I am 85 feet down in the middle of the murky green Southern California ocean, huddled close to the giant steel legs of the oil rig Eureka, a monolithic structure that plunges 700 feet down to the sea floor. Anemones, crustaceans, plump starfish, mussels, and large scallops with pink and purple lips cling on densely onto the industrial beams, smiling like they're taunting me.
Eureka, owned by Houston-based oil company Beta Offshore, is located eight miles off the coast of Long Beach. It is one of 27 rigs still intact off of California's waters. Studies have shown that the rigs are one of the richest ecosystems on the planet—more so than coral reefs or estuaries.
Located in the middle of the ocean, they attract the perfect conditions for the filter feeders, which thrive in strong currents that bring over food. This incentivizes large fish and creatures (like sea lions) looking for a tasty snack to hang out in the area. Humans, too.
My dive buddy John Hsieh points at a large juicy scallop with his flashlight and motions for me to come over. I exhale and sink to his side, still struggling to control my buoyancy. This is the first time I have ever dove with a hunting bag and it is creating an uncomfortable drag behind me.
Wearing a thick neoprene suit and hooded vest, full scuba gear, a tactical knife strapped to my inner calf, a scalpel plus flashlight clipped to my chest, and 12 pounds of extra weight, it feels like I am on a rescue mission instead of a recreational dive.
Scallops sound simple enough to harvest. They don't swim, of course. They just hang out, there for the taking, their fleshy lips slightly opened. With eyes located all alongside their outer shell, they clam up when they sense danger. It's best not to shine your flashlight directly at them. You dig in your scalpel into its mouth and pry the muscle out. A knife can be used as leverage to open the shell wider.
It is harder than it seems. The water temperatures today are in the mid-50s, visibility underwater is just 15 feet, and getting the meat of the scallops out completely intact is a challenge for me. Air is my biggest concern; my levels are dropping precipitously fast because I am so focused on extracting meat out of shells.
My first attempts at prying out the meat, I get a handful of minced pieces that float away the moment I loosen my grip. Hsieh has to demonstrate the process for me a couple of times before I finally get a full one: Scrape at the edges of the meat. Use a knife to hold the mouth open. Control your buoyancy. Don't use too much energy.
The truth is that scuba diving in California can be terribly uncomfortable. When the conditions are choppy and the visibility low, the sport requires a level of finesse that attracts only the most diehard of divers. Boats are not allowed to drop their anchor near the rigs, and so divers are forced to descend and ascend on a live boat, meaning that there is no anchor line we can hold onto in a worst-case scenario. We must hover over volatile waves, jump in, and bob on the shaky surface without getting swept away while the rest of our dive group jumps in the water.
Ascending is that entire process but in reverse. You swim towards the stern end of the boat, grab onto the ladder and bite hard onto your regulator—because if a big wave hits you'll probably get knocked off. With the energy you have left, you climb back on board with all your gear strapped to your back, which now feels the full weight of gravity as you transition from sea to boat.
I even threw up a couple of times (but that was on me for refusing to take Dramamine and drinking too much the days before).
The conditions aren't always ideal and divers have been swept off to sea at the rigs in the past.
So why do we do it?
"Wild scallops in California are not commercially available," Gabriel Lu, the owner of Ocean Safari, the dive shop that I dove with, says. "They don't taste like the scallops you buy on the market. These are chewy and the texture is different. It's very special, unique, and very delicious."
The scallops are a giant rock scallop (Crassadoma gigantea). From a culinary perspective, they have less water content than the selection available from grocery stores. They're best eaten as sashimi, fresh with a bit of yuzu drizzled on top. I ended up grilling some of them with lemon and butter, but I found the raw versions to be superior.
It takes roughly ten years for the bivalve to get to a reasonable size and they have a lifespan of approximately 20 years. Divers are limited to ten scallops per day, and must get a hunting license before they jump in the water.
"There are some sites, especially on natural reefs, where I won't take people scallop hunting," he says. "If I put a whole boat of divers at these sites, there won't be any scallops left for ten years."
The oil rigs are one of the few places where scallops are ripe and plentiful enough for the taking. They'd be cleaned off anyway by subcontractors hired by the oil companies to keep the beams tidy.
When Lu first immigrated to the United States, he used to work for a company called EcoMar, where divers were hired to clean the oil rigs off the coast of Southern California. Shellfish compromise the integrity of the structure and must be wiped off regularly.
"They don't taste like the scallops you buy on the market. These are chewy and the texture is different. It's very special, unique, and very delicious."
"We used a high pressure water duct to clean the oil rigs and had to get rid of all the mussels and scallops," he says. "I got so many scallops it was unbelievable."
Because of that experience, he can bring his clients to the rigs with good conscience.
But with many of the rigs nearing their expiration date, there's the question of what will happen once the oil runs dry and what will become of the rich marine ecosystem that has made the rigs their home.
"If you take rigs down with all the life on them, it's horrific to think about," Dan Stephens, a dive master from Ocean Safari says. "But there's the question of what they're going to collect if you leave them there. Ghost nets will accumulate and will kill fish."
It's an ongoing debate, with many environmentalists torn on the issue, both wanting the structures gone and not wanting to reward the polluters with free structure removal.
Stephens brings up the spill of 1969, a large leakage off the coast of Santa Barbara, which left a 40-mile slick and killed thousands of sea creatures.
"It left a scar on Santa Barbara's psyche," he says. "Even if they decommission the rigs, they have to cap the wells. If they cap the wells, the oil companies are still responsible for making sure that those wells stay secure and don't leak. On the flip side, if they turn it into a reef, the state is liable for diver safety."
To date, none of the rigs in California have been converted into artificial reefs.
On our dives, we can hear the drilling underwater and see the men working on the rigs. Fat sea lions swim around us, large schools of silvery fish whirl around the beams, and oil's being extracted underneath it all.
"We need to respect that the oil rigs let us dive there," Lu says. "As divers, we are very lucky."
Without the oil companies, this incredibly rich ecosystem would not exist. And, selfishly, without them, I would not have gotten my ten fat scallops. But I'm not quite sure that the benefits outweigh the cons.