Vertical Reefs: Life on Oil and Gas Platforms in the Northwestern Gulf of Mexico

Vertical Reefs: Life on Oil and Gas Platforms in the Northwestern Gulf of Mexico

Vertical Reefs: Life on Oil and Gas Platforms in the Northwestern Gulf of Mexico

Vertical Reefs: Life on Oil and Gas Platforms in the Northwestern Gulf of Mexico


On a clear night, the bright lights of oil platforms sparkle in the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of these platforms off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana play an important role in the lives of underwater species who find food, shelter, and permanent homes in the ecosystem created by these big, three-dimensional structures standing on the flat sea floor. They may also play lesser-known roles "above the waves" in the migration of birds and even insects.

Tapping into years of diving experience, marine biologist Mary Wicksten looks at the inhabitants and visitors of these "vertical reefs", explaining how life arrives on the platforms, what species settle and stay (like barnacles), and which ones visit then disappear (like silky sharks). She looks at how different life forms take up occupancy from the surface downward, and she shows how these communities vary on nearshore and deepwater platforms.

While most people may never experience the undersea world of oil platforms, this book will bring a better understanding of it to any teacher, beachgoer, angler, diver, or coastal resident who ever wondered what was going on beneath those far-off lights.


On a clear night at sea, the bright golden lights of oil platforms sparkle in the Gulf of Mexico. People on the beach and most of the public call them “oil rigs.” Some view them negatively as unsightly sources of pollution, others see them as valuable producers of much-needed fuel.

The thousands of oil platforms that sit off the coasts of the northern Gulf of Mexico are conspicuous three-dimensional features on what is mostly a flat, muddy sea floor. The plants and animals that live on or near them are, for the most part, different from those found beneath them or on the nearby shore. For resident or migratory underwater species, these platforms play an important role in their ecosystems. They also may play a lesser-known role in the migratory patterns of the birds and even insects that fly over them.

After years of experience diving on the oil platforms of the Gulf of Mexico, photographer Dick Zingula and I decided to write a book that explained the structure and function of oil platforms, and how the marine ecosystems of these structures compare with those of natural reefs. Emphasizing the areas most likely to be visited by anglers and recreational divers, from the surface to 130 feet (40 meters), we cover the common or easily seen species found on or near platforms, going from those situated closer to shore out to those in what is called the blue water. We hope that the book will be a helpful reference for the teacher, beachgoer, angler, diver or other member of the interested public. The area of coverage, the western Gulf, follows the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) designation of the area between the Texas-Louisiana border and the US-Mexican border.

The descriptions in this book concentrate on the platforms of the western Gulf of Mexico and the life found on them. Readers in more eastern or southern parts of the Gulf of Mexico or other parts of the world may see similar platforms, but it is likely that the fauna will be different. Common names used here are those established by the American Fisheries Society and American Ornithologists’ Union. See the section on further information for published references. Many of the observations on natural history are my own, derived firsthand from diving on platforms in the High Island area of the Gulf and Buccaneer Field and shipwrecks and natural reefs off Texas. Most of the photographs were taken on platforms off Texas. Where a good quality photograph was not available, I have used a photograph of the same species from elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean waters. Photographs of specimens show material from the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections (formerly the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection), Texas A&M University; and the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Depths are given in feet and meters.

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