When I tell some of my non-diver friends that I am heading off to dive an oil rig this weekend I often get weird looks and questions like, “why would you want to do that?”, “what is there to see on an oil rig?” Well, for those who haven’t experienced it, the answer is quite a lot.
We dive the oil rigs off of Long Beach, CA. They sit in about 700 feet of water, so unlike most dives, where you can at least see the bottom contour, or follow along a rock shelf, you are completely in blue water and keeping control of your depth is very important. The dives are deep, and sometimes there can be currents (though I’ve lucked out with two years worth of good calm oil rig trips). Due to these reasons the oil rig dives are considered advanced (and if you ever needed one, are a perfect reason to take the advanced course!)
I love diving the oil rigs because they offer an experience unlike any other. The boat ride is short; they pull up close to the rig and as many people as possible plunge into the ocean and swim away from the boat. Often there is a pause in off loading divers so the boat can reposition itself to avoid drifting into the rig. Its all bit chaotic and rushed, buts it’s exciting. Once off the boat you swim inside the rig structure (being careful to mind the swell so it doesn’t push your head right up into a large beam). Then the boat drives away! It doesn’t go far, but it can’t anchor to anything and has to keep a safe distance from the rig. After grouping up with your buddies you descend straight down into the abyss. Depth for these dives is totally up to each diver, you can go all the way down to the recreational limits if you wanted. On Saturday we decided that we would go down as deep as we could until either someone got narc’ed and wanted to stop, or we reached 130′. Having never been narc’ed (though I’ve been deep – to 125′ before) I was curious if this would be the dive. It surely was. We dropped down fairly quickly and as soon as we hit around 112′ my heart started thumping and I realized that I felt funny. We kept going down and at 117′ it was too much, I was giddy, excited, could not stop smiling, then actually started to laugh out loud for a little bit before my higher brain function took over and said, “Hey Kelli, you’re totally narc’ed! Pay attention, mind your depth, how’s your air, stay focused!” For those who don’t know, being “narc’ed” is encountering Nitrogen Narcosis, which is an overload of nitrogen in your system that occurs from breathing excess nitrogen due to increased pressure in your breathing gas during a deep dive. It’s really non-life threatening, mostly makes you feel drunk, silly or impaired in some way. My buddy Beck, got very anxious and tenses up when narc’ed, while I went all giddy and couldn’t stop smiling. Anyways, after this realization I gave Beck, Jessica and Bryan signals to say, I’m narc’ed! Lets level out here, I don’t want to go any deeper!
Once we reached that depth, all that was left was to go back up. So we started our ascent, and really our dive. As we slowly ascended back through the structure we swam around, over, and through the various metal crossings, and beams. Everything was absolutely covered with life. Corals and anemones covered every inch of the structure. Sea fans grew, and brittle stars lay in bunches on top of other growth. Hiding in holes and crevasses of the corals and anemones were small fish that would dart in and out as you got near. Large fish rested on the beams as well, or swam around inside the structure. We encountered huge schools of baitfish swimming through, and sea lions would glide down from the surface, effortlessly moving around us before bolting back up.
The oil rigs are probably one of the most surreal dives I’ve experienced, as you watch the large beams that plunge into the depths and the giant cross sections that support those beams all materialize as you near them. Hazy shapes take form as you slowly ascend back towards them. The whole dive is really mysterious and completely unique.
I saw several new creatures on these two dives. We encountered several colonies of Salps. A salp is typically a barrel shaped, free floating tunicate (underwater, saclike filter feeder). They float along in the ocean, move by contracting and pumping water through its body, which it also feeds off of. I saw two, possibly three different types. One was a long chain, at least 5-7′ of small tubes all joined together. It would curl and uncurl as it floated along. The other was a series of three rings joined together with golden parts inside, and the third, if even a salp, looked like a single organism and was almost fish shaped. It moved along with the use of one larger fin that swung back and forth over its body.
This year, these two dives happened to fall on a big milestone for me. Dive #99 and #100 were my two oil rig dives. I’ve now hit triple digits in my number of dives and to celebrate, my friend Jessica brought a small bottle of champagne down in her BCD pocket. During our safety stop around 15′ she pulled it out and popped the cork. We each took a nice big swig, doing our best to block the opening with our finger in an attempt to keep out as much sea water as possible. It was awesome, and to cap it all off, we had a very curious sea lion that kept swimming down to our group and checking out what we were doing. I tried to offer him some champagne, but he wasn’t really interested.
Our day had started with another rare event, Blue Whale sightings just off our bow. There were several whales surfacing in the channel, so the boat stopped and we watched from a distance as these majestic creatures slowly rose up, took a nice big breath, and dropped back below the surface. We were lucky on the return to run into the whales again, much closer this time and watched them rise and fall in the water, their smooth backs gliding out of sight each time they dropped back down. It was my first time seeing a Blue Whale, and they really are as big as all the books say! It was insane to see something that big with my own eyes.
I could not have asked for a better 100th dive, and even got to celebrate with the entire boat on the way back, as Jessica pulled another full size bottle of champagne, some orange juice and plastic cups from the cooler and poured mimosas for everyone, she then raised her glass in celebration of my dive, and everyone followed suit. It was great.