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
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
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
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.