Enter the World of SCUBA Diving by Amber Jackson

Guest Blogger: Shay Dooley

I caught my first wave off of the Scripps pier when I was five years old. I was comfortable with the ocean but had a different desire to unfold the mysteries of what lay beneath the surface of the beach and waves. 17 years later I would finally learn what it was like to concede myself to the depths of the ocean.

Obtaining my scuba certification was not just a process of skills necessary to dive, but rather, an experience. This experience is once in a lifetime and one that will stick out in my memory until the day I die. When I surrendered myself to the ocean and let it take me down I found myself at the bottom feeling enlightened and free. The brisk cold of the water as I descended for the first time finally sunk in, and I felt vulnerable, yet alive. This was a completely different sensation than being at the surface, where previously I had been so accustomed. I could see the life below the surface and I realized that everything was in harmony. At the surface I felt chaos from the waves, but at the bottom I felt a calmness, which was accompanied by an overwhelming peace. The only sound I could hear was the sound of the compressed oxygen leaving my regulator and the increasing beat of my heart. Even the colors that I would typically see on a day-to-day basis changed before my eyes. The water turned to a bluish-green mixture while the color red faded from my perception.

My first time going down to 20 meters I felt as if I was suppose to be there. Silence surrounded me as all my other senses enhanced. I became more aware of my settings and I could truly focus on the moment that I found myself in. I slowly realized that I was in a different world, one that is vastly different than the one we spend most of our lives in.

Once I reached the bottom and I had accepted the silence and altering colors, another sensation came over me. This sensation was hard to define at first but as time passed I realized that it was one of bliss. I could feel the current of the waves passing over me at the surface, gently carrying me back and forth as I corrected my buoyancy to stay in equilibrium at the bottom.

I swam west, deeper into the ocean and felt the temperature of the water plummet with every kick. I was able to see so much life for a 30-minute dive. I saw a crab the size of a dinner plate, with arms that extended almost a foot from its body. I also was lucky enough to see a seahorse, a pipefish, and a pod of dolphins. I had seen more activity in just 30 minutes of diving than I had ever experienced in 17 years of being at the surface while surfing. Once my first dive was done and I returned to the surface the first thing that came into my mind was; I could not wait to get back into the water again tomorrow.

Waking up at 5 a.m. is never easy, but for some reason I found it enjoyable knowing that I was going back to dive even deeper than what I had dove the first day. I had gotten to my destination, went through all the necessary procedures and was back in the water ready to make my descent once again. As I started to go deeper and deeper my ears hurt. I followed my instructor’s guidance and equalized as I descended, until I was comfortable enough to explore the shelf of the canyon that is located in the deeper water. I had never felt so small before as I stared into the vast emptiness of the ocean. As I looked out from the shelf I realized that I was so lost, not directionally, but in time and spatially. After a while of swimming along this drop off my instructor signaled for the class to emerge from the dive. I checked my dive computer and it had read that I reached a depth of 67 feet and that I had been diving for 45 minutes, but it felt no more than five minutes. Like I said I was so lost and wanted to stay submerged in the water forever.

I will never look at the ocean the same and cannot wait to get back to it, as I know it has many more spectacles for me to witness. After this experience I can truly understand what it means to be a fish out of water. Just as catching my first wave solidified my curiosity and love for the ocean; my first dive perpetuated that affinity and pushed it further than anything I can describe. Getting my open water scuba certification will be engrained in my memory forever and will continue to push me to explore deeper experiences within diving.

Upwells of Life and Oil; A unique partnership between the Sea and Steel by Amber Jackson

Spring is a season when new life is replenished and although this productivity is obvious on land, the ocean, with it’s seemingly unchanging surface, is also privy to this season. Especially off the coast of California, where the winds and deep underwater canyons provide the perfect conditions for upwelling. In fact, coastal upwelling regions, accounting for less than 1% of the ocean surface, contribute roughly 50% of the worlds fishing landings.

Before I go into detail on upwelling, it is important to first address the wind. Winds create a powerful and direct effect on the oceans and are an important force in creating currents. From the  global circulation of entire ocean systems to small eddies nearshore, winds move water and its resident animals and plants in complex and interesting patterns.

