Hours after the 155-foot Kinta S hit rock bottom and settled into its permanent home, an underwater city began to grow. Barnacles and coral latched onto the ship's outer shell and grouper and sharks flooded its cabins in search of food and protection.
On Sept. 18, the Kinta S, a retired Panamanian-flagged freighter, was towed from Orange Beach, Ala., to a spot eight miles off the coast of Corpus Christi, Texas, carved with holes to take on water and then dropped to the ocean floor.
The Kinta S, retired after nearly 40 years of service, is now the newest piece of an artificial reef project in the Gulf of Mexico called the Corpus Christi Nearshore Reef.
The majority of artificial reef projects implemented in the Gulf of Mexico, such as the Nearshore Reef, are created using retired cargo vessels like the decommissioned Kinta S. However, in an effort to create diverse deepwater habitats along the Gulf coastline, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) utilizes a variety of repurposed superstructures, including barges, marine vessels, concrete culverts and, more recently, deep sea oil rigs.
During its lifetime, an offshore oil rig is a floating city; it is a loud, dangerous home to hundreds of engineers, technicians, divers, project coordinators and doctors – men and women who each play a distinctive role in the complex process of drilling deep sea wells to capture crude oil.
Thanks to a TPWD program called Rigs-to-Reefs, in its afterlife, that same oil rig can be sunk to become a thriving underwater ecosystem for countless species of unique coral, algae, shark and fish like the Sarcastic fringehead (wouldn't you like to see more of these?).
How does it work?
The steel frame of a deep sea rig, originally designed to withstand rough waters and hurricane winds, can be repurposed as a makeshift dwelling for plankton. When a wave crashes into the rig, clusters of plankton attach themselves to its hard surfaces.
A focused population of plankton creates a feeding spot for small fish. The joints and pipes of the oil rig provide hiding places for crevice dwellers such as grouper and eels, and in turn a predator zone for larger creatures such as tuna and sharks. Thus, a food chain builds.
This was the goal in 1990, when the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement developed Rigs-to-Reefs, which has since successfully converted more than 140 oil rig platforms into components of thriving artificial reefs.
According to the TPWD, almost immediately after a platform settles on the Gulf floor, a society begins to take form. Within a year, the oil rig is a well-established underwater ecosystem, benefitting visible coastlines and strengthening what was previously a barren seabed.
What's the point?
While the key reason for repurposing these structures is to encourage the growth of underwater populations where there were not otherwise, scientists cite secondary benefits. Artificial reefs can offer stabilized nourishment and lead to cleaner beaches, encourage improved surfing conditions, and provide unique scuba diving attractions.
Roughly 1,800 offshore rigs are currently active in waters around the globe. For now, these structures are hard at work drilling deep below the Earth's surface to gather the oil that we need to power our homes and get to the office.
In the future, when the drills are permanently shut down and workers are back on dry land, these structures could allow a whole new world to take root and flourish.