Oil Seeps and Santa Barbara Spill

Exploring the 1969 offshore disaster and ancient natural petroleum seeps.


A 1969 oil spill from a California offshore platform transformed the public’s view of the American petroleum industry and helped launch the modern environmental movement and the Environmental Protection Agency. California’s ancient natural  seeps continue to leak thousands of tons of petroleum every day.

On January 28, 1969,  after drilling 3,500 feet below the ocean floor, a Union Oil Company drilling platform six miles off Santa Barbara, suffered a blowout. Between 80,000 and 100,000 barrels of oil flowed into the Pacific Ocean and onto beaches, including Summerland — where the U.S. offshore industry began in 1896 with drilling on oil well piers.

Problems at the Union Oil platform began when roughnecks began to retrieve the pipe in order to replace a drill bit and pressure became dangerously low,  according to a report by the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). (more…)

ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench

Atomic Energy Commission robot inspired offshore petroleum industry’s remotely operated vehicles.


Shell Oil and Hughes Aircraft companies in 1960 began modifying an advanced but landlocked “Manipulator Operated Robot” — known as MOBOT — into one that could operate underwater. The result would lead to revolutionary offshore swimming machines for petroleum exploration and production. 

Much of the 21st century’s offshore oil and natural gas industry relies on remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that can trace their roots back to Howard Hughes, Jr. In the late 1950s, Hughes Aircraft Company developed its Manipulator Operated Robot – MOBOT – for the Atomic Energy Commission. (more…)

Deep Sea Roughnecks

Post-WWII offshore technologies advanced petroleum exploration and production.


The modern U.S. offshore oil and natural gas industry began in 1938, when Pure Oil and Superior Oil companies built a freestanding drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Soon after World War II, Kerr-McGee drilled the first well out of sight of land. Offshore exploration soon demanded more new technologies — and skilled oceangoing roughnecks.

Kerr-McGee’s Kermac No. 16 began drilling on September 10, 1947, in continental shelf waters only 20 feet deep. The biggest hurricane of the season arrived a week later. The offshore platform withstood winds of 140 mph — one of its many historic milestones in advancing offshore technology.

The pursuit of offshore oil demanded technological innovation as exploration led to deeper and more inhospitable waters. Offshore divers faced new challenges, including one hazard called “stabbing in” a drill bit at the well.

“Because re-inserting a drill pipe from a moving, heaving barge into the subsea wellhead was a difficult maneuver, each time a worn bit had to be replaced, a diver had to be called,” noted Underwater magazine in a May 2000 article.

“The hard-hat diver effected the ‘stab-in’ by straddling the top of the 24-inch hole between his legs, physically pulling the drill string over the target and at just the right moment instructing the drill floor, 250 feet overhead, to ‘let go.’”

Oil platform offshore diver "stabbing in" a drill pipe in painting by Clyde Olcott for 2007 book by Christopher Swann.

“Stabbing in,” once a deadly hazard for offshore divers, has been replaced with technologies like remotely operated vehicles. Painting by Clyde Olcott from the 2007 book, “The History of Oilfield Diving: An Industrial Adventure,” by Christopher Swann.

Modern deep sea roughneck technology spares divers this dangerous task, reported Christopher Swann, author of The History of Oilfield Diving, published in 2007. Instead of air, divers began breathing mixtures of helium and oxygen during deep descents and carefully managed decompression ascents.

Swann’s 2007 book includes a painting by Clyde Olcott showing a diver guiding a drill pipe into the wellhead — “stabbing in.”

As an illustrator of pioneering underwater operations, Olcott (1927 – 2009) produced accurate images of commercial divers at work. His artwork documented diving technologies, beginning in the late 1950s at Santa Barbara, California, including oxygen-helium diving.

With many diving companies originating on the U.S. West Coast, Olcott’s illustrations have appeared worldwide in technical manuals, advertisements, company brochures — and as art on boardroom walls. His artwork for company presentations often introduced new offshore diving concepts, according to Leslie Leaney, past president of the Historical Divers Society.

“When future historians want to review what was happening underwater during the pioneering days of oilfield diving, Clyde’s paintings will be ‘the picture that is worth a thousand words’,” Leaney noted in the Spring 2009 issue of the Journal of Diving History.

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Saturation diving and decompression chambers were developed by the offshore industry to further increase bottom times and improve safety. With deep saturation diving, every 100 feet of depth required 24 hours of decompression and like today, time was money.

The extreme cold of deep water prompted Taylor Diving & Salvage of Belle Chasse, Louisiana, to adapt space suits designed for Nasa astronaut John Glenn to deep sea diving. Hot water pumped down from the surface and through dive-suit tubing extended bottom times.

NASA astronaut John Glenn seen in Friendship 7 capsule.

Deep sea diving companies adapted space suits designed for astronaut John Glenn in Friendship 7 capsule. Photo courtesy NASA.

Taylor also developed an underwater welding habitat pressurized with nitrogen that greatly facilitated the critical business of laying pipeline, tie-ins and repairs.

