California Sea Lions Nursing at Eureka Rigs

Right place, right time leads to a great image capture at the SoCal Oil Rigs
By Ron Watkins

California Sea Lions Nursing at Eureka Rigs

By Ron Watkins


Sea Lion Pup Nursing



The morning of Saturday January 12th started off as it does for many Los Angeles, CA area divers with the boat pulling out of the marina at 8AM bound for a day of diving at a local oil rig, but this day would end up being quite unique. I was in town, visiting from Arizona, and had a free day in Long Beach in between business meetings. Scott Gietler of Bluewater Photo had organized a six-pack of divers for a trip on the Sundiver II.

It was a record breaking cold day in CA. As we left the dock the air temperature was around 40 degrees and water temperatures hovered around 52. What made this trip so special for me was that it was my first trip to an oil rig and would end up being one of my most memorable experiences in over 16 years of underwater photography.

Sea Lion Pup


Diving the Eureka Rig

The oil rigs are located a few miles offshore of Huntington Beach, CA. My first two dives on The Eureka Rig yielded endless subjects to photograph including the colorful rig structure covered with pink and white anemones, starfish, friendly garibaldi, swimming cormorant birds and a large cooperative nesting cabezon.  I was hooked on rig diving and was eager for one more dive on the Eureka before heading back.  More details of all three dives and photos will be published in a separate trip report on Underwater Photography Guide. This article is focused on the incredible event that transpired on the third dive.


Milk and bubbles mixed together underwater


The Third Dive on the rigs

Conditions worsened for the third dive with increased surge and visibility dropping to about 20’. I spent most of the last dive at 65’ exploring the first horizontal platform but eventually had to start my ascent to 15’ for a safety stop near the corner of the rig. I was the first to ascend and observed a colony of sea lions playing around in the shallows with the yellow rig structure just above the waterline providing a contrasting backdrop.  The sea lions approached me while on my safety stop and I noticed a pair swimming very close together. Upon closer examination, I discovered it was a female sea lion nursing its young pup.  We had just discussed on the boat how rare it is to observe the behavior of a momma nursing her pup underwater. I was mesmerized.


After watching from a distance for about two minutes I decided to slowly approach the nursing sea lions to see if I could position myself for a shot.  I found myself under a dark shaded area of the rig, but I could clearly see white milky plumes and bubbles emerging from the mother’s nipple as the pup nursed. The surge continued to worsen but I managed to slowly approach the pair as sunlight beamed between the gaps in the rig.

By this time I was really low on air so I surfaced and switched to my snorkel and in the process lost the pair briefly in the surge. Then the mother started swimming circles around me as if to get my attention while her pup surfaced for air before they returned to nursing.  I put my regulator back in my mouth and spent another few minutes with the sea lions witnessing the most beautiful and surreal behavior I had ever encountered.  Eventually the current pushed me out into the open water away from the rig at which point I decided to surface and signal for the boat.

Sea Lion Pup


On board while waiting for the remaining divers, I sat quietly in awe at what I had just been blessed to experience and reflected on just how incredible Mother Nature is.  It was this rare and intimate moment between a mother and her pup that made me realize just how much we as humans have in common with marine mammals. 


Underwater Settings

All of the images shown were taken with a Nikon D300, Sea&Sea housing, dual YS-250 strobes, Tokina 10-17mm (at 10mm), F/11, 1/100th sec, ISO 200.  


Deep down at the Rigs

Read this Dr. Milton Love interview article to find out about what you see several hundred feet down at the Oil Rigs.


About the Author

Ron Watkins is an international award winning photographer and writer and frequently contributes to Underwater Photography Guide.  He currently shoots a Nikon D300 camera housed in a Sea & Sea Housing with YS-250 strobes. Additional images from the Rigs trip that day, the Bahamas and other international destinations can be viewed at


Further Reading


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