Protecting Our Oceans: The Importance of Underwater Photography and Artificial Reefs

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In Episode 17 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed energy expert and underwater photographer James Wiseman on why he supports ongoing efforts to promote Rigs-to-Reefs programs. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with James about his years growing up in California, how he came to be involved with Rigs-to-Reefs, and his passion for underwater photography and chronicling the wonders of the ocean.

Growing up in San Diego, James Wiseman was always drawn to the ocean and water in general, a natural affinity that grew and blossomed into something profound in his adult life. “My dad used to drop me off at the pond when I was a kid,” he says, “at like 9 in the morning—and I was 10 years old—and come back and pick me up at 5 p.m. So, I’d fish at the pond all day when I was little.”

James started going out on boats when he was around 15 years old, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that there was a way he could do this without it costing anything. Getting a job and working on the boat, he said, allowed him to go out for free and still have time to fish after he’d completed whatever tasks he was assigned. “That’s actually a thing,” he says.

“Every fishing fleet has something like that. There’s a little kid—and there’s a name for them, they call them pinheads, don’t ask me why!—and you go out, you help clean the fish, you help clean the boat, and then you get to go fishing.”

This summer job was perfect for the adventurous James, as it provided ample time for his hobby while also generating a bit of income.

Even during the week and on the weekends, James would go snorkeling and catch lobsters—which, he says, you can only do with your bare hands in San Diego—going up and down the coast, from La Jolla to Point Loma, riding his bike around and finding a good diving point before exploring with his friends. It was the perfect environment for the water-loving James to grow up in, which led to a fascination with what goes on under the water.

“Most people have absolutely no idea what’s under the water,” he says. “You might be able to see a little about it on the TV, but in general, I just think people really have no idea.”

Scuba diving, an expensive hobby for a teenager, didn’t really become feasible for James until he graduated college and got his first real job, which coincided nicely with the advent of digital photography in the early 2000s. “Everything just came together,” he explains. “I learned how to dive, I got my first digital camera—and the first or second underwater housings were starting to come out—and it was the ultimate learning experience.” Underwater digital photography presented James with infinite possibilities, as the field was just starting to take off and there were no copyright laws to govern what he could and couldn’t photograph. The only limitation, as it were, was the size of your memory card.

Going on a dive-spot-hopping journey, James made his way from the Gulf of Mexico over to the Florida Keys and back down to the coast of Belize with his digital camera, learning as he went. He ended up joining a group with a website called Wetpixel, which was the premiere site for underwater digital photography. “I got to go on teaching trips with them,” he says, “since I was one of the editors. I got some free trips to Fiji, which was pretty cool!” The rewarding aspect for James was that he could show people how to do underwater photography while having the website as a place where he could share his knowledge and work.

The thing about digital underwater photography, James explains, isn’t necessarily that the quality is better, but rather that the nature of the format allows for creativity and spontaneity. “There were some really amazing film cameras back then,” he says, “and you could shoot some incredible pictures underwater, but you really have to set up your f-stop, your shutter speed, your lighting, your lens selection—everything for a certain condition. And if that changes on a dive—well, sometimes, you’re just out of luck.” A perfectly choreographed shot could be ruined in an instant, making many dives an exercise in hoping that everything went perfectly. Photography, however, especially of the natural world, should allow for those sudden, sublime moments of beauty. It’s all about finding that balance.

The intersection of the oil and gas industry and James’ passion for underwater photography can be found in what has been dubbed the “Rigs-to-Reefs” program. As of late 2020, 558 platforms previously installed on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf have been decommissioned and transformed into artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, creating habitats for tens of thousands of fish and hundreds of marine species.[1]

Though many may be unfamiliar with this program, James says that for the fishing and diving communities, such knowledge is commonplace.

“There really isn’t a process, especially in the Gulf of Mexico,” he admits. “Fishermen and shrimp boats have been tying up to the smaller platforms for 50 years; it’s just a culture that’s developed. If you want to go spear fishing, you just go out there, tie your boat to the platform, jump in, and go back to your boat; same with scuba diving.”