In the spring, the warm winds from the north blow parallel to the coastline towards southern California. When this occurs, an intriguing and biologically important event takes places. Affected by the rotation of the earth, these winds move water at right angles to the direction the wind is blowing, a phenomenon known as the Coriolis effect. Along the California coastline, winds that blow from the north drive surface waters offshore. As surface waters are pushed offshore, water is drawn from below to replace them. The upward movement of this deep, colder water is called upwelling.

Upwelling brings cold, nutrient-rich waters to the surface, which encourages the growth of large blooms of phytoplankton. The phytoplankton blooms form the ultimate energy base for large animal populations higher in the food chain, such as tuna, seabass, and even large marine mammals, like whales. Although an impressive biological event, this is not the only major consequence of upwelling because upwelling also affects animal movement. Upwelling moves nearshore surface water offshore, and takes with it watever is floating in the water column, such as larval young produced by most marine fish and invertebrates. These larval young are tiny, ranging from microscopic to the size of a potato chip, and they spend the first few weeks or months of life adrift in the water column. Upwelling that moves surface water offshore can potentially move drifting larvae long distances away from their natural habitat, to shelters such as a nearby oil and gas platform.

This past spring, Emily and I experienced the plethora of larval young swarming around California’s offshore oil and gas platforms. Although we focused our cameras on the anemone covered beams, or the seal lion curiously swimming by, when we revisited our footage after the dive we found that many of the photos had been “photobombed” by a larvae that landed on the lens! Even, when we exited the water, we noticed that our wetsuits were crawling with life. It was quite a shock to see thousands of tiny white shrimp and other larvae contrasted against our black wetsuits.

Upon further investigation, we found that offshore oil and gas platforms don't cause upwelling but rather they are a landing site for those larvae displaced by upwelling. In fact the vertical platform structures may actually cause a slight shift in current direction that mixes the surrounding ocean nutrients. This mixing, although small, provides the distribution of an important foundational food source for other, larger fish that call offshore oil and gas platforms home.

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The Realities of Decommissioning an Active, Offshore, Oil-producing... Skyscraper by Amber Jackson

The useful lives of many offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and off of California are approaching their end, which means more and more oil companies are being confronted by a perplexing question... how does one remove a platform the size of an Empire State Building from the open ocean? How feasible is it? How expensive will it be? Is there an environmentally friendly way of doing it?

Historically, platforms which are no longer being used have been left sitting idle, neither actively producing nor completely decommissioned. The ghosts of man's conquest for energy forgotten yet still apparent on the horizon. In 2010, to combat this 'idle iron', the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management set decommissioning timelines to specify the maximum number of years that the wells and structure are allowed to remain idle before they are required to be removed. This timeline is 5 years after the well was last pumped.

So how is an offshore platform decommissioned? There are several steps involved in the process which could take upwards of 2-3 years to complete, and create removal costs of about $4-$10 million for a shallow water platform (this does not reflect the cost of removing deep water platforms where the cost exponentially increases).

In order to prepare a platform for decommissioning, tanks, processing equipment and piping must be flushed, residual hydrocarbons disposed of and any remaining platform equipment, removed. Underwater, workers prepare the jacket facilities for removal, which includes removing any existing marine growth. Removing the jacket is the second step in the demolition process and the most costly. It includes using explosives, mechanical means, torches and/or abrasive technology to make the bottom cuts on the pilings 15 ft below the mudline on the sea floor. Then the jacket is removed either in small pieces or as a single lift, (a single lift is possible only for small structures in less than 200 ft of water).

From a fisheries perspective, any option in which the structure or its fragments are left on the bottom, has the potential to cause physical interference with fishing activities, such as entanglement. With a growing abundance of decommissioned structures functioning as artificial reefs, this problem requires special regulations for negotiating the inevitable conflict of interests and requires mapping the area to indicate the locations of platforms, underwater pipelines, and other structures left on the bottom. Interestingly, in a sort of 'catch-22' there are also noted benefits to the fisheries communities that come from converting the fixed marine structures into artificial reefs.

