
Sammarco has filmed this process and said that he actually saw hundreds of fish
jumping out of the water, throwing themselves against the emerging legs. His
argument is that these old rigs could be used in many ways. Sections could be
fenced off for fish farming. Solar, and wind generators could be deployed. The
rigs could be decapitated at a safe depth to avoid being a shipping hazard, but
still provide substrate for habitat. Hotels could be set up in the existing
quarters for divers and fishermen who want to enjoy these waters. In an era of
vanishing habitat, it isn’t hard to see his point.

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