In 1948, Shell Oil Company and others pioneered the use of underwater television cameras for survey, inspection, and repair work. The Navy also developed deep sea technologies for submarine rescue. Technologies for underwater robots began to evolve.

By the early 1960s, Hughes Aircraft Company had built the first marine “Manipulator Operated Robot” — MOBOT — for Shell Oil Company. The underwater robot used sonar and television cameras for navigation, propellers for propulsion, and an umbilical cable for control. For more about MOBOT, see ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench.

Despite state-of-the-art robotics, offshore petroleum industry and scientific needs for manned deep sea diving continued.

An advertisement for petroleum diving technologies in the 1960s.

Diving technologies evolved to meet petroleum industry needs as drilling depths increased in the 1960s. Ad image courtesy JoAnn Cowans.

Not long after Hughes Aircraft created MOBOT, a young engineer began working for the company in California. Ken Cowens’ first project was to analyze the sapphire dome at the front of a missile field at speeds of up to Mach 3.

Cowans would spend decades in cryogenics work related to heat transfer, and later use the knowledge to develop deep-diving technologies. Meanwhile, his wife artist JoAnn Cowans, painted oilfield scenes of Southern California.

After leaving Hughes Aircraft in the 1960s, Cowans formed the offshore technology company Kinergetics Inc., with offices in Tarzana, California, and Aberdeen, Scotland. Patented sub-sea products included a “Cryogenic Scuba,” followed by habitat environmental control systems, underwater television systems, and diving safety equipment.

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Among safety equipment advances was the “Stranded Bell Diver Survival System,” a life-prolonging survival means for a cold hyperbolic environment. Kinergetics also did an advanced project with astronaut-aquanaut Scott Carpenter.

Early Technologies and CUSS

Along California’s coastline, the need for skilled divers (man or mechanical) began as petroleum exploration followed known oilfields offshore. Drilling contractors developed special platforms and constructed drilling piers. But Pacific Ocean depths quickly dropped very deep close to the shoreline.

Until remotely operating devices were invented, drilling in depths of 200 feet and beyond required the endurance and capabilities of experienced hard-hat divers.

Patent drawing of Harry Houdini deep sea diver's suit of 1921.

The dangers of deep sea diving prompted famed magician and escape artist Harry Houdini to patent his 1921 invention of a quick release mechanism to help divers exit their cumbersome suits.

Production methods and equipment would demand new technologies invented by offshore pioneers — including a diver’s suit patented by escape artist Harry Houdini.

In the early days of West Coast petroleum exploration, Albacore divers found new opportunities around numerous California oil seeps, especially at Santa Barbara. The geologic region there has remained active because of the movement of the San Andreas and other faults. The numerous oil seeps led to discovery of the Los Angeles City oilfield in 1892.

Faced with developing new and expensive offshore technologies, in 1948, Continental Oil Company (today’s Conoco-Phillips) partnered with Union Oil, Shell Oil and Superior Oil in a joint venture – using company initials to form the CUSS Group. 

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The CUSS objective was to pursue deep-water drilling — and for the first time develop motion-restricted drilling ships. The first conversion effort was the Submarex, a converted U.S. Navy submarine chaser. This advanced vessel was followed in 1956 by the CUSS I, built from a World War II barge, was 260 feet long and had a 48 -foot beam.

CUSS I pioneered the use of underwater television cameras to assist in survey, inspection and repair work. In 1965, the vessel drilled a well in 635 feet of water, setting and cementing multiple strings of casing without using divers.

However, most offshore petroleum work still required the skills of traditional hard-hat divers.

Highly advanced at the time, CUSS I used four steering propellers and six mooring buoys to hold the ship in position. During this same period, the U.S. Navy was developing its own deep sea technology for both submarine rescue and Cold War antisubmarine purposes.

Tethered to a mother ship by umbilical cables, remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) in 1963 helped find the the nuclear attack submarine USS Thresher, which had sunk with all hands during deep a diving test. The recovery vessel included a 95-foot derrick amidships over a diamond shaped sea opening, still known today as a “moon pool.”

Offshore Engineering

Tapping into the prolific oilfields that extended offshore from popular California beaches brought strict state regulations.

“With leasing from the state of California to explore and produce oil and gas, well control and the ability to run multiple strings of casing became mandatory and required a totally new, unproven technology,” explained the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) in a 1987 study.

CUSS 1, a converted World War II barge, built by Continental, Union, Shell, and Superior oil companies for offshore drilling.

Built in 1956 by a partnership of four companies, Continental, Union, Shell, and Superior, the offshore drilling vessel CUSS 1 was a converted World War II barge.

“The first floating drilling rig to use subsea well control was the Western Explorer owned by Chevron, which spudded its first well in 1955 in the Santa Barbara Channel,” the society noted.

Other offshore drilling rigs and production platform innovations followed. Petroleum engineers, concerned about the marine environment, developed technologies to allow drilling in the roughest weather.

Even with state-of-the-art robotics, offshore petroleum industry and scientific needs for manned deep sea diving continue.

Modern atmospheric diving systems enclose the operator at one-atmosphere pressure, regardless of depth, thereby eliminating the necessity for decompression.