Through the Rigs-to-Reefs program, these offshore artificial reefs can be one of the most effective means of increasing the biological productivity of coastal waters by providing additional habitats for marine life. The offshore structures can undoubtedly attract many species of migrating invertebrates and fish searching for food, shelter, and places to reproduce. In particular, observations in the Gulf of Mexico revealed a strong positive correlation between the amount of oil platforms, growing since the 1950s, and commercial fish catches in the region- a critical point here was the use of static gear methods of fishing (e.g., lines and hooks) vs. trawl nets. Additionally, the areas around the platforms became popular places of recreational and sport fishing which significantly contributed to the total catch volumes.

Currently, complete or partial removal of steel or concrete fixed platforms that weigh thousands of tons is practically impossible without the use of explosive materials. In most cases, bulk explosive charges have been used as a means to this end. These explosives have a very powerful, short-term impact on the marine environment and biota, which should not be neglected. For example, detonating a 2.5-ton (TNT equivalent) charge, would typically result in a mass of killed fish weighing about 20 tons. This number does not account for the passing school of herring that happens to pass through that zone, in which case the fish kill figure may be much higher.

The options of reusing abandoned platforms, their foundations, and other structures that are out of service have been actively discussed for the last 10 years, and the options for decommissioning vary widely. Another way these platforms have been historically repurposed, have been as permanently based marine research stations. Studies conducted there might include regulating local marine populations and coral reproduction, monitoring sea level, and collecting oceanographic and meteorological information from within the framework. Some other suggestions consider transformation of abandoned platforms into places for power generation using wind/wave and thermal. These platforms might also be used as bases for search and rescue operations or centers for waste processing and disposal. So with such a wide breadth of options... what would you do with your living Empire State Building?

Artificial Reefs: Ship Wrecks vs Oil Platforms by Amber Jackson

From ones beach chair, offshore oil and gas platforms appear to be industrial and lifeless. Their potential to function as an artificial reef seems almost impossible. Yet, Rig2Reef Explorers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography have found that offshore oil and gas platforms provide one of the most unique artificial ecosystems in California.  

Artificial reefs are not all created equal. The substrate material, location, time of year and size all effect the types of species that you may find there, and in what densities. So how do oil platforms differ from other types of artificial reefs, such as a sunken ship? To explore this question, we set out on an expedition to dive three oil platforms and another type of artificial reef on the ship wreck Olympic II. 

Our morning began with us plunging into the surprisingly temperate waters off of San Pedro to dive the Olympic II. The 258' Olympic II sank on the morning of September 4th, 1940- taking with her the lives of 8 men- she was discovered by salvage divers in the 1960's and since then the wreck, sitting in about 100 feet of water has been a popular dive spot for recreational divers to explore and seek out the large sea bass, broom tail grouper and bat stars that hide amongst the wreckage. Although the visibility was lacking on this first dive, with a max of about 10 feet- it was abundantly clear that the species that called this hulk their home were very different then those found amongst the legs of the platforms. These were more cryptic species- many of which we had not yet encountered on our platform dives, and schooling fish were entirely absent, as were the colorful waving brittle stars.

Our dives on Eureka, Elly and Ellen however were entirely different stories. Eureka, in particular was a spectacular dive. As the largest platform accessible to divers off the coast of California standing in just over 720 feet of water, Eureka boasted an immense and colorful reef. We found ourselves transfixed by the thousands of schooling sardines, tired, but determine Garibaldi defending there newly laid clutches of eggs and jacks hustling betwixt the beams. These platforms were not only rich with life, but diver friendly, allowing relatively unrestrained access to their reefs below- some divers even proceeded to harvest enormous scallops the size of tennis balls from her legs. 

