I kayak the Salton Sea to broken-down and beautiful Bombay Beach, and then return 20 years later to see the cogs of environmental decline in action.
Paddling to Bombay Beach
short time from now, the sun will rise, and the sky will burn red just off the shore of Bombay Beach, California. I am two-hundred and twenty-eight feet below sea-level, paddling by headlight towards this small seaside town. Although I understand that the color of the sea is green, I cannot yet see it.
Certainly I can feel the weight of the salt-inundated water on my paddle. This sea, the largest inland body of water in California, and one of the largest inland seas in the Americas, did not exist a century ago. It was 1905, and farmers had been irrigating crops in California's Imperial Valley by circumventing canals out of the Colorado River. But floodgates clogged, irrigation routes broke, and in two years, the salton sink had become a sea, albeit an accidental one.
Landowners were angry and confused. Apparently, the snakes were also unhappy about losing their land, and their retreat to higher ground caused land to be filled with 'hundreds of 'em.'
There is no wind in the air, and so my paddle-dips are silent, they feel like butter. But as I draw in closer to land, the rancid smell intensifies. It is a fish-stink, rising from the sea.
hen I land on the beach, the kayak scrapes harshly. This beach is composed of the spines of dead fish, almost all are tilapia.
The sand is rough, and on closer inspection, it appears to be made almost entirely of scales and bones. But some fish-heads still have flesh. Others, near the shore, are still alive, but barely. By now, the thin line of white pre-dawn allows me to see my way up off the shore.
Some time ago, my landlord spotted me walking out the door. He looked both ways and whispered,
"Hey, I got something to show you." He walked me into the back room of his apartment.
"They're six feet tall," I said.
"Yup," he was pleased with himself.
"But you just planted them three weeks ago?"
"Yup," he said with his arms folded.
"So what exactly are you going to do with six foot hemp plants?"
"Give them to my family. You know I don't smoke marijuana anymore."
Of course I knew that. Landlord was raised the son of a mining expeditioneer, who taught him how to scout in the mountains of Canada. By age twenty, Landlord was leading gold expeditions in West Africa, a prospect that would allow him to retire at age twenty-three, and merited two cases of malaria.
His days in Africa caused him a heart condition that led to occasional heart attacks. A forced lifestyle change had given him a reconsideration of what to do with his life. He said, "I can grow anything. I learned from hemp, but see, this is all hydroponics. No soil, just water and nutrients. It's a very complicated process. I want to do this for the rest of my life."
"No, actually I'm going to do aquaculture. I just bought a trailer downtown. I'm going to put tanks in there and raise tilapia."
"Tilapia? You're nuts!" I said.
Tilapia, the so-called Nile Perch, is a dirty fish, a brackish bottom-feeder from the Northern Nile. Despite African origins, tilapia is known as a Southeastern-Asian standard, and with growing Asian populations on the Pacific Coast of the U.S. and Canada, a market is developing.
I told him, "Tilapia is already being farmed in Arizona. It's one of the cheapest imports from Asia. And besides, it's a disgusting fish!" I said that because of its taste, but also because as a brackish bottom-feeder, its own dietary intake was unappetizing.
Why are there so many dead fish?
ach summer, with the sun and heat beating down on the Salton Sea, the salinity rises to the point that depletes the sea’s oxygen. Millions of tilapia die, forming thick bands of decaying matter around the shores of the sea.
While millions of deaths sound unsustainable, there are so many tilapia in the Salton Sea—one hundred million---that the population is unphased by these massive die-offs. The deaths help promote widespread algae blooms, which of course is exactly what the tilapia eat.
Those who dreamed of the Salton Sea as a fishermen’s paradise weren’t intending for it to be all about tilapia, of course. Dreamers would drive south to Puerto Penasco in Sonora, or San Felipe in Baja Norte, and angle for prized saltwater species like corvina. They would fill coolers with them and then rush north, depositing them into the sea.
The corvina, and other saltwater specialties, began to take hold into the lake, creating a saltwater angler’s dream. But none of them could take the increasing salinity and oxygen depletion, and now the lake is for the tilapia.
The Sunk-down Town
have landed at Bombay Beach, which has recently been cited as the next projected earthquake faultline, and it feels like I am dead-center at the apocalypse.
There are thousands of birds here, perched on a number of vacant buildings. Although it is true that the Salton Sea has become a critical sanctuary for migrating birds, the pelicans and egrets and gulls do not fly when I approach. I wonder if some are sick, dying perhaps. Birds in the Salton Basin routinely go through bouts of cholera and botulism.
I have left my kayak behind, partially ashore in a thick mud, and I am treading through a thick salted crust. Since evaporation is the Salton Sea's only outlet for water, low sea levels mean excess salt. Where there is no salt, there is water and mud, and decaying and long abandoned mobile homes.
It wasn't the suspected earthquake that pushed this part of Bombay Beach underwater, but two tropical cyclones, rare in Southern California, in 1976 and 1977.
Bombay Beach had been booming in the 1950s; often visited by celebrities like Frank Sinatra, and the town was integral in Salton Sea tourism---a haven for water skiers, beachgoers, anglers and sunseekers. There was a swimming beach, nearby golf and a yacht club. But as larger environmental problems began to grip the Salton Sea by the 1960s, Bombay Beach began its steep decline. The people who stayed behind were the ones that were too old or sick or poor to leave.
Hurricane Kathleen, the most powerful of these cyclones, rose the water levels of the sea overnight, flooding the Bombay Beach trailer park and effectively sinking it.
