The Gulf of Mexico’s Hottest Diving Spots Are Decommissioned Oil Rigs
These artificial reefs are proving to be prime habitats for a plethora of sea creatures
On the surface, offshore oil rigs are a complete eyesore, but underwater they can be an aquatic paradise for sea creatures. Stretching hundreds of feet from the ocean floor and towering far above the surface—some reaching heights as tall as the Empire State Building—these metal platforms used for oil drilling have taken on a surprisingly different purpose over the years: serving as manmade reefs for coral, sponges, algae, red snapper, jacks, angel fish, barracuda and other marine species.
Around the world there are hundreds of oil rigs hovering above ocean waters, many still fully operational and drilling for oil, while others have been decommissioned. Thanks to the abundance of sea life utilizing them as habitats, they’ve become increasingly popular destinations among scuba divers and snorkelers—especially as more and more natural reefs are disappearing.
In the warm subtropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico, roughly 100 nautical miles off of Galveston, Texas, one platform has become a hotspot for divers and snorkelers. High Island A389 is no longer operational—all drilling for oil ceased in the early 1990s when the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, a site encompassing three underwater salt domes protected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, was designated a protected site. The rig was decommissioned since it was within the site's boundaries. In the time since, local diving tour operators have begun bringing divers to the area to experience what it's like to dive a manmade reef.
High Island A389 is part of a growing movement to create artificial reefs out of decommissioned oil rigs. However, decommissioning rigs isn't anything terribly new; in fact, the idea got its start in the mid-198os when Congress passed the National Fishing Enhancement Act of 1984, a law that was the result of an increased interest in developing artificial reefs for diving and fishing. This led to the creation of the National Artificial Reef Plan in 1985 that provides an outline of protocols and best practices by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) for turning retired rigs into artificial reefs. The plan includes engineering and environmental standards that must be met in the decommissioning process.
In order to participate, a coastal state must have an approved, state-specific artificial reef plan and an artificial reef coordinator to oversee the plan and work directly with oil companies on the decommissiong process and securing permits from the U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers. (Currently, the Gulf states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas are all eligible.) Artificial reefs are especially important in the Gulf of Mexico, where the bottom of the gulf lacks a hard surface and is instead comprised predominantly of clay, mud and sand, making it less conducive to the formation of natural reef habitats. As of 2018, 532 platforms have been reefed in the Gulf of Mexico, but there are hundreds more around the country that could potentially become manmade reefs.
One non-profit, Blue Latitudes, is at the forefront of the movement to turn these unsightly oil rigs into reefs. Blue Latitudes got its start in 2015, several years after Emily Hazelwood, its co-founder, worked as a field tech during the Deep Water Horizon/BP MC252 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, considered to be one of the most devastating oil spills in recent history, releasing more than 4 million barrels of oil into the gulf.
“While I was there, a lot of the local fisherman were [helping out by] driving our boats around so that we could do sediment and water sampling,” says Hazelwood. “All they could talk about was how incredible the fishing was off of these oil rig platforms. At the time it seemed beyond strange that we’re out here trying to understand the impact of an oil spill resulting from one of those platforms, but also apparently that these places are hotspots for fishing. That’s when I first heard about the Rigs to Reefs program.”
The National Fishing Enhancement Act of 1984 served as a roadmap for Hazelwood, along with co-founder Amber Jackson, when they launched their non-profit organization based out of California with a mission to, first, educate oil companies on the financial and environmental benefits of repurposing retired platforms, and, then, actually assist them in transitioning decommissioned oil rigs into reefs.
For instance, turning a rig into a reef is significantly less expensive than scrapping it entirely—in most cases, about 50 percent cheaper, resulting in a savings of millions of dollars, according to Blue Latitudes. Monetary benefits aside, reefing a platform has also been found to be beneficial for the surrounding environment as well. According to a study by the Coastal Marine Institute, "a typical eight-leg structure provides a home for 12,000 to 14,000 fish." Another study by the University of California, Santa Barbara has found that such artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico and California are “useful as fisheries conservation tools” and that completely removing a platform “will destroy all sessile invertebrates, kill cryptic fish and most invertebrate species, and the majority of all fishes associated with the platform.”
While some may question how a manmade oil rig could even qualify as a viable habitat for sea life, the answer is quite simple: just look below the surface. Hazelwood says that the average offshore platform measures between 800 and 1,200 feet in height, with most of the structure residing underwater.
“That’s a lot of real estate for marine life to colonize on,” she says. “These offshore platforms have become very successful and very productive marine reefs, and the reason really lies in the structure itself. They stretch from the seafloor all the way to above the surface and are made out of this hard substrate, which is often a rarity, especially in places like the Gulf of Mexico basin. So just the fact that it’s so large and provides this hard [material] for different marine life species to attach to, [different species] will start to colonize on it and eventually start to produce it. [The oil rigs] are also very complex, with lots of beams and cross beams, which provide different nooks and crannies that attract marine life.”
Hazelwood estimates that there are between 500 and 600 reefed rigs in the Gulf of Mexico alone, however many aren’t open to divers because they’re not suitable for diving for one reason or another. They might be located in an area with heavy shipping traffic, for example, or there may be high sedimentation in the area, such as at the mouth of a river, that makes for bad visibility. Interestingly, many active oil platforms do welcome divers. And once a rig is no longer a viable source for oil, Blue Latitudes is there to assist oil companies as they navigate the decommissioning process, which involves capping off the oil well to prevent any possible seepage and lopping off the upper portion of the platform so that all that remains is underwater.
“A lot of people think of oil platforms and they think of industry and oil spills, but seeing is believing," she says. "I’m always surprised by how much life exists on these platforms at all times. I would dive oil platforms any day compared to regular reefs. You just don’t see that diving natural reefs.”
The Top Five Oil Rigs to Dive in the Gulf of Mexico, According to Emily Hazelwood
- High Island A389 - Located off of Galveston, Texas, this was the first decommmissioned oil platform to be reefed in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary—and in any marine sanctuary for that matter.
- High Island A376 - The warm clear waters surrounding this platform, just outside of Flower Garden Banks, are filled with interesting corals and large pelagic species, including manta rays.
- MP 299 - This site is close to shore, about 25 miles off of Louisiana, but due to a steep dropoff, the waters are clean, blue and unaffected by the Mississippi River outflow.
- Vermilion 171A - At this easily accessible platform, two hours west of New Orleans and just two to three miles from Cypremort Point State Park, divers find large schools of Atlantic spadefish and crevalle jacks.
- Mustang Island-828 Reef - Also relatively close to shore, at about 27 nautical miles from Port Aransas, Texas, this 4-pile jacket stands in approximately 165 feet of water.