A DREAM VISION — The sunsets alone at the Salton Sea bring visitors — and their cameras — from all over. (PHOTO: JERRY & SUSAN WONG)

SALTON SEA: California lake reflects its beauty … and horror

Portrait photo of Susan and Jerry Wong
Susan and Jerry Wong

Last year, Jerry and I had a free day and decided to visit the Salton Sea. Located in California’s Imperial and Riverside Valleys, in a state under siege from drought, the fate of this inland sea is fiercely debated.

The first thing we noticed about the Salton Sea — by area, the largest body of water in California — was its otherworldly beauty.

A water bird glided near the calm water’s surface and trailed the tip of one wing, creating delicate ripples in the harbor’s reflection. Palm trees outlined a cove from which you could see misty blue mountains across the water. A mother and her young daughter whiled away the morning, bird watching in brightly colored rented kayaks.

IT’S A BIRD THING — The lake is also a bird haven, a path along the Pacific Flyway, where they can take a moment to be free. (PHOTO: JERRY & SUSAN WONG)
IT’S A BIRD THING — The lake is also a bird haven, a path along the Pacific Flyway, where they can take a moment to be free. (PHOTO: JERRY & SUSAN WONG)

If you don’t look too closely, you could imagine that you were overlooking a marina at a popular boating and fishing resort, which is what the Salton Sea had become in the 1940s and ’50s.

Then the stench hit us. Rotting fish, and a smell like rotten eggs. The sickening odor is everywhere; its presence is palpable and nearly overwhelming. At first, I buried my nose in my sleeve with a shudder, then as the day wore on, I just accepted it and let it be part of the experience.

Scores of dead fish wash up on the shoreline of the Salton Sea. (PHOTO: JERRY & SUSAN WONG)
Scores of dead fish wash up on the shoreline of the Salton Sea. (PHOTO: JERRY & SUSAN WONG)

In 2012 and 2014, when winds blew the reek of the Salton Sea 150 miles northwest into the Los Angeles area, horrified residents there thought a local sewage main had broken.

What would cause such a beautiful place to produce such a bad smell?

As a volunteer at the visitor’s center explained to me, fertilizer run-off from nearby agricultural areas causes algae bloom, which reduces oxygen in the highly saline waters and produces elevated bacterial levels. This process kills fish by the thousands. Hydrogen sulfide (the rotten egg odor) is caused by the bacterial breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen.

Dead fish bones are what walkers often crunch under their feet on the Salton Sea shoreline. (PHOTO: JERRY & SUSAN WONG)
Dead fish bones are what walkers often crunch under their feet on the Salton Sea shoreline. (PHOTO: JERRY & SUSAN WONG)

Unintentionally created by California Development Company engineers in 1905, floodwaters breached a Colorado River irrigation canal and flooded an ancient dry lakebed that had once been a lake expanding and receding several times over millennia.

The surface of the current saline lake is 234 feet below sea level and it is 50% more salty than the Pacific Ocean. Due to the high salt content of the water, millions of tilapia are the main fish that can survive in the Salton Sea.

Birds align every post anf various other spots on a Salton Sea pier. (PHOTO: JERRY & SUSAN WONG)
Birds align every post anf various other spots on a Salton Sea pier. (PHOTO: JERRY & SUSAN WONG)

The Sea has no outlet and water flowing into it has been curtailed recently, so it has begun evaporating at an alarming rate.

Walking along the shoreline, our shoes crunched on a carpet of fish bones. Piles of eyeless tilapia corpses had collected on the sand’s edge. Disgusting, right?

Birds form a line on the Salton Sea. (PHOTO: JERRY & SUSAN WONG)
Birds form a line on the Salton Sea. (PHOTO: JERRY & SUSAN WONG)

Why would we willingly spend a full day in a dying place that stank like a sewer? Well, one reason is the area is home to 400 species of birds and is a major resting stop on the Pacific Flyway. We spent part of our day admiring and photographing the varied waterfowl.

The main reason, though, was the eerie beauty of the Sea. As the day ended and twilight descended, my husband set up his camera gear to catch the colorful sunset. As we snapped pictures, several cars showed up. The drivers popped out and set up their photography gear. Evidently it was quite a thing to stop by for sunset shots where we had been hanging out all day.

And what sunsets! I’m pretty jaded about sunset photography, but the images we captured over the Salton Sea were a jaw-dropping swirl of dusky blues and rosy pinks.

After the sunset fireworks faded, we finally pulled away in darkness, glad to leave the sickening smell behind but sad to have to say goodbye to this haunting place.

SUSAN HICKS WONG grew up in Asheboro and currently lives in Greensboro. Email Susan and Jerry Wong at susafina@gmail.com.

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One thought on “SALTON SEA: California lake reflects its beauty … and horror”

  1. Thank you for this lovely article. I’m so happy you know a bit of its rich history and also its value. I’ve been coming to the Salton Sea since I was a child. It is a beautiful place to me and I’m glad when others can see that too.

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