Dick & Jane at The Salton Sea, Part 1

Then and Now at the Salton Sea

For thousands of years, the Colorado River has repeatedly flowed into and out of the Salton Basin in southern California creating a freshwater lake, an increasingly saline lake, and a dry desert basin. In 1905 the Colorado River broke through a dam and the Basin became the Salton Sea pretty much as we know it; 15 miles across and 35 miles long. In the 1950s, developers saw the area as a potential American "Rivera,” hoping to give nearby Palm Springs some competition. It was an even bigger tourist attraction than Yosemite National Park at the time. The rich and famous flocked there to waterski, cavort in the desert sun, have cocktails at the yacht club and be seen as the privileged class they were.

These days at the Salton Sea you will find dilapidated piers, rotting boats, dead fish, bird bones, ruins of businesses and houses, signs crumpled, and streets abandoned. The pristine shore that was once carpeted with colorful beach towels and sun seekers is not sand at all, but bones and barnacles.

A few years ago Dick and I watched the 2004 documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, narrated by John Waters. I was fascinated, and promised myself a road trip. The sea, technically a lake, is about 230 feet below sea level. When an opportunity came for us to get away in March before temperatures become oppressive, we packed our bags.

Admittedly I was a bit frightened, although I’m not sure of what. Dick and I headed first to the Visitor’s Center which was clean and welcoming, had flush toilets, snacks, books, and a friendly staff. The lake was beautiful and serene, its secrets well hidden at a distance. A quick walk to the beach revealed the harsh truth: dead fish in every direction, blatant examples of what happens when a lake cannot breathe. The salinity of Salton Sea is greater than that of the Pacific Ocean.

There used to be at least five different varieties of fish in the lake, and it was indeed a popular destination for casting the line. Now, only tilapia survive until they….don't. The proliferation of algae periodically suffocates them.

Onward to Bombay Beach

Our second stop was Bombay Beach, a perfect little grid of houses, most abandoned, gutted, and looted. There seemed to be no sign of life, but there are around 150 residents. What do they do? Were they watching us drive slowly up and down the dusty roads, our jaws agape at the ruin? On the way out, we stopped at the Ski Inn, a cafe/bar. This was the only intact business around - no gas station, no convenience store. Dare we go in? I came up with a brilliant plan. We would order colas and whatever seemed edible, and be polite and not say anything about the dead fish or the abandoned boat and certainly not the film. When we walked into the dark interior to the smell of beer and hushed wafts of ceiling fans, the few people who were there fell silent. Uh-oh, is this what I had feared? We claimed a table a safe distance from the bar - but not too far, as we didn't want to appear aloof. What I did not expect was to be approached with menus and a smile by the proprietor, Wendell. The bar chatter resumed and we were happily ignored.

We ordered our teeth-rotting sugary drinks and, believe it or not, fish ’n’ chips. Surely the fish did not come from their beach. They wouldn’t get away with that, right? Right?

While waiting for our grub, we noticed most of the walls and ceiling are covered with custom-decorated dollar bills. Hundreds, perhaps a thousand of them. Without realizing it, our curiosity about them became our safety net and we began a conversation with Wendell. People started offering him artful bills so he glued them to the walls and every other surface he could find. There isn’t enough money on the walls for him to retire, he shrugged, and how would he remove them anyway? He is getting on in years, and has owned the place for over two decades. People come from all over and "please sign the guest book."

Another couple came in, obviously tourists, bellied right up to the bar and ordered a beer. “What's with all the dead fish on your beach?" the young woman bellowed without any hint of discretion. "What’s the story here?” So there you go, our apprehension versus their naiveté. Wendell handed her a book, apparently wth photos and articles, which we never did see.

When we left, Dick felt brave enough to revisit the beach. As a photographer, I was disappointed with our timing. The sun was at its highest and therefore most unflattering.

Yes, the dead fish and their significance bothered me but I couldn’t look away. Was this fish better to photograph than that fish? Did someone put the circle of fish together as “art?” Where was the “fish-on-a-stick” I'd seen online?

A young man appeared on a bicycle, clearly familiar with the beach. As he skidded around and kicked up sand, we decided not to tempt fate and took our leave. I suspect this is what I was afraid of. Even though there are no “private” or “do not enter” signs, there is a sense of unspoken ownership. We are intruders, especially with a camera.

Soon I will add some of the photographs that I took to my Travel page.

For more detailed information about this ecological disaster, see DesertUSA and ThinkProgress and The Atlantic.

End of Part One.

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