Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

When is a sea not a sea?

with 31 comments

An old riddle asks: When is a door not a door? The punning answer is: When it’s ajar. I hope it won’t jar you to learn that California’s Salton Sea isn’t a branch of the Pacific Ocean but rather a shallow and briny lake in the far south of the state. On November 6th (you see these trip posts will trip around chronologically) we drove southeast on California Highway 111, which runs for miles along the shore of the non-sea sea, so I could finally get to see a geographical feature I first heard about as a teenager poring over road maps acquired for free back then from oil companies.


The Salton Sea looks nice but smells bad, at least in part due to dead fish that we found rotting along the shore in some places. That goes a long way toward explaining why attempts to attract tourists have run afoul. If you’d like a look at one of those decaying fish you can mentally hold your nose and click the icon below.


A would-have-been yacht club that we stopped at had clearly gone through hard times. A little later we drove through a small settlement called Bombay Beach, where our spirits sank upon seeing so many mobile homes and other structures abandoned and falling apart. According to the relevant Wikipedia article, this village “is the lowest community in America, located 223 feet below sea level.” Maybe it should change its name to Desolation Row.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 21, 2016 at 5:11 AM

31 Responses

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  1. And to think that I was expecting to see a sea of flowers! Ha!

    The story suggests a sense of ‘desperation’ as the area desiccates til all life eventually fades. When I read that it marks the southern end of the San Andreas fault, I wondered if that low area was formed from an ancient earthquake, like Reelfoot Lake in the 1800s…

    Playamart - Zeebra Designs

    November 21, 2016 at 6:24 AM

    • You can be forgiven for expecting flowers in a blog called Portraits of Wildflowers. What’s in a name?

      We can also forgive people for their desperation over the decline of the Salton Sea. On the other hand, the lake didn’t even exist till a little over a century ago, when the Colorado River overflowed and spilled into what is now the lake bed. The land giveth and the land taketh away. (There’s more history and even a video if you follow the post’s first link.)

      I’d never heard of Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee but found an article about it:

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 21, 2016 at 6:57 AM

      • Growing up in Mississippi, of course we know of the story when Ole Man River ran backwards… I continue to remind my friends and family (when they express concern about Ecuador and earthquakes) that they are sitting on a very powerful New Madrid Fault!

        Playamart - Zeebra Designs

        November 21, 2016 at 7:00 AM

        • Think of all the destruction that would occur if a New Madrid earthquake occurred today compared to when few people lived there in the 1800s.

          Speaking of rivers running backwards, when we visited Chicago on our big trip to the upper Midwest this spring we learned that engineers had managed to reverse the flow of the Chicago River. What prompted that project was all the sewage and other waste flowing out into Lake Michigan.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 21, 2016 at 7:07 AM

      • That was a fun story about how Reelfoot Lake got its name!

        Playamart - Zeebra Designs

        November 21, 2016 at 7:04 AM

  2. I love that old riddle and both of your photos too. It was fascinating to read about this unusual body of water.

    Mike Powell

    November 21, 2016 at 6:25 AM

    • While I’d heard of the Salton Sea when still a kid, I knew almost nothing about it till this trip. If you ever get the chance to visit, it’s worth exploring.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 21, 2016 at 7:01 AM

  3. Desolation Row is fitting. The water is so contaminated with agricultural runoff that even with drought California can’t afford to let the Salton Sea evaporate. The lake bed becomes dust that lifts off and blows into neighboring communities carrying all kinds of toxins. It is a real mess. As for the Chicago River, sigh. People today living there mostly have no idea the history of the river they love, or that they are responsible for a huge drain on Lake Michigan water. It continues to cause tension in the neighboring states and Canada who signed a treaty to protect the Great Lakes. Everyone is on board, albeit grudgingly in some cases, and there is Chicago merrily continuing to be a drain. We have made huge efforts to clean the Des Plaines River but I cannot say whether the Chicago River is clean. I think it is, yet no effort has been made to re-reverse it.


    November 21, 2016 at 7:50 AM

    • The Chicago River doesn’t seem to be as clean as people hoped, at least not if this article from last year is representative:


      I wonder whether some people or businesses in the interior have come to rely on the reversed flow of the river and wouldn’t want it to get re-reversed.

