Flinging dead fish and unexpected pleasures at California’s Salton Sea

Palm Springs was on our list.  When we move somewhere new we make a list of five to eight places we want to visit before we move again.  Palm Springs made the cut only because I read a brief article about it in a magazine.  There’s so much more to the region than retro 1950’s motels!  The guide books talk about the National Parks, the incredible Tramway, shopping, golf and various other vacation-type activities, but none mentioned the Salton Sea.  Flying west from Denver to San Diego you can’t miss the Salton Sea looking out the right side of the plane.  It’s that unexpected huge body of water that appears in the vast desert just over the mountains from Death Valley.  No one except the occasional seasoned Southern Californian or water-rights activist has heard of it.  But the stinkin’ thing is massive and, if you don’t look too close, quite beautiful, surrounded by rugged peaks and groves of date palms lining its shores.

As the name implies, the sea is salty – fifty percent more salty than the Pacific Ocean.  What makes the body of water fascinating is its history.  Brilliant engineers in the early 1900’s took some rogue liberties diverting extra water from the Colorado River that flowed into Mexico.  During river flooding in 1905 the canals burst their banks and the entire river was diverted into an ancient, dry lake bed in the valley where Palm Springs lies.  For 16 months the river flowed straight into the present day Salton Sea, rising as much as 7 inches a day.  Efforts to fix the problem were unsuccessful until the United States government asked a powerful railroad company to focus all its efforts on transporting the necessary dirt and equipment to redirect the river down its original banks.  For two months in 1907 the railroad company halted all other activity until water disaster was resolved.  And that’s just the beginning of a century of political, cultural, environmental, and, at many times personal, calamities in the Salton Sea’s history.  With no inflow to the lake aside from the occasional agricultural run-off, the 20 by 45 mile body of water, 235 feet below sea level, is evaporating rapidly.  We thought we should see it before it’s gone.

While it has a reputation of having a toxically wretched stench, it wasn’t too stinky yesterday.  If you walk along the water’s edge and disturb the mud, rotting smells do waft up only to quickly be absorbed by the light wind.  There’s phenomenal bird life as well as a phenomenal number of dead fish on the shore to keep the toddlers occupied.  Poke the dried, crusty tilapia with a stick and then wave them around like a sparkler.  Great fun.  Wash hands afterward.  Visit the Salton Sea State Recreation Area and read up on the fascinating history of the region.  The girls played in the children’s education area and enjoyed coloring and hands-on exhibits.  My husband and I were engrossed in the history of the manmade, slowly developing, ecological disaster.  And when you’re done, stop at a nearby date palm plantation for a refreshing local delicacy – the date milkshake.

White sandy beaches. . .
White sandy beaches. . .
This ain’t no regular sandy beach. A close-up of the “sand” reveals salty, crunchy fish remains.
Piles of dead tilapia abound. Fun little fish biology lesson for the kids.


Find a stick.  Poke a fish, Wave it around until it falls off or goes flying off the tip.  Repeat.  The girls loved poking the fish.  We had to drag them away from this fun beach activity.
Find a stick. Poke a fish. Wave it around until it falls off or goes flying off the tip. Repeat. The girls loved poking the fish. We had to drag them away from this fun beach activity.  (Excuse the large baby belly.  Perhaps the sight of so many fish was making her hungry)

Helpful links:

Salton Sea State Recreation Area

Salton Sea History Museum

September 2012 Wired article.  Quotable: “These days, in the 115-degree heat of summer the Sea stinks so bad that the reek sticks in your throat like Elmer’s Glue. Chemical-laced dust kicked up from its rapidly receding shoreline contributes to an asthma rate for local children three times higher than the state average. It’s been variously called a natural wonder, a national embarrassment, paradise, and the ecological equivalent of the Chernobyl disaster.”

June 2012 NPR article.  Quotable: “Other concerns are dust storms from the soil that has been exposed from the sea’s drying up. It has become a toxic mix of metals, salt and agricultural chemicals. Farmer Kalin says that when the wind blows, it’s like tear gas.”

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