It’s nightfall in the Gulf of Mexico and as the sun dips low our vessel ‘the Fling’ shifts into gear and we steam out towards the horizon. Our mission is simple, to research the unique coral reef ecosystems in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS), birthplace to the original ‘Rigs to Reefs’ program. What complicates this mission is that these coral reefs are not your typical coral reefs that sprawl just below the ocean’s surface. Instead, the FGBNMS coral reefs are extremely isolated and stretch from the deep ocean bottom to the surface, climbing upwards through the water column on the subsurface steel structure of oil and gas platforms. It’s a long 220 mile journey to our destination, so after prepping our gear, we head down into the bunks.
The next day, I wake with that feeling of Christmas morning, and eagerly head out to the deck to find our research ship dwarfed by the vast blue ocean, our only company found in the cities of oil and gas platforms surrounding us. Motionless, these oil rigs have a towering, industrial presence and I think to myself, is this the National Marine Sanctuary?
A typical National Marine Sanctuary is comparable to an underwater National Park, housing and protecting valuable marine resources. Our destination, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS), is famously known for sustaining one of the Gulf of Mexico’s healthiest coral reef ecosystems. These coral reefs are complex beautiful creatures, not only providing shelter for marine life but also providing a critical system for storing excess CO2. They have colonized on the ocean floor, forming iconic “banks” that define the FGBNMS, as well as on the surrounding oil and gas platforms, giving additional (and unexpected) environmental value to the steel structures. This dynamic juxtaposition of wildlife conservation and oil and gas development is fascinating, and we could not wait to dive in.
My research partner, Emily Callahan, and I had the opportunity to travel to this National Marine Sanctuary as visiting scientists on a industry/government sponsored research cruise. We were joined by both the regulators (government agencies, like NOAA, BSEE, and BOEM) and the regulated (oil companies). We spent four days diving in the sanctuary gardens, as well as on active oil and gas platforms. One of these platforms, located inside the sanctuary boundary, is scheduled to be permanently added to the sanctuary as a ‘Rig to Reef’ installation within the next year.
Rigs to Reefs is an alternative to complete rig removal, in which an oil company plugs all the drilling wells, removes the visible topside production facility and cuts the structure off below sea level, in order to allow it to continue to stand and function as an artificial reef underwater. This alternative method, has been shown to enhance marine resources through both production of additional biomass and the attraction of additional marine species to the reef site.
Diving in the FGBNMS and below the surface of the offshore oil and gas platforms, we found an underwater Eden. We aided scientists from NOAA in observing and photographing the fish, corals and algae found on these platforms, paying a critical eye to newly discovered species found there, such as black coral, as well as monitoring the invasive species such as the lionfish.
Between dives we all squeezed into the galley, our faces sticky from the exposure to salt and sun, and engaged in uncensored conversations and lectures about the Gulf of Mexico Rigs to Reefs program, its successes and failures, and the future of the program. One major theme discussed was the proven resilience of coral reefs in the Gulf. Although subjected to natural disasters and long-term changes to the atmosphere and the ocean, the ability of these offshore reefs to withstand and recover attests to the value of established protected areas, such as National Marine Sanctuaries. However, perhaps most fascinating of all was the unity of steel and reef, development and resilience, and the healthy pervasiveness of the species that call these structures home.