Tourists to the Queen Mary at Long Beach or the adjacent Alamitos Beach can be counted on to inquire what the four little islands are. From the beach they appear to be resort islands with tall hotels, waterfalls, palm trees and artistic concrete sculptures.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  They are large productive offshore oil drilling platforms on manmade islands.  The high-rise hotels are concealing oil derricks that move on tracks on the islands to the different wells that fan out diagonally in all directions to tap into the rich Wilmington Oil Field that lays under the city of Long Beach and the harbor.  The concrete exists to block a view that would otherwise be an eyesore and the waterfalls help mask the noise.  Each island has approximately 300 wells and they produce over 46,000 barrels of oil each day.

They are called the Astronaut Islands, each of them named after an astronaut. The closest to land is just beyond the boat marina at Long Beach Harbor and called Island Grissom.  It’s also the most heavily landscaped.  The next closest to shore, also heavily landscaped is Island White.  Further to sea is Island Freeman which is the only island where the oil derrick has been left without a concealing structure, but it is ringed with enough palm trees as to make it appear a normal tropical island.  Furthest to the south is Island Chaffee.

oil drilling islands
Island White off the shore of Long Beach

The islands are also known as the THUMS islands.  It’s an acronym for the oil consortium that built them: Texaco, Humble (now Exxon), Union Oil, Mobile and Shell in 1965.  They are the only decorated offshore oil drilling platforms in the United States.  They were renamed the Astronaut Islands in 1967.  In 2000, the islands were purchased by Occidental Petroleum and their California assets became known as California Resources Corporation in 2014.

The islands were created with 640 tons of boulders from Catalina Island and sand dredged from the ocean.  They were designed with a bowl shape so runoff would not run into the ocean and contaminate it.  The goal of the project was to permit the oil drilling to continue without detracting from the natural beauty of the area and harm tourism.

Unfortunately, while beautification conceals the industrial nature of the islands and there have been no major spills or accidents at the islands, they have failed to contain the pollution the oil wells produce.  Recently the Center for Biological Diversity reported that California Resources Group has been cited with 290 violations since 2015.  These include failing to perform integrity tests for the injection wells and the state regulatory agency in charge has failed to issue citations.  In the video above you can see both the beauty of the islands, and the pollution that reaches the beaches.

offshore drilling
Oil drilling waste soils the beach at Long Beach

The result is that despite the millions spent to beautify the islands, the sand on the beaches has a black, oily appearance.  This is not even close to how the beaches were in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Oil Spill, but it is enough that not one Best Beaches in Los Angeles guide recommends Alamitos Beach.

We aren’t trying to discourage you from visiting Long Beach.  On the contrary.  It’s worth it to see the islands and marvel at their construction.  Also downtown Long Beach is one of the most modern and vital communities surrounding Los Angeles.  The Queen Mary is just east of Alamitos Beach and a top tourist attraction and there is a lot of fun to be had at Shoreline Village.

More photos after the break.  Note: All photos are copyrighted and may not be used without written permission!

offshore drilling
Waterfalls beautify and help dampen sound at Island Grissom
Island Grissom looks beautiful from Long Beach marina.
Freeman Island is the only one without a structure covering the oil derrick
Tug boat towing tanker trucks out to the island
Dirty water washes ashore at Alamitos Beach in Southern California and oil drilling wastes blacken the sand near offshore drilling platforms
Queen Mary
The Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor is just west of the THUMS Islands at Alamitos Beach