Platform Holly

An oil platform offers something for every diver, whether sightseer, photographer, game hunter or techie. It’s also a special treat because the owner of a rig must grant permission to dive it, and that’s not given to just anyone every day.

I look forward to Northern Channel Islands Chamber Day because the participating boats often dive a rig. I signed up for the Truth, which had Holly as its destination. The boat left Santa Barbara Harbor as the sun was rising on September 28 and arrived at the platform less than two hours later.

Holly sits in 211 feet of water about two miles off Coal Oil Point, which is just west of Isla Vista and UCSB. While Arco set Holly in place in 1966, she now belongs to Venoco.

According to Mike Edwards, Venoco’s vice president of government and public affairs, “Coal Oil Point is named for the natural oil and gas seeps. These are the second largest natural seeps in the world, the largest being in the Caspian Sea around Baku. If you see bubbles coming by you during the dive, they are from the natural seeps and are probably mainly methane CH4, with some propane, ethane and liquid hydrocarbons (the stuff that doesn’t evaporate when the bubble bursts at the surface and the lighter hydrocarbon vaporizes into the atmosphere).”

Rig diving is unique. Divers are divided into groups of five or six. After the boat backs up to the rig and puts its engines in neutral, the group enters the water at the same time and swims to the rig, descending only when inside it. At the end of the dive, divers surface inside the rig and wait till the boat crew signals it’s okay to swim back to the boat.

The Truth’s captain explained the diving protocol in detail, adding something I’d never heard before: Those in charge of this rig were asking photographers not to use strobes because they might set off sensors intended to detect fires and completely shut down the rig. (Dive lights were fine.)

Well, when you’re given lemons what can you do but make lemonade? I’d have to take available light photos. And, since the light under rigs is typically dim I’d have to bracket the shots to make sure at least some of them came out. I’d frame my shot, then trigger the shutter multiple times, using different apertures and/or shutter speeds.

When it came time for my group to dive, I jumped off the stern dive platform with four other people and swam to the rig. Three surprises awaited me. First, there was no current (a good thing). Second, the water temperature was 54°F (a little on the chilly side). Third, the water resembled pea soup in color and clarity (good thing I wasn”t using flash; it would illuminate the many particles in the water, resulting in backscatter).

Visibility was very poor until I descended to 55 feet, where it cleared up considerably. Holly is the smallest of the several oil platforms/rigs I’ve dived. Mike Edwards says that’s because she doesn’t need equipment to process her oil and natural gas. They are pipelined to an onshore facility for processing. Looking up from nearly any depth, I could see Holly’s entire underside, making it easy to navigate.

I shot a roll of film (yes, I still use a Nikonos V underwater) then made a safety stop at 15 feet and surfaced. The crew waved me back to the boat immediately.

Northern Channel Islands Chamber Day on the Truth included lunch, another dive on Holly and two dives on Naples Reef, a short distance west of Holly. It was a great day of diving, benefiting a great cause.

Everyone was happy. The hunters came home with scallops and fish; the tech divers got to see what the bottom of the ocean looks like 211 feet under a rig; and I got some interesting photos, one or two of which illustrate this article.

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