Long Beach Oil Platforms

Each time I see the Eureka oil platform about 8 miles off the coast of Long Beach, California, I have to sternly remind myself of that old saying about judgment and book covers. With Eureka’s garish yellow beams, clunking machinery, occasional belches of strange bubbles from the depths and sharp sea-lion aroma, the topside view of this steel brute fits no one’s idea of a world-class dive site. This morning is no different; as we approach, I once again find myself filled with curiosity about the first (clearly charitable) diver who laid eyes on this place and declared, “Stop the boat! That groaning, stinking pile of metal deserves a closer look!”

A seal happily barks from the safety of an oil rig. He has a friend in the background.
A California sea lion barks at intruding divers.

Most of the divers on today’s oil-rig charters are repeat visitors — some with hundreds of dives — and that says a lot; what awaits us beneath the surface is so fabulous that we’ve long since learned to overlook a few topside imperfections. The anticipation is so palpable that even the uninitiated among us are excitedly gearing up and clamoring to get into the water. 

Once I’m submerged, the topside spectacle and stench quickly fade from my mind. The massive rig above us blocks much of the ambient light, and I pause a minute for my eyes to adjust before switching on my light to descend past the horizontal crossbeams that resemble “floors” — one at 55 feet and the next at 110 feet. I level off at 145 feet and admire the display, thankful for the closed-circuit rebreather that will allow me to do so at a leisurely pace. Clusters of plumose anemones jut from the beams and pilings, buffered by sponge-covered scallops, fluffy feather duster worms, nudibranchs and brightly colored Corynactis. Not an inch of metal is bare, and only the straight lines and sharp angles give away the structure’s man-made origin. 

It’s easy to be distracted by the invertebrate bounty, but I know better than to spend too long in one place. As I ascend a bit, I begin to make my way toward the edge of the platform, inspecting the beams for movement. There’s plenty of it, from painted greenlings to gobies to rockfish — lots and lots of rockfish. Scientists from the University of California at Santa Barbara have described this phenomenon for years, noting that the platforms are not just a vibrant nursery for fish (especially rockfish) but they’re also among the most productive fish habitats anywhere in the world. That thought is just popping into my head when I notice a large cabezon guarding a clutch of grayish-purple eggs. Other than periodically charging a mob of blue rockfish loitering hungrily nearby, he refuses to budge from his post, preferring to stare down my camera port with a ferocious glower. 

The oil platform pilings are thickly covered with invertebrate life.
The oil platform pilings are thickly covered with invertebrate life.

I move on from this scene of parental bliss, allowing myself to be briefly distracted by a cluster of eager, bucktoothed sheephead, which hope I’ll dislodge a tasty mussel or scallop, before finally reaching the perimeter of the structure. The Corynactis is thriving at the outermost pilings, and I find myself staring through a vivid orange and pink window into the open water beyond, enjoying the sensation of leaning over the edge of a bottomless chasm. Then I focus my eyes forward. The Eureka platform, which sits in 700 feet of water, is essentially just a well-disguised blue-water dive and therefore one of the best sites in Southern California to spot pelagic creatures. We’ve seen Mola mola and baitballs here (although sadly, not today); tales abound of lucky divers encountering whales or great white sharks, so I scour the horizon. Other than a few pelagic stingrays patrolling warily in the distance, I see nothing but blue; after a few meditative minutes, I know it’s time to keep moving.

As I turn toward the inside of the piling, I feel a sudden pulse of cold water, and along with it washes in a parade of salps, including a few large chains. These colonies of pelagic tunicates can be more than 15 feet long, so the 6- to 7-foot peewees passing by aren’t going to set any records, but that doesn’t diminish my thrill at being surrounded by strings of invertebrates that are bigger than me. I immediately start filling my memory card with images. The local piscine population is equally enthused, and clouds of rockfish and garibaldi converge on the unexpected midmorning buffet.

Rebreather or not, I can’t indefinitely remain at depth. As if in reminder, an obnoxious sea lion swerves his way through the water column to terrorize the fish and snap at the salps, pausing to blow bubbles in my direction as he passes by. I dutifully follow him to shallower water, where he’s joined by two troublemaking buddies. The trio takes one look at me and decides to respond by zooming at warp speed through the pilings and crossbars — possibly the world’s largest underwater jungle gym. I gamely attempt to photograph them, knowing from experience that I’m capturing 25 images of blurry, retreating sea lion butt for each semifocused image of sea lion face. I should be cursing, but it’s difficult to be annoyed when I can’t stop laughing.

I let the gang have their fun, clumsily lumbering after them as they smugly circle and swoop, barking delightedly in celebration of the game that they’re so clearly winning. When they ultimately tire of my inadequacy and dart off, I realize that I’m the only diver left in the water, and it’s long past time to surface. I do so slowly, noting that my initial topside trepidation and thoughts of books and covers have been forgotten. Instead, a different well-worn phrase pops into my mind: one about beauty and the eye of the beholder.

Rig or Reef?

The Long Beach oil platforms, as with many other oil platforms along the California coast, are rapidly approaching the end of their useable lifespans. For several decades, scientists, oil companies, politicians, environmentalists and other stakeholders have tussled over what will become of these structures once decommissioned. Although California enacted a rigs-to-reefs law in 2010, the initiative hasn’t progressed beyond policy. Legislation introduced in 2017 may pave the way toward a workable solution for reefing these structures, though debate over cost, environmental impact and safety is likely to continue long after a decision is reached.

How to Dive It

Getting there: The Long Beach oil platforms are working structures with active boat traffic. Dive boats must obtain prior permission to put divers in the water, so it’s best to join an arranged charter. Most charters run out of San Pedro, California. Divers should pay close attention to briefings, noting instructions on entry, surfacing and getting back to the dive boat.  

Seasons and conditions: The best conditions are generally encountered between July and December. Visibility can vary widely, ranging from less than 10 feet to more than 100 feet. Surge is a given, and currents can be strong and rapidly changing. Thermoclines are common; temperatures at depth can range from the low 50s in late spring to low 60s in the autumn.

Skill set: The platforms most commonly visited (Eureka, Ellen and Elly, which offer similar underwater experiences) are advanced dives due to the unpredictability of conditions and the “bottomless” structure (Eureka lies in 700 feet of water, and Ellen and Elly lie in 260 feet). Divers must have excellent buoyancy control and be comfortable performing free descents and ascents in the open ocean. Compasses are useless underneath these steel structures, and surface signaling devices are critical.

© Alert Diver — Q2 2018