      I think the name Desolation Row occurred to me because Bob Dylan has been in the news recently as a recipient of the Nobel Prize. I was thinking specifically of Bombay Beach but you’re right about the greater plight of the lake itself as incoming water soon gets diverted to San Diego, according to what I’ve read.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 21, 2016 at 8:27 AM

      • The hydrology of the entire Chicago-land area has been altered and paved over. It was once an extensive area of water-absorbing wetlands. The result is that now when we get big rain events the storm drainages systems, which feed into sewer treatment facilities, are overwhelmed. Raw sewage finds its way into our rivers and into Lake Michigan. Some areas are encouraging porous pavement so that water can percolate down into the ground, and rain gardens. There is also an enormous reservoir. The rain gardens and porous pavement will have to increase quite a bit however before the tide, so to speak, is turned.


        November 21, 2016 at 1:41 PM

        • That’s a good play on words about turning the tide.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 21, 2016 at 1:54 PM

          • I couldn’t resist.
            Have you registered your blog? I am trying to decide whether I need to do that, or upgrade, or whether it is the same thing. What do you advise?


            November 22, 2016 at 8:37 AM

            • I’m not sure what you mean by registering a blog. I do remember years ago following WordPress’s instructions and filling out something that would make the main search engines regularly include my blog. Is that what you had in mind?

              Steve Schwartzman

              November 22, 2016 at 8:43 AM

              • WordPress has been sending me emails inviting me to register my blog, for an annual fee, of course. It would mean that no one else would use my name, and it would mean I could add widgets. It isn’t clear to me that there is any advantage. They also suggest to me (daily) that I could upgrade to a professional blog. Again, I’m not clear on what the advantage would be …except to them, of course.


                November 22, 2016 at 8:48 AM

                • Same here. I’ve never found I need any of WordPress’s upgrades.

                  I noticed the other day that I’ve used 14% of the 3GB WordPress allows me. I’ve been at this for 5 and a half years, so if I keep going at the same pace I’ll get to be over a hundred years old before I run out of room. I suspect I’ll run out of life before I need to worry about that.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 22, 2016 at 9:07 AM

                • That’s right, they do give us an inordinate amount of space, don’t they? Ok, good. I’ll forget about upgrades. Thanks!


                  November 23, 2016 at 8:13 AM

                • Now you’ve got me wondering who the oldest regular blogger in the world is.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 23, 2016 at 8:31 AM

                • Wise in the ways of WordPress….


                  November 23, 2016 at 9:40 AM

    • By the way, the desolation of Bombay Beach reminded me immediately of what we’d seen a few months earlier in Gary, Indiana, on the day we left your area and headed for the Indiana Dunes.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 21, 2016 at 8:39 AM

  4. Isn’t the Salton Sea slowly dying? I seem to have read that a few years ago. That is, maybe, the reason for the desolation you found.
    Have a wonderful week,


    November 21, 2016 at 8:00 AM

  5. It’s interesting that, despite the dead-or-dying condition of Salton Sea, it still is a prime bird watching spot. One of your links included the information that “four million birds are estimated to use the Sea each day in the winter, more than any other resource in the nation.”

    The Sea and Sage Audubon Society (the Orange County chapter of the National Audubon Society) has a nice page with details of the efforts to restore the Sea, and information about the variety and number of birds that can be seen there. Apparently, the salinity isn’t a problem for them. Perhaps the limits of what the birds can tolerate are higher than I realized.

    I see there’s a Salton Sea-Texas connection, too. On my way home, I passed a playa lake wildlife management area in the Panhandle, near Clarendon. It’s also noted for the birds that overwinter there, but I suspect it’s not nearly so salty or dead-fishy.


    November 21, 2016 at 10:03 PM

    • I noticed this in your link: “Water quality will continue to be poor through 2018. The combination of rising salinity, low oxygen concentrations, infestation by parasites, hydrogen sulfide-generated fish kills, and a declining prey base will likely eliminate most fish in the Sea by 2018.” There doesn’t seem to be much hope, especially once the inflow of water gets completely stopped. At the same time, the article makes clear that the cycle of filling and emptying goes way back, though most of that was before our era of dams, irrigation, chemicals, etc. I’m glad to have gotten to see the Salton Sea while it’s still here—and of course it will outlast me, whatever its fate.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 21, 2016 at 10:53 PM

  6. Such an Interesting post Steve .. Had me zipping around Google. Thanks for sharing ..


    November 25, 2016 at 11:25 AM

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