Diving The Rigs On The Great Escape

I had always wanted to dive the rigs, but until now I had never gotten an opportunity. There are a number of Oil Rigs off the coast from Long Beach to past Point Conception. I had heard that they were fun diving and they were supposed to be covered with scallops. A bit of icing on any dive. Well, I noticed that Father's Day was the same day that Divers Discount had chartered the Great Escape for a trip to the Rigs. What could I do?

It was a fairly long drive from San Diego to San Pedro. When I got there at 6, most of the divers were already aboard for the 7 AM departure. Some had gotten on the boat the night before. I had not been on the boat for a few years. It is a large comfortable boat at 80 feet. Mike in the galley was already cooking up breakfast for anyone that wanted it. I put my dry stuff down in a bunk and started arranging and assembling my dive gear top side.

As I was bringing up gear, I met Charles, the rep from Dacor. He was going to be aboard letting people try out various new stuff from Dacor. He said I looked familiar, which got my standard reply of 'oh I'm very popular in nightmares'. After a bit of searching around he said he was a DM on Sport Chalet dives fairly often and also was on the Horizon frequently. That was it. I asked him if he had been on the infamous buoy trip a few years back. He had been. He said that no one would let that die. As we left the harbor for two full days at the Cortez Banks, the dive briefing was just finished and everyone was pumped when the second captain, who was driving the boat, hit a navigation buoy. That was the end of that trip. As I said to him, 'that was a very memorable trip'.

Anyway, there were lots more people on the boat to meet and we were all gabbing away and assembling gear as we headed out. It is a shorter trip to the rigs than any of the islands and as we left the harbor, it seemed like we had the luck to get a calm, somewhat overcast day. There were a number of people setting up for photography and a couple of people planning to take scallops, but most of the divers seemed to be there for the sight seeing. I fixed that later on.

There were three rigs all about a mile apart and we were going to start our diving on the outer one. Oil rigs are all given names. Most have women's names. These were Ellen, Eureka and Edith. Tim, the skipper and owner of the boat took us to start our diving at Ellen. The DM's gave a good orientation talk and pointed out that we had better watch buoyancy, since the bottom was at around 900 feet. It was going to be a live boat, that is no anchoring, so the divers would have to follow directions from the boat. We would load and unload in groups. Everything would be dictated by currents. They also cautioned against filling your bag with scallops early on, as it is no fun swimming with an anchor on your belt.

I only managed to get together in time for the first group because things were so calm that the boat could linger near the rig for a time. It is a giant stride entry and we hit water about 60 feet from the rig. It may have been calm, but it was still about a four foot swell and being that close to something as solid as the legs of the rig made you want to watch out. The legs and cross members of the structure all seemed to be basically two to three foot diameter piping. The legs were all thickly covered with mussels. There were about twenty sea lions hauled out sunning themselves on various lower members of the rig, with some lazily swimming around in the water as well.

I had a new suit on and wasn't sure exactly what my buoyancy would be, but I dumped air and headed down. It was still early in the morning and so a bit dim. At about twenty feet, the mussels gave way to big patches of vividly colored Corynactis anemones also called Strawberry Anemones due to the fact that they are commonly bright red. They are usually only an inch high at most, but they grow by splitting so they make up sizable patches of one color, but each patch is a different color. This was a somewhat unexpected pleasure. They are one of the most beautiful and colorful things to see in California waters. They only grow where there are currents. The more the current, the more they grow. They may be predominantly red, but in a place like this, they come in every shade and combination of red, pink, orange, lavender and colors for which there is no name. I was just snapping away. There were the scallops I had been told about too. Like every other surface, most of their shells were covered with more colorful anemones. I was trying to get pictures of anemones and scallops together.

Overall, visibility was poor in the morning light. The legs of the platform could be seen silhouetted about 40 feet away, but for seeing things of interest, you could only see about 6 feet. As I would occasionally find a really large scallop, perhaps 7 inches, I would knock the growth off its shell before putting it in my bag. This in turn would attract a number of the resident fish. There were lots of small bass and perch as well as some big Sheepheads. I cleaned one medium sized scallop up and started eating it. It was larger than I had thought and I was thinking 'hmmm, better finish this and put my regulator back in'. I continued down to about 100 feet and started to see beautiful delicate white Metridium anemones. I really wanted to get pictures of these, even though they were mostly singles instead of in groups.

I decided to move back up some to about 70 feet, where the growth seemed thickest. There are cross bars at angles between the vertical legs and at about every 30 feet there were sort of platforms underneath the legs. It makes for a fairly large dive area, though the encrusting growth is so small and complicated that you could spend a lot of time looking at any small area and you would keep seeing new things. There were the anemones and scallops, but between them were all kinds of other things like brittle stars, Senorita fish, hard barnacles, gooseneck barnacles, feathers and all kinds of other life that lives on or in the low intertidal rocks. While there weren't that many holes, the fish life had adapted to what there was and even bright orange Garibaldis had found a home here.

I compassed so that I came out at the right side of the rig, but not too far out in case the boat was at all nearby. There were a couple of other divers up already and we were grouping together so that the boat could get to us. On the boat, they signaled us to stay away as the skipper backed towards us. At about 30 feet from us they killed the engines and we were signaled to come out to get on board. On the dive platform, the crew helped with fins, cameras and whatever other gear was in the way. The ladders make for easy entry to the boat. Everyone agreed it was a beautiful dive.

