LOS ANGELES – Perched above the waves about nine miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, the oil processing platform known as Elly looks like an industrial horror – a tangle of hard metal surfaces, of cranes and pipes.
But dive 30 feet below the waves and you step into a psychedelic wonderland of rippling marine life. Mussels, anemones and brittle stars cover the platform’s thick steel piles, sea lions frolic between its beams and tens of thousands of fish streak between its supports. Neon nudibranchs (small sea slugs) roam among other life forms. Sponges, scallops, and corals are all part of the mix.
No wonder the Elly Platform is one of Southern California’s most popular dive sites.
“This is my favorite # 1 dive,” said Paige Zhang, a UCLA marine biology graduate student who spent a day diving at Elly just a few weeks ago. “And that’s why I was so shocked and sad about this spill. It’s so crazy to think that this happened on something that I’ve dived before.
Details on the extent of the recent oil spill in Orange County are still unclear, but officials say up to 144,000 gallons of crude oil leaked from a 17.7-mile pipeline that connects the Elly’s platform at Long Beach harbor. The exact way in which this leak occurred is still being determined.
Scientists and environmental groups have rushed to protect diverse animal populations in the region’s marshes and wetlands – deploying booms to prevent oil from flooding and rescue birds that are already showing clear signs of damage. by oil.
As of yet, no one is sure how the oil spill will affect the abundant marine life living on the platform itself.
Oil is lighter than water, so the good news for these creatures, who live tens and hundreds of feet below the waves, is that the vast majority have likely risen to the surface. But there is also bad news: even traces of oil can be fatal.
“I don’t know if the platform itself or all of the organisms attached to it were coated in oil, but we do know that even small concentrations of oil in the water can have toxic effects,” said Andrea Bonisoli Alquati, biologist. to Cal Poly Pomona who studied the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. “It doesn’t take a lot of oil to kill these little organisms. “
It’s no surprise that animal life has gathered on Elly’s submerged infrastructure, said Milton Love, an ichthyologist (fish scientist) at UC Santa Barbara who studies how platforms work as fish habitat.
“There are always more invertebrate larvae that are drifting around looking for a place to settle than there are places to settle,” he said. “And then here is this huge structure with 1,200 feet of steel – that’s a lot of things to set up on.”
Over the years he has discovered that organisms are not always picky about where they inhabit.
Lobsters are known to live in submerged toilet bowls, while sarcastic fringe fish (yes, that’s their real name) have been found alive in beer bottles that landed on the ocean floor, a- he declared.
“You can take an old inner tube and throw it straight from Long Beach into 80 feet of water, and in a few days there will be three brown rockfish looking at the tire,” Love said. “They are drawn to things. They don’t care what it is.
As more offshore platforms are likely to be decommissioned in the next few years, both in Southern California and elsewhere, there has been talk of leaving the underwater parts intact due to their value as artificial reefs. .
As a scientist, Love said he was neutral on the matter. As a human being, he is not.
“Removing a rig means killing a lot of marine life, and I don’t think that’s moral,” he said. “It has nothing to do with being a biologist. It’s just my moral position.
The abundance of life around all of these structures is so remarkable that an article published in 2014 in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences declared that the oil rigs off the coast of California are one of the most important marine habitats. productive world.
Still, Love said there was something particularly special about Elly and the platform next door known as Ellen.
“The people in my lab and I have visited almost every platform in California, and Elly and Ellen have an unusually high diversity of fish around them,” he said. “They are just awesome.”
Shawn Wiedrick, who until recently worked as assistant curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, called his first dive around the Elly platform “surreal.”
“There were organisms above the organisms, it was so thick,” he said. “I was tasked with going down and sampling things, but there was so much going on there, it was almost overwhelming to say, ‘What do I have to sample? “”
It is this great diversity of life that makes the platform so attractive to local divers, said Kevin Lee, an underwater photographer who has dived more than 30 times at the Elly site.
“It’s such a beautiful ecosystem,” Lee said. “Life is exceptional there, and it is much more colorful than what you would see on the shore. For some local divers this is their favorite dive site.
Ashley Arnold, owner of Jade Scuba Adventures, who works in Huntington Beach and Port Orchard, Wash., Remembers seeing strawberry sea anemones, acorn-spiky barnacles and a dazzling array of nudibranchs, some with spikes springing from their soft body.
On a diving trip to Elly and Ellen in January, she captured video of four types of bioluminescent jellyfish – alien-looking life forms that float in the water. She also saw a wide variety of fish, including bright orange garibaldi, blue and silver half moons, and several types of rockfish.
“It is an oasis in the middle of an oceanic desert,” she said. “You have nothing but a deep ocean of water surrounding it.”
Arnold said platform diving is best for experienced divers – having good buoyancy control is key to staying safe when swimming among pilings and supports, and ocean currents can be volatile. Sometimes there is no current; other times, “it’s a super crazy heartbreak.”
“It’s completely unprotected there,” she said.
To get to the rig, divers usually charter a boat from Long Beach or San Pedro. It can take 45 minutes to an hour and a half to get to the site, depending on the speed of the boat. Divers must also obtain permission from the platform operator before departing.
“They are active platforms and are working all the time that we are diving, but if they have a team that comes to work on the structure, we don’t want to be in their way,” said Arnold.
Norbert Lee, a dive instructor and marine biologist who works for LA County Sanitation, said before the spill he tried to take day trips to the platforms three or four times a year.
“We usually go between Ellen and Elly, and Eureka, which is a much deeper platform,” he said.
His strategy is to descend quickly to the maximum depth of the dive, then slowly make his way to shallower water, collecting scallops to eat and playing with sea lions along the way.
“These scallops are super tasty,” he said. “This is one of the best dive sites, to be honest.”
Lee hopes the clean-up efforts will be effective enough that he can dive the platform again one day, but said “it’s hard to hear she’s coming from a place you dive so much, let alone of all ecological impacts. it has on wetlands. It kind of broke my heart.
Zhang said she and her diving friends immediately started texting when they heard about the spill.
“You hear about oil spills all the time on the news, and you feel like they’re so far away from your life, but this one is so close to all of us,” she said.
She worries about the millions of animals standing still on the platform who are unable to swim away from the oil slicks. She wonders how she can help with the cleaning. And she thinks about when she can get back into the water, and where.
Zhang became more serious about diving during the pandemic and, like many frequent divers, it is now an essential part of his life.
“Once I’m there I just feel like my head is clear, I don’t think about work, I don’t think about anything,” she said. “You are totally in the moment. It got to the point where I have trouble sleeping if I don’t dive for more than a week.
While little information has yet been released to predict when the waters around the platform will be safe for divers again, Love said there is reason to be optimistic that the animals that inhabit Elly will survive this ecological disaster.
Ten miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, another oil rig called Holly sits amidst large natural seeps of oil and gas. Essentially, he’s bathed in oil most of the time, he said.
But when Love investigated whether this platform could support marine life, he was stunned to find that it was covered in thriving sea creatures.
“We didn’t see a dead nudibranch or anything dead,” he said.
Love thinks the animals were spared because all the oil had risen to the surface. And he hopes so will the vast, diverse and beautiful life that lives on Elly.
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