Though not every platform-turned-reef is suitable for diving, James says that there are still many in the Gulf. One method of “reefing” involves severing the top of a retired structure at a permitted navigational depth and placing it on the sea floor next to the base of the remaining structure, creating what James refers to as “secret spots.” Though the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department keeps a map of where the reefs are—marked by buoys after a platform is decommissioned and turned into a reef—the map isn’t totally accurate due to vessels illegally tying up to the buoys and dragging them off into the sunset. So, there are these areas that simply aren’t on any map, and can’t be recognized without sophisticated equipment, that in-the-know divers can go to—hidden vestiges of the past made secret by time and circumstance.

These underwater environments, James says, are the opposite of what people think of with oil and gas platforms, mazes of pipes and metal and equipment positioned above murky brown water. “There are all these different structures you can dive from, and people love diving from non-oil related ones,” James explains. “What they don’t realize is that the oil-related ones look amazing underwater. It’s like it’s taken over by nature.” When you scuba dive to around 130 feet deep, which is about as far as you can safely go with standard equipment, you see a literal swirl of marine life as you glance downward; an eerie feeling, James says, the contrast between beauty and the glimpse into a dark abyss. “If you drop your camera there,” he laughs, “yeah, you’re not getting it back.”

Another cool thing about turning old platforms into reefs—and, for James, subsequently being able to photograph them—is that it provides for diversity in the diving experience itself. “If you’re in Houston,” James says, “and you want to go scuba diving in the ocean, and if there were no rigs or platforms in the Gulf, you’d have three or four places within 100 miles of Galveston or Freeport where you could go.” If that was the case, those few places would be congested with fishermen and divers at every hour of the day, robbing people of the chance to have a unique experience. The challenge, James says, is that if you go 50 miles out into the Gulf and dive to 120 feet deep, you won’t really see anything except mud and debris. There’s an art and a science to finding the right spot.

For example, the hidden artificial reefs make for one-of-a-kind diving and photography trips, places where life has flourished in new and sometimes unexpected ways. In the same vein, areas like the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary provide for a curated, maintained marine environment where every photo is briefly your best shot ever. What you’ll see on a dive in these areas, James says, are manta rays, whale sharks in the summer, and giant schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks in the winter, offering many people the chance of a lifetime to get up close and personal with these sea creatures. There are also red snapper and a myriad of colorful reef fish living there. “You wouldn’t have any of that without the platforms,” James says. “You’d just have a few of these concentrated spots where some rocks kind of stick out of the bottom. Otherwise, nothing.”

James’ focus with underwater photography is called “macro photography,” which refers to things that are smaller than 36 millimeters across. For James, night dives are especially interesting and rewarding. “There are these little shrimp that are pretty amazing,” he says, “and slipper lobster, arrow crabs…and also, from time to time, you’ll get these Caribbean fish that settle in the Gulf of Mexico called frog fish that have a little lure on the front of their mouth that they can attract prey with.” The cool thing, we agree, is the contrast between the public perception of sea life—which broadly focuses on large animals, like whales, sharks, squids, and dolphins—and the many, many tiny creatures that often remain unphotographed due to the difficulty of capturing them in their natural environment.

James also remarks on what’s called a “blackwater night dive,” where you float under the boat in the deep ocean and simply wait to see what passes by in the gulf stream.

“You wouldn’t believe what you can photograph out there,” he says. “There are these little plankton flounder that look like this incredible fan dance of fins, and there are all sorts of things like that.” There’s also a “muck dive” in the Pacific Ocean, where there’s a black volcanic sand area filled with fascinating creatures. That’s where the bobbit worm can be found, as well as mantis shrimp—which has, according to James, “the fastest claws in the west”—and mimic octopi. “You don’t really know about this stuff,” James notes, “until you get into underwater photography.”

