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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Diver Dan

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: Since 1957, more than two dozen oil rigs have been built off the shore of California. And their builders are required by law to demolish these rigs once they go out of use. Recently, commentator Frank DiPalermo was scuba diving off the California coast, and he found that many of these sunken rigs have become artificial reefs teeming with life.

DI PALERMO: I grew up in California, so I'd seen oil rigs from shore. Propped up boxy things in shades of gray. Bird guano gray, battleship gray, colors that call to mind bad smells or violence. I'd seen them vent great plumes of flame. I used to pretend they were monsters from an old Japanese movie, squared-off spiders that got exposed to radiation and became giant fire-breathers. I try to forget those images because I've been commissioned to scuba dive under one of these rigs, then come up with a performance piece based on the experience.

My boat approaches and I hear the harsh squeals and grinds a good distance off. It's as big as a supermarket, only instead of a sign promoting a sale on milk, this one has a sign warning of poison gas emissions. There is also a sign announcing the name of the rig in utilitarian block letters: GRACE. Grace is all pipes and cranes and cable and secret padlocked areas. All of it is ugly. Beneath a blown-out sky on a glassy sea, Grace looms before me looking like a menace.

But looking closer, I see places where the rig has surrendered to the ocean. Sea lions are lounging on platforms that face the sun and pelicans choose the most unlikely perches. There is something comforting about this reassertion of the sea. I put my regulator in my mouth so I can breathe and leap off the boat. I let the air out of my buoyancy compensator and then I am under.

(Bubbling, breathing)

DI PALERMO: At 30 feet I stop and consider my surroundings. The stanchions are so dense with life their forms are soft and irregular. At first it's a mantle of black mussels. Then things get garish. Great white barnacles wave orange tongs. Strawberry anemones cluster in lush red bunches. Green crabs that look like pieces of kelp pick their way over the rig. Further in, delicate starfish dislodge themselves from crevasses, launch themselves into the water, and begin a slow descent. Some land on me, cling to me. I disengage them, hold them out, and send them on their way. Four feet off a young sea lion dances an aquatic jig both goofy and graceful. He shoots to the surface. Another pup speeds toward my face, stops heartbeats away, and barks. Then the first sea lion is back and the two begin to frolic. Life is festooned all over the place. The ocean has had her way with Grace. She worked magic on this fire-spewing monster.

Later, back on dry land with wild images of rebirth swirling around my head, I realize I've been myopic. The force I've seen at work on the rig is too big to be contained by the ocean. Evidence of this force is right outside my front door, where a few stubborn blades of grass sprout through a crack in the porch, remaining green despite my best efforts. There is a dandelion blooming in one of my rain gutters. A field mouse claims squatter's rights in my garage. These things seemed annoyances before. Now, because of the rig, I can appreciate their subversive nature.

Before Grace I used to get discouraged. The ozone is thinning, rain is becoming acidic, temperatures are climbing. But the rig has shown me that life is vast, seditious, and irrepressible. This does nothing to change the gravity of the hole in the ozone, acid rain, or climate change. But it fills my heart with hope. And hope, it seems to me, is a true state of grace.

(Music up and under: Tortoise, "Black Jack")



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