Despite California's law requiring that artificial reefs be placed in areas where they are needed, we found it difficult to deem these artificial structures teeming with life, as not needed. Life thrived amongst the beams or every platform, just as the larger deeper species lurked amongst the ghostly wreckage of the Olympic. Not only were we able to take away the recreational value of the vibrant beauty generated by the species decorating these platforms- but we also glimpsed their sustainable harvesting potential from these platforms. A harvest that we not only witnessed, but enjoyed whilst snacking away between dives on raw scallops scraped from Elly, Ellen and Eurekas legs. In this way, we participated in the small circle of life that thrived quietly beneath the industry of oil above. 

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Diving Platforms Elly, Ellen, and Euerka and Ship Wreck Olympic II by Amber Jackson

 

8.5 miles offshore

260 - 720 feet deep

To celebrate our graduation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, we are embarking on a novel expedition to Platforms Elly, Ellen and Euerka and ship wreck Olympic II. We are thrilled to continue Rig2Reef Exploration, armed with Scripp's spirit of exploration, as we take our first steps as independent explorers.

We have chosen to dive platforms Elly, Ellen and Euerka as they are a relevant example of functioning artificial reefs on an oil and gas platform in California. We have also chosen to include ship wreck Olympic II in our dive expedition, to gain perspective on the ecosystems that form on and around varying forms of artificial reefs.

Platform Eureka is the deepest platform in California made available to divers, sitting in 720 feet of water off the coast of Long Beach. Platforms Ellen and Elly are unique because they are a double platform, connected by an above-water bridge. Platform Ellen is a drilling platform while Platform Elly houses equipment for separating the oil, natural gas and produced water. Platform Elly also houses equipment to generate electrical power for these three platforms.

Underwater, their legs and cross breams are much like the other oil platforms we have dove on making a home to anemones, sponges, fish, crabs, scallops, starfish, mussels, nudibranchs and much more. This should make for an interesting dive expedition and we can't wait to visually document what we find! Our objective is to capture the vibrancy of the rig acting as an artificial reef with GoPro cameras. Follow us on our second Santa Barbara expedition via Instagram! 

Underwater Hangout with Fabien Cousteau on Google+ by Amber Jackson

Join us for an Underwater Hangout on Google+, hosted by the  Online Ocean Symposium. The event link can be found here

We will be virtually sharing our love for working underwater with Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of the revolutionary Jacques Cousteau, who has splashed down to the underwater research base Mission Aquarius. As part of +Mission 31 he and his team of aquanauts will be staying at the reef base for 31 days. 

Guests include:
Fabien Cousteau - Mission 31
Thomas Potts - Director Aquarius Reef Base
Lloyd Godson - Aquanaut/Underwater Explorer
Megan Cook - I Am Water Ocean Conservation Trust
Amber Jackson & Emily Callahan - Rigs 2 Reefs

Stay tuned and follow us on Instagram @rig2reefexplorers for updates!


Radio Talk on "Science Monday" KX 93.5 by Amber Jackson

Communicating the value of a healthy and sustainable ocean is one of the over arching objectives of Rig2Reef Exploration. In addition to this website and blog, we look for outlets in social media, newspapers, television and even radio to share the economic, ecological and advocacy issues surrounding the Rigs-to-Reefs program in California.

We had the unique opportunity to broadcast live with Cody Oakland's Food for Thought podcast on KX 93.5 for "Science Monday." This was an incredible experience for us to explain more about where our passion comes from and how we see the future of California's offshore oil and gas platforms contributing to the future health of our Oceans. 

Listen in here.

Stay tuned and follow us on Instagram @rig2reefexplorers for updates!

What's Next for Rig2Reef Explorers by Amber Jackson

We are nearing the end of our Master's program in the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. What an incredible year it has been!

Looking forward, we hope to keep the momentum going on the Rig2Reef Exploration initiative. Our future tentative expeditions include diving and filming on oil and gas platform Eureka in late June. We want to dive on this platform to convey the resilience of life on Earth and how even from the most unlikely of places, life can emerge and thrive. Then, in August, we will be traveling to the Gulf of Mexico to re-do our dive in the Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary.

In September we will be lecturing at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific. This lecture is open to the public and more information can be found here.

Stay tuned and follow us on Instagram @rig2reefexplorers for updates!