After about four pickups of different groups, everyone was aboard for roll call. We then headed the short distance to the Eureka rig. It was a double rig about 100 yards apart with a bit of a bridge connecting them. We were in no hurry to get back in the water as the trip had been a short one and we could all use a surface interval. I cleaned some scallops and was getting people to try them. Most people weren't sure at first, but after a sample they all agreed that they were excellent. Mike in the galley especially liked them and had some soy and ginger to go with them. After some sampling, a lot more people decided to harvest some scallops for themselves. Really, the second dive was much like the first. It was the third dive at Edith that turned out to be the best dive of the day. It also presented an interesting little problem.

Again, we were dropped off in about 60 feet from the rig. Actually, it seemed like very few people were going to dive. About six of us went in initially. I left my camera behind this trip just to try to insure that there would be more to see than on the other dives. I was not disappointed. Actually, I wanted minimal gear to allow for more swimming, but right away I saw that visibility was much better. I could clearly see the legs fifty feet away and at fifteen feet, the encrusting life was visible in detail. There were also large silvery schools of small baitfish. They didn't look like anchovies. They were about the right size but shorter. They filled the area under the rig and parted away from divers or the rig structure like curtains. Each school was about twenty feet across and there were many groups separated by areas smaller than the schools themselves. I grabbed onto some mussels to watch as they scattered away from the bubbles coming up from divers lower down.

I had swam under the rig quite shallowly and so was above one of the places where there is sort of a platform across the whole bottom. It does cover the area below the entire rig, but it has lots of large holes in it so that there won't be pressure from water rising and falling. There was a hole about the size of a bathtub, so I dropped right through it even though there were other larger open areas. I intentionally was swimming in the places where passages were formed by the structure. At ninety feet in the middle of the rig, I found a bit of stairway and checked out what was growing on it. As I moved up some I came up behind a fair sized Ling Cod perched on where some cross members came out from a leg. I checked my movement and timing. Yes, if I had had my camera, I could have gotten a good shot. I carefully moved to the front of it to see if I could have gotten a great frontal shot, but even though I was moving carefully he turned tail and headed straight down the leg.

I swam down vertical legs, across horizontal braces, went up along the bottom of the angled braces and looked in what nooks and crannies I could find. I found one scallop that I couldn't get loose. It was bigger by far than any others I had seen. Of course it was, it had a good hole. I even found a stray Red Urchin that was making a living in a small nook. At various times a Sea Lion would come by. I always barked at them, but uncharacteristically, they didn't seem to want to stop and play.

As always, I like to find the colorful Corynacis anemones, but here they were so thick that soon you are looking to find other things to see. It is just a matter of looking close. Every square inch is covered by something. There were some huge Giant Pisaster star fish feasting on the mussels. I broke up some mussels to feed to anemones and the fish. It is fun to watch the delicate feeding brushes of the barnacles as they go in and out, straining for plankton. As the dive came to an end I moved up into the mussel areas and held on to take a closer look. The mussels have some algae growing on them and every space between them is filled with brittle stars. As usual, where there are mussels, there are gooseneck barnacles between them competing for space. It is the kind of dive you hate to end, because there is always a bit more to see and something unexpected will always show up eventually.

I moved out to the boat and came aboard. It looked like after I left, everyone had followed. There were almost no divers aboard, so I cleaned my scallops and hung my gear. Tim called out that a pod of dolphins were coming. It was a small pod of probably no more than thirty animals, but the deckhands were setting up so that if they swam close, they could quickly jump in the water with them. It was a beautiful sunny day by now, as the Coast Guard pulled up beside us. Apparently, the owners of this rig were concerned about divers and didn't want them nearby. At the other rigs, they sort of want divers, because in the long run, it can keep them out of trouble with the environmentalists if the divers are talking about how it is beautiful diving.

Well, I had finally gotten to dive the rigs. It was well worth it and prettier than I had even expected. I usually dive on smaller boats, but there is a lot to be said for charter boats with warm showers, bunks, a galley and a helpful crew. Tim is a very knowledgeable skipper that knows how to run a boat and a boat trip that people will enjoy. I sat back with a slice of lime in my bottle of Corona to talk diving and watch the ocean as we passed. I'll be back.

I was on the boat after a dive and this guy came aboard with twin 95 tanks, fully redundant regulators and a pony bottle that looked like it could hold 35 cubic feet of air. Another diver and I looked at the gear and sort of gave a chuckle that it looked like a drastic case of overkill. Later I heard more of the story and it is telling. The diver's name is Colin. He did two dives to 228' and 212' that day. I heard that the crew gave him a dirty look for going that deep, but consider it. Thirty years ago, I was taught that the sport divers limit was 130 feet. I have rarely gone below that and agree that there was very little reason to in most places. It seemed silly to go much deeper. Diving like that was for professionals who plan their dives way ahead. It seems that things have changed though. Colin represents a new kind of diver, doing the same old thing. He's exploring. With the rise of technical diving, divers are putting together the gear and expertise to do these dives as recreation. If I were a bit younger, I'd be doing the same thing. It not only seems a bit strange though. It seems a bit incredible and rather exciting. Can you imagine what they will be doing next.

Great Escape Dive Boat - They do great single and multi-day trips. Great Web Site.

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