Two Jumps on California's Oil Platform Grace

Twenty some years ago Judy Hemenway and I co-founded the 10:00 O'clock Club, resolving never to dive before that civilized am hour. Over the years, on many boat trips, we have recruited numerous converts; even her husband Jon is now a member. When a chance comes to dive a special site, however, the club is temporarily dissolved.

Oil Platform Grace Such a chance came last September in the form of Oil Platform Grace. The boat was the Peace, the event was Northern Channel Islands Chamber Day. Grace is eight miles off Ventura, California, in the open ocean. She's not a rig but a platform; a relay point for Oilrig Gail. Gail pumps oil to Grace, Grace pumps it to a Chevron facility on shore.

Grace sits in 320 feet of water so anchoring is not an option. Instead, all the divers, geared up and ready to go, gather on the bow of the boat. The boat pulls up as close to the structure as possible and puts its engines in neutral. One by one the divers jump in, swim into the rig and descend.

Corynactis covered Jewel Boxes Underwater, Grace is supported by many horizontal and vertical pilings. She has been in the water since 1979 so each of these is completely covered with layers of marine life. I consider them prettier than any float in the Rose Bowl Parade, covered as they are with a beautiful living tapestry of Corynactis anemones in pastel shades of lavender, pink, light orange and red; scallops with orange mantles and blue "eyes," sponges in many different hues and a wide variety of hydroids and bryozoans. Among all this are nudibranchs, crabs, little fishes and more.

While I knew the site would be beautiful and offer incredible macro photo opportunities, I wasn't expecting the water to be 64 Degrees F (warm!) and clear. There was about 50 feet of visibility and when the sun came out from under its cloud cover, the scene was spectacular.

A tiny Furrowed Rockcrab Using a Nikonos with 28mm lens, 1:3 extension tube and framer, I exposed all 36 film frames within a few minutes. This seemed to be a day for crabs and I photographed at least five different species. Even so, I had barely scratched the surface of the photo ops and hoped we'd do at least one more dive here so I could shoot a roll of wide angle, too.

I surfaced inside the rig, as directed, and waited till the Peace crew motioned for me to swim to the boat. Once again, the captain had to bring the boat close to the rig and put her engines in neutral so it was safe for divers to board.

Corynactis covered Rock Scallops That day my wishes were granted and another dive was planned. We waited out our hour surface interval a few yards from the platform, watching as a helicopter landed and took off and a crewboat brought in supplies. Then it was time for the second jump.

The gods smiled upon us and the sun came out for nearly the entire dive. I was enthralled. We had sun shining down through the life covered pilings and baitfish swimming in mid-water. The scenery was so stunning it took me only 17 minutes to shoot all of my film. Then, reluctant to leave, I explored the upper portions of the rig. At 30 feet I found collars around some of the vertical pilings. They resembled shallow dishes and were filled with thousands of Brittlestarfish. I also saw two life forms I'd never seen before; a bryozoan that resembled leaf coral and clumps of long stringy hydroids that looked like weeds, with flower-like "buds" near the ends.

All too soon, it was time to surface. As the Peace cruised toward Anacapa, I said a silent good-bye to Grace (and hoped my photographs came out!).

Note: Oil platforms are busy, privately owned workstations and permission to dive them must be obtained well in advance from the oil company that owns them. Lee Bafalon, Senior Land Representative for Chevron, Inc., told me permission is not hard to come by but that it is only given to organized clubs or groups (not individuals) chartering a boat used to putting divers on these rigs. Those meeting the qualifications and wishing to obtain permission can call Lee Bafalon at (805) 658-4345. Have several dates in mind, the first one you choose may not be workable.