Original oil 20rig 20diving.jpg?1530148074?ixlib=rails 0.3

Offshore oil rigs can be eyesores, but beneath the surface, the views are anything but ugly.

Around the world, offshore oil rigs are surprisingly wanderlist-worthy spots for divers, snorkelers, and marine life enthusiasts of every kind. That’s because they attract all manner of sea creatures—from playful sea lions to rainbow-colored corals.

Much like the masts and hulls of ships that are sunk to create artificial reefs, the beams and columns of oil plaforms are havens for coral and marine life. Located far from shore, these rigs are free of run-off from mainland pollution and safe from the threats of commercial fishing, so the new artificial reefs are able to flourish naturally. And although oil drilling has its environmental drawbacks, dismantling a decommissioned rig does more damage than good and can result in the loss of entire ecosystems.

While not all diveable platforms are retired, the technical demands of oil rig diving (dealing with open water currents and daunting depths) can be more of a concern than the structures themselves, since drilling activity is subterranean or contained within the structure. “I believe if it were unsafe, the companies that own the oil rigs wouldn’t let us dive them,” says Ken Kollwitz, the owner and operator of Channel Islands Diver Adventures, based out of Oxnard, California.

As far as spills go, Kollwitz confirms that by following the detailed instructions from the boat captains who enforce the strict regulations set by the charters and the oil companies that own the rigs, he’s never encountered a problem. “I have never seen, smelled, or tasted any sign of a spill while diving. As long as you are a responsible diver, it’s just as safe as any other dive site,” he says.

Platform HI-A-389 is part of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, which is considered one of the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s not just the diving community that displays enthusiasm for these oil rigs; conservation-minded groups around the world are dedicated to transforming oil platforms into thriving reefs. In the United States, Rigs-to-Reefs programs encourage oil companies to “reef” their retired oil rigs, or remove the upper parts of the structures, cutting them off at Coast Guard–regulated depths to keep waterways safe for boat traffic. From there, the natural elements take over and the reefs thrive for years to come. Research and advocacy groups then monitor the protected reefs and use the findings to educate future oil rig projects.

One such group is the marine consulting firm Blue Latitudes, run by a two-person dream team of scientist-explorers Emily Callahan and Amber Jackson. Through their programs, the pair have educated oil company stakeholders around the world on the environmental and financial benefits of creating and maintaining artificial reefs and the options companies have for reefing old rigs.
Together, Emily Callahan (left) and Amanda Jackson (right) are a driving force behind Rigs-to-Reefs programs around the world.

“There are oil platforms found in almost every ocean around the world, which means there is significant global potential. The Gulf of Mexico is the birthplace of the Rigs-to-Reefs program, and to date, between 500 and 600 platforms have been reefed there,” says Jackson. “We would like to see the example set [in] the Gulf of Mexico become the rule and not the exception. All platforms will, at some point, need to be decommissioned, and we see a growing interest . . . around the world [in these programs].”

Callahan and Jackson have monitored seven offshore rigs in California, the Gulf of Mexico, and Malaysia. In honor of the team’s conservation efforts and PADI Women’s Dive Day on July 21, here’s a look at a few of their favorite sites and what you might find there if you decide to venture beneath the surface.

Eureka
Long Beach, California
It’s two trips in one at this California coast dive site where divers headed to the Eureka rig can see more whales and dolphins than the guests on local whale-watching tours often do. Depths at the rig reach 720 feet, making Eureka the deepest diver-accessible oil rig in the world.


“Eureka is one of our favorite California dive sites. Located miles offshore, in a blue ocean setting, this massive structure is home to many of the near-shore species we see along California’s rocky reef, including sea lions; California’s state saltwater fish, the garibaldi; blacksmiths; and so many others,” says Callahan.

     

Ellen
Long Beach, California
Eureka and its two sister oil rigs, Ellen and Elly, are part of the same platform, and the latter two are still connected by a bridge. All three were built in 1980 and work double duty as part oil rig, part dive site. Located 8.5 miles from shore, the structures stand in 260 feet of water, and divers can enjoy over 50 feet of visibility. Ellen features two drilling rigs and 80 well slots, or individual pipes located in the center of the rig that run down to the seafloor. The massive labyrinth of pillars and pipes is home to golden garibaldi, schools of other sparkling fish, and sea lions, bouncing between the beams.

article continues below ad

Elly
Long Beach, California
Elly was built to provide electricity for the two rigs nearby. In addition to her day job, her columns function as a nursery for juvenile species of fish and a jungle gym for sea lions. Her beams are also home to California marine wildlife, including families of snapper and flashy nudibranchs. Tales of giant, blob-like mola mola and graceful pelagic stingrays on the outskirts of the structure keep divers peering into the great big blue beyond.

Platform HI-A-389 will be officially turned into an artificial reef this summer.
Platform HI-A-376
Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, Gulf of Mexico
You’ll find Platform HI-A-376 in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, which is considered one of the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Located 98 nautical miles from Galveston, the thriving underwater environment attracts a plethora of colorful fish. Platform HI-A-376 sets the stage for underwater photographers with photogenic blue angelfish and armies of horse-eye jacks.


Platform HI-A-389

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, Gulf of Mexico
Platform HI-A-389, also located in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, is just 12 miles from Platform HI-A-376 and about 109 miles from Galveston. This oil platform will be officially turned into an artificial reef this summer, but it’s already a favorite with divers due to its abundance of sponges, algae, and black coral.

“One of [my] most memorable dives was on Platform 389; I will never forget the massive schools of barracuda that circled through the beams and crossbeams,” says Jackson.

The Seaventures Dive Rig is a retired oil rig that was transformed into a dive resort.
Seaventures Dive Rig
Sipadan, Malaysia
At this retired oil rig turned PADI five-star dive resort, divers sleep where they play. Seaventures Dive Rig, located near Sipadan, Malaysia, features accommodations, food, and a convenient full-service dive shop; it offers dive packages starting from $433 for three days and two nights. Explore the resort’s house reef during the day or at night, when some of the more hard-to-find critters can be seen hunting for food or hiding among the beams. After identifying the elusive frogfish or pygmy seahorse, divers can toast to the success of the day on the sundeck. 


“One of the exciting things about diving on Seaventures is staying on the rig and [having access] to the house reef,” says Jackson. “We were able to dive Seaventures as a planned expedition . . . to assess the social, economic, and ecological implications of repurposing an offshore oil platform as an eco-resort.”

Platform C
Santa Barbara, California
Platform C is not open to the public yet, but Callahan and Jackson are working hard to change that and local divers are anticipating the announcement of its opening day. Located in the Santa Barbara Channel, it is just 5.7 miles from shore, making it great for day trips. A maximum depth of 192 feet will make it a go-to site for tech divers, while recreational divers will appreciate the flourishing marine life at shallower levels.

Want to check out the rigs for yourself? Conservation and safety regulations prohibit boats from anchoring or tying up to oil rigs. Instead, book a spot with a reputable charter company that provides group trips and can get you there safe and sound—bonus whale watching included.

>>Next: Why Cave Divers Say Belize’s Underwater Paradise Is Worth the Risk