The modern offshore oil industry “Hardsuit 2000” includes 16 rotary joints.

The modern deep sea “Hardsuit 2000” includes 16 rotary joints and two thrusters for mobility.

The “Hardsuit 2000” with 16 rotary joints and two thrusters for mobility, bears little resemblance to its traditional hard-hat ancestors. The suit can operate at depths up to 2,000 feet and remain for six hours on the bottom with no decompression required.

Women Pioneers

As the offshore petroleum industry continued to expand worldwide, it needed all the skilled workers it could find — of any gender. Journalist and professional landman Rebecca Ponton in 2019 published a collection of personal accounts from women who challenged oil industry stereotypes.

Ponton interviewed a diverse collection of energy professionals for Breaking the Gas Ceiling: Women in the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry, preserving the underrecognized accomplishments of “WOW — Women on Water,” her introductory chapter’s title.

Among the stories are experiences of an offshore helicopter pilot, logistics superintendent, photographer, federal agency director, and mechanical and chemical engineers. Marni Zabarski, the first female saturation diver in the Gulf of Mexico,  describes 2001 achievement.

Offshore safety pioneer Margaret McMillan in the late 1980s helped establish the Marine Survival Training Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In 2004, McMillan was the first woman to be inducted into the Houston-based Oilfield Energy Center’s Hall of Fame.

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Pursuit of U.S. offshore oil and natural gas has continued to generate advanced  technologies. Innovators and underwater oil patch roughnecks continue to push both science and offshore industry to new, deeper frontiers.

By 2011, more than 4,500 offshore petroleum platforms supplied 25 percent of the United States’ production of natural gas and 10 percent of its oil. An industry-government partnership has used offshore structures no longer producing to form the world’s largest artificial reef complex (see Rigs to Reefs).

Learn more about the evolution of offshore exploration and production technologies in Offshore Petroleum History.


Recommended Reading: Diving & ROV: Commercial Diving offshore (2021); Breaking the Gas Ceiling: Women in the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry (2019); The History of Oilfield Diving: An Industrial Adventure (2007); The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil’s Search for Petroleum in Postwar America (2009); Offshore Pioneers: Brown & Root and the History of Offshore Oil and Gas (1997). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Deep Sea Roughnecks.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/offshore-history/deep-sea-roughnecks. Last Updated: January 9, 2023. Original Published Date: January 13, 2011.


Offshore Drilling History

Modern petroleum exploration and production technologies evolved from 1890s platforms on lakes and California oil piers.


The U.S. offshore drilling for oil began in the late-19th century on lakes and at the ends of Pacific Ocean piers. Until an innovative Kerr-McGee drilling platform in 1947, no offshore drilling company had ever risked drilling beyond the sight of land.

View of California oil piers with wooden derricks circa 1900.

Many of the earliest offshore oil wells were drilled from piers at Summerland in Santa Barbara County, California. Circa 1901 photo by G.H. Eldridge courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

In 1896, as enterprising businessmen pursued California’s prolific Summerland oilfield all the way to the beach, the lure of offshore production enticed Henry L. Williams and his associates to build a pier 300 feet out into the Pacific — and mount a standard cable-tool rig on it. (more…)

Petroleum Survey discovers U-boat

Routine scan of Gulf of Mexico seabed for new petroleum pipelines reveals shipwrecks.


During World War II, U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico to disrupt the flow of oil carried by tankers departing ports in Louisiana and Texas.

Today’s petroleum companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf routinely provide government scientists with sonar data for areas with potential archaeological value. Federal agencies review oil and natural gas-related surveys, and over the years the data have revealed more than 100 historic shipwrecks in U.S. waters.

Offshore oil industry sonar and photo images of U-boat in Gulf of Mexico

A 2001 archaeological survey by BP and Shell prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline confirmed discovery of U-166 about 45 miles off the Louisiana coast.

In 2001, the Minerals Management Service noted that “a German submarine definitely got our attention.”


Mr. Charlie, First Mobile Offshore Drilling Rig

The 1954 platform’s design and technology would be declared a mechanical engineering landmark.


When the barge drilling platform Mr. Charlie left its New Orleans shipyard for the Gulf of Mexico on June 15, 1954, it became the world’s first mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU).

Using advanced technology, the self-sufficient Mr. Charlie went to work for Shell Oil Company in a new oilfield in East Bay, near the mouth of the Mississippi River. A reporter from LIFE magazine covered the launch, noting the new “singularly monstrous contraption” could drill “a 12,000-foot hole at a different location every month.”

Mr. Charlie, the first mobile offshore drilling platform.

Beginning in 1954 and capable of drilling wells in water up to 40 feet in depth, Mr. Charlie was the first mobile offshore drilling platform. Photos courtesy Murphy Oil Corporation.

Mr. Charlie offered an exploration alternative to erecting permanent, pile-supported offshore drilling platforms to be tendered by utility boats. Kerr-McGee had pioneered this approach with the Kermac No. 16 in 1947, but Mr. Charlie could drill in water twice as deep and then move to another site (also see Offshore Oil Piers, Platforms, and Barges). (more…)

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