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How the Orange County Oil Spill Impacts Scuba Divers

The spill is connected to the oil rig Elly, a popular SoCal dive site.
By Alexandra Gillespie | Updated On October 5, 2021
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How the Orange County Oil Spill Impacts Scuba Divers

California oil rigs

The oil rigs, popular with SoCal divers, are still active. The one named Elly is tied to the leak.


More than 126,000 gallons of oil spilled offshore of Orange County, California, this weekend, creating a 12-mile slick that currently spreads from Huntington Beach to Dana Point. Oil has seeped into marshes and the Talbert wetlands as dead fish and birds wash up onshore.

The cause of the leak is yet to be identified, but is linked to the Elly oil rig, a popular dive site about 5 miles off the coast. Commercial divers are inspecting the 17.5 mile pipeline to find the source of the leak. The leak is believed to have stopped, as the oil system has been shut off, but the oil slick is expected to continue spreading due to wind and ocean currents.

“We are still assessing to look for the source and figure out," Eric Laughlin, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesperson, said at a Sunday news conference. "It doesn't appear there's further fuel leaking, but we're still working on identifying that."

Orange County supervisor Katrina Foley told CNN on Monday this spill “has devastated our California coastline in Orange County, and it's having a tremendous impact on our ecological preserves as well as our economics. We need answers and the public deserves answers."

It is not yet known how long the cleanup will take. As of Sunday, approximately 3,150 gallons of oil had been recovered from the water and 5,360 feet of boom had been deployed to restrain the spread.

Shore Dives Hit, Charters Continue

Do not dive in water impacted by the spill. Oil is a dangerous neurotoxin that can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting and skin and eye irritation. Seek medical attention if you inhale or touch it. Health-related questions about this oil spill can be directed to (714) 834-2000.

Dives to the impacted rigs are suspended until further notice.

The beaches currently closed in Orange County due to the spill include those in Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach and Crystal Cove State Beach. Newport Beach has issued an advisory to avoid contact with oil-impacted waters and shores. Newport Harbor is closed to prevent boats from bringing oil into the harbor. Oil is expected to continue washing onto the shore for several days, and it is unclear when the beaches will reopen.

“Do not swim, surf or exercise near the spill." - Dr. Clayton Chau, director of Orange County’s Public Health Care Agency

Divers should not schedule shore dives at these sites until local authorities announce it is safe to enter the water. The Laguna Beach location of Laguna Sea Sports, also known as Beach Cities Scuba, is canceling classes that would normally involve shore dives at Shaw’s Cove. Its Huntington Beach location could not be reached for comment.

Oil clean up

An oil slick cuts the Pacific waters.

US Coast Guard

Charter boat operators, such as Sundiver and Channel Islands Dive Adventures, are continuing to offer their normal non-rig dives.

“At this moment, it's not impacting me at all,” says Ken Kollwitz of Channel Islands Dive Adventures. “I have rig trips, but…. I don't have any more for the rest of the year. And I still have to plan the ones for next year. And I know by then everything's going to be taken care of.”

The waters around Catalina Island are not expected to be impacted by the spill. Service on the Catalina Express is uninterrupted. The Catalina Flyer out of Newport Beach is temporarily out of service due to an unrelated mechanical problem.

Charlton Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has announced a fisheries closure in areas impacted by the spill. If you spot an animal covered in oil, do not touch it or attempt to clean the animal off as you “can cause more harm than good to the animals,” the DFW’s Laughlin tells the Los Angeles Times. Instead, report the sighting to the UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network at (877) 823-6926. At least one oil-coated duck is receiving veterinary care, according to USA Today.

“This devastating incident is an alarming reminder about the fragility of our ocean ecosystems,” says Kristin Valette Wirth, Chief Brand and Membership Officer of PADI Worldwide. “It also reinforces the importance of working for greater marine protections and coming together to amplify awareness of issues (and solutions!) impacting ocean health.”

Public volunteers are not needed at this time, but volunteer information will be made available at if opportunities arise.