Going back in time, the 17-year-old James was deciding what major he wanted to choose at the University of California, Berkeley. Already interested in engineering, he saw on his sheet a choice that clearly brought together his personal and professional passions—offshore engineering and naval architecture. “And I knew, that was perfect,” he says. “I just bubbled in that box!” When he did his first internship, coming to Houston from San Diego, he was overjoyed to be offshore, admitting that “it was like going to summer camp and getting paid.” The company he worked for primarily did decommissioning projects for platforms that would later become reefs, which aligned with James’ burgeoning interest in the Rigs-to-Reefs program. It was fairly straightforward: James and his supervisor flew out on a helicopter and carried out inspections, with the company trying to determine the state the platform and if it was suitable for lifting ahead of being decommissioned and turned into a reef.

“Naval architecture” wasn’t just a fancy degree, either, as James was involved in design and engineering for vessels from his college years. As part of a nationwide project while a senior, James and his team designed a “concrete canoe” that was around 0.6 inches thick. At the end of the design and construction phase, two people even had to race the canoe to win the competition. Reminiscing on this experience, James says it was one of the most fun things he ever designed despite its small size—just 12 feet long—versus future projects at much larger scale.

Moving forward in his career, James got involved in bigger, more complicated design projects for offshore structures—mostly the pieces that were underwater.

“I designed the steel structure of a platform, and I did a lot of the subsea pipelines and wells that were remote controlled,” he explains. “We would have to safely get natural gas or oil from one of these deepwater wells at 12,000 psi and 200°F through the pipes and all the way back to the platform. And everything would have to last for 20 years or more.”

The hydraulics were also part of the equation, as well as designing risers that could account for bending during vessel heave, and pipelines that could navigate the rugged terrain of the seabed and last in the harsh deepwater environment while consistently allowing safe transmission of the end product.

If you’ve listened to the podcast episode where James is a guest, you also heard Emily Hazelwood and Amber Sparks discuss Blue Latitudes, their marine environmental consulting firm that is trying, among other things, to drive the success of a rigs-to-reefs program offshore California. Through shared interest in diving and with Emily and Amber eager to learn more about the Rigs-to-Reefs program in the Gulf of Mexico, the three connected.

James also introduced the Emily and Amber to a scuba trip where half of the boat was paid for by an oil and gas company, and the other half was paid for by the government and regulatory bodies. Everyone that goes on that trip had to give a presentation on board, says James, so Emily and Amber gave a presentation on what they were doing with Blue Latitudes in California. “We just really hit it off after that,” James continues. “I was really into underwater photography, and they were into underwater videography, and photography, too. So, we would go around and find stuff to shoot. It was great.” Following their careers thereafter even as he went through changes in his own career, James always stayed in touch, keeping the relationship alive.

Image credit: Dennis Fanning

At the end of the conversation, James provides a bit of perspective and advice for anyone who also wants to follow the path of diving and underwater photography—firstly, to consider this something you love to do, not your career.

“If you want to dive, you have to find something to pay the bills,” he says. “Better yet, find a job that you love that also has a flexible vacation policy.” What if, he asks, you could be an offshore engineer and work on a platform in the Red Sea, then go diving when you finish the project? It won’t necessarily be easy, but if you can find something that allows greater intersection between your personal and professional passion, go for it.

Places where you can dive from the shore—like in California and Florida, for example—are the most cost-effective, especially for a young person with limited resources trying to get started. Ultimately, what’s important is that people interested in preserving what they see underwater act. “The more you see the things underwater,” he says, “the more you love them, and the more you want to protect them. And that’s the key right there.”

This ties into something of a double meaning when it comes to what people like James are doing with their underwater photography and, broadly, their activism with marine conservation. On one hand, working on something like the Rigs-to-Reefs program drives tangible change in the world; on the other, with photography, you’re also cataloging underwater life, a digital legacy of these things that so often remain unseen allowing them to last forever. Photography connects the abstract ideas, and James poignantly encapsulates exactly why he does what he does: “People won’t protect what they don’t see or don’t know about.”