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Before Hurricane Katrina
Filming The Gulf Coast Oil Rigs
By Tim Cothren

The oil rig loomed above us in the pre dawn light like a behemoth birthday cake. It was rimmed with hundreds of incandescent lights, and a stiff yellow flame shot up from a tower in the middle. It hissed and groaned, and bellowed out a high pitched horn every few moments, which seemed to be answered by the dozens of other oil platforms sitting on the purple horizon, the call and response came from all directions.

The 110 foot Texas dive boat ‘Fling’ drifted thirty miles off the Louisiana coast. The good news was that the sea was flat as oil, but the bad news was that the sea was flat as oil. Captain Ken Bush eyed the inky water with concern. “We don’t have any current to keep us off the rig”. He scans the horizon as several rain squalls spit lightning and meander in the distance. If we got tied up to the platform and the wind or current changed suddenly we could crash into it. Ken mused “We don’t want to do a wreck dive on our own boat.”

We had sailed out of Morgan city the night before with a crew of four, and a dozen marine biologists, to film an ongoing research project about the life and underwater habitats on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. I would be shooting for ARD German television, and I was accompanied by producer Linh Ong, reporter Thomas Berbner, and audio technician Thorsten Bachmann. The five day job would take us to a number of different platforms, some as far as seventy miles off shore. We would interview the biologists about their research, and film them above and below water gathering samples, and entering their findings. I have been diving all my life, and have filmed many terrific things around the globe, but this was an opportunity of a lifetime. Oil rigs attract big fish. Both Thomas and my sound tech Thorsten, who was based at ARD in Washington DC were very good divers and their help was immeasurable.

Dr. Paul Sammarco was the team leader. He is a biologist and professor with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. The project has been dubbed, “Rigs to reefs”. The point being that many of the rigs have been in the water so long, they have become prolific artificial reefs and have provided habitat to countless fish and marine life. Sammarco swung a finger along the horizon and said “This area at the mouth of the Mississippi is known as the ‘dead zone’. Nutrients from the river flow out here depleting oxygen from the water, coating the sea floor with a noxious mud. The rigs create a structure that can support marine life which would not have been possible without them”.

During our first dive that morning, it was clear to see what he meant. Despite being so far offshore, the water was startlingly muddy. I was using a SONY VX 1000 digital video camera in an Amphibico underwater housing with battery operated tungsten lights. The water was so turbid, finding focus was proving difficult. I pre- set focus for around five feet, and tried to work my subjects within that range. Zooming was out of the question, so I used the widest lens possible and let the divers do their thing. Current was also a major factor, and it picked up at different times during this and many of the following dives. The rigs were coated with sharp barnacles. I had forgotten to put my gloves on and had already sliced up a few finger tips. Luckily, Thorsten had his, and I could get away with wearing just one, but we absolutely had to hang on to the rig or be swept away. The current was so stiff, the exhaust from our SCUBA regulators was moving laterally. The girders were home to an impressive number of fish, Jacks, Sheepshead, and Triggerfish among them. In one shot a big Trigger swam up and nibbled on Dr. Sammarco’s face. He’s lucky the fish didn’t take a heftier bite, they have very strong jaws. Some scientists chipped away at the growth with small hammers, putting samples in zip lock bags, others shot video, or took notes on waterproof slates.

Filming while swimming is difficult under the best of circumstances, I was now faced with this current, and the need to kick hard, but get footage that wouldn’t rock side to side. I concentrated on breathing extremely slowly, and as I swam I would gently torque the camera in the opposite direction of my kick to compensate for the motion. The powerful tungsten lights were absolutely essential on this dive. The water was already quite dark, and the cover of the platform above blocked out a huge amount of sunlight. The scientists were working at depths varying from just under the surface to one hundred thirty feet. I kept my depth above one hundred feet as that is where most of the fish life seemed to be. Given the rather challenging conditions, I was a little concerned about the quality of the material. Back on board, the crew of the Fling diligently recorded diving depth and time off of our underwater computers, and had strict rules about repetitive dive profiles; they wanted to make sure nobody got the bends. All of the scientists were breathing NITROX. It is Oxygen enhanced breathing gas which reduces the amount of potentially dangerous Nitrogen in the breathing mixture. My crew breathed plain air, and kept an eye on our dive times.

Stealing away into my cabin, I popped the cassette into a ‘Clamshell’ digital player, and was relieved with the amount of good material I’d shot. There were ‘soft’ bits, but towards the end of the dive, I got lucky with some cooperative fish who were entertained by the lights. The shot of the fish biting Sammarco was very good and made it into the cut story

The following days would bring us farther off shore, and into much cleaner water One morning I jumped in, and not only could I see the entire length of the boat, I could see the far side of the platform! The visibility had to be nearly two hundred feet, and huge schools of Jacks, and Tuna, buzzed the divers and made for awesome shots. I was able to get a real ‘money shot’tilting the camera upwards, getting a clean shot of the tower overhead, then tilt down into a school of fish swarming the camera. Even in the clearest water, we need to compensate for the loss of color in the water column. The camera housing has an internal color correction filter, which manually flips up in front of the lens. The pinkish filter does a tremendous job of fooling the camera into seeing reds, and yellows which diminish at depth.

These outer rigs were a diving photographer’s paradise. Every inch of the platform is covered with colorful corals, fish, and sponges. Divers floated from girder to girder at various depths in the distance, giving the illusion of working at a space station. I shot so much material in such a short time, I gave Thorsten the camera at one point so I could shoot stills, and he got up in the face of one of the biggest Barracudas I have ever seen.

After the dive, the scientists huddled over jars and baggies containing their finds. Great enthusiasm makes for good television, and they spoke at length about the medicinal and other values of their collections. Liquid nitrogen was poured into containers preserving the samples, and made a steamy spectacle. Thunderstorms and bright rainbows came and went. By suppertime, everyone sat quietly at laptops, and journals.

Oil rigs mean different things to different people. There is no doubt they can be controversial. Dr. Sammarco said that natural leakage of oil through the seabed is probably greater than from a depleted well. Federal law now dictates that when a rig runs dry, the company that owns it must remove it within a year. Sammarco has filmed this process and said that he actually saw hundreds of fish jumping out of the water, throwing themselves against the emerging legs. His argument is that these old rigs could be used in many ways. Sections could be fenced off for fish farming. Solar, and wind generators could be deployed. The rigs could be decapitated at a safe depth to avoid being a shipping hazard, but still provide substrate for habitat. Hotels could be set up in the existing quarters for divers and fishermen who want to enjoy these waters.

In an era of vanishing habitat, it isn’t hard to see his point.

The story aired in June 2005, running a little over six minutes. ARD was so happy with it they want to extend it into a half hour feature. The plan at this point is to shoot more material at a fish farm in the Bahamas, and return to Louisiana, to film working fishermen, and onboard a working platform.


Tim Cothren is a freelance news documentary cameraman and producer living in the US Virgin Islands. A veteran underwater photographer with thirty years experience, he was the first network cameraman inside the wreckage of the World Trade Center and was an embedded cameraman for German TV with the US Army during “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in 2003.


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