Now, the half-submerged skeleton of an Atomic Age ghost town, stuck in 1976, is a strange backdrop to the fluttering birds and the tinkle-tinkle of fish bones lapping in the waves. There is an odd poetry in the beauty of this decay---but I can’t help to think that these old remains of a town are frozen in place from a time right between the end of the Vietnam War and the release of Star Wars.
While this part of Bombay Beach has sunk, the part of the town that was behind a protective berm survived. This is the part of Bombay Beach I have come to see.
When I cross the berm, I see dozens of trailers and homes, but its early in the morning, and the town is silent. I almost feel, walking on the gravel road, that I am intruding.
I see a blue truck coming down the road not far from here.
The truck slows at my presence, and a bald man and his scruffy wife grin at me and drive on. While I am walking down Bombay Beach’s 5th Street, I notice the blue truck has parked on the berm, and the couple are watching the sunrise.
I had taken a recent interest in the development of mobile home parks in the west. The documentary epic book Rancho Mirage followed the history of families who moved west with the prospect of cheap land and freedom. The shores of the Salton Sea had already begun to lose value after that short boom. Arabesque hotels and golf-courses, swimming pools and booming harbors that once shined here are now boarded and broken.
nland seas tell tales of man’s inability to manage the world’s ecology, and in this way the story of Bombay Beach and the Salton Sea is not uncommon. Today, for example, the Aral Sea, between Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, was once the fourth largest inland sea in the world, and has now, in an almost identical time-frame as the Salton Sea, become a salt-inundated flat. Maybe the Aral Sea was an example of Soviet ineptitude. But the same types of irrigation schemes which formed the Salton Sea destroyed the Aral Sea. Today, the Aral Sea, once worth one-hundred thousand seashore jobs, has been replaced by cancer, anemia and tuberculosis.
The Colorado River itself, after years of abuse, is now already dry before it can release into the Sea of Cortez.
Attention, Films, Art Installations and Rebirth in Bombay Beach
t’s twenty years later, and I am driving to Bombay Beach with my son.
I want to show him this magical part of the southwest, and especially the unmatchable light which falls over the sea at night, and so we drive straightaway through the town proper, over the beach barrier, into a makeshift parking lot overlooking the Salton Sea.
For the last twenty years since I kayaked to Bombay Beach, I have kept my eyes on the town, always curious at the increasing attention being laid on the place.
“Toxic Ruins of a Forgotten Resort”, “Lost Town”, “Toxic Dust”, “Wall to Wall Dead Fish”, “Creepiest Abandoned Place,” “Post-apocalyptic Nightmare” are the typical monikers increasingly assigned to Bombay Beach in the many descriptions describing the town. Not that these descriptions are untrue, or delightfully colorful, but there is something troublesome in the uniformity or their lack of humanity of that persistent message, as though the purpose of Bombay Beach is to witness devastation for the traveler’s delight.
When I kayaked here at the turn of the millennium, Bombay Beach wasn’t a destination. I was lured to it by that big blue spot on my map of California, and the exotic name, and by the hopes of an easy kayak put-in. As one of the first to photograph Bombay Beach in the internet age (my photos of Bombay Beach appeared in Time Magazine and were used in press pieces for the 2011 documentary), I felt a certain responsibility for it.
Kellan and I ramble in the parking lot for a few minutes, but then I realize the sun is fading, so I usher him out. But when I look out over the area where the Bombay Beach ruins once were, I see nothing but sand and mud.
In place of the old ruins is a handful of wood and metal pylons. The remaining portion of the ruins is now constrained to the skeletons of two or three remaining structures, organized into what almost appears like a movie set. The expansive ruins from the turn of the millennium have disappeared.
Amidst these ruins are three young men. By their language, I place them as being from the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. Their clothing—all black, their sunglasses—-foreign and elegant. I have to imagine that, in the middle of a global pandemic, these three men are from halfway around the globe.
Two of them are sort of dancing about, in a way so that the now almost-gone ruins are directly behind them. The third is holding an expensive movie camera low, capturing the other two while they dance and act moody for the camera.
The two dancing men see me staring at them, and for a moment, look embarrassed. But their photographer friend has now launched a quadcopter, and they ignore me, shaking dolefully while staring up at their flying video camera.
Receding Water Levels
walk at a brisk pace, and am beginning to comprehend how far away the water line actually is. Twenty years ago, the water came right up past the ruins, almost to the berm itself.
My recollection of the water levels has receded somewhat, and I can’t yet place exactly what has happened. I turn around to check on Kellan, who is lagging behind me. I wave to him, but actually, there is a young woman whirring out on an electric one-wheel. She is intentionally dressed in quirky-colored clothing, and a paisley shawl, and has installed some sort of speaker system in her one-wheel. A looping techno sound pulsates from her device as she passes me. She looks serious and determined. But it’s Tuesday in February?
Beyond her, on the water’s edge, is a yellow Lamborghini. Several people are surrounding it. Beyond that, in the water, a wedding photographer directs a couple on a swing set, intentionally placed as a prop.
Metal Props and stark art installations appear at random in and along the water, and they all seem to yield success in drawing people to them, to interact with them.
When we reach the edge of the water, I explain to Kellan about how the sand is made of fish bones. And, while this is true and easy to see with the naked eye, I can’t help but to notice that the sand is textured differently now. The fish bones are more fine, as if they had tumbled at the shore for twenty years.
Have the fish die-offs stopped?
t the water’s edge, I expect to sea the pale sides of dead, or nearly dead tilapia, and yet there are none. I won’t know this until later, but the length of my walk to the water’s edge and the lack of tilapia are directly related. In the 20 year since I was last here, the Salton Sea’s water levels, dictated by agricultural runoff, have declined as farmers get smarter about using up their limited water supplies. The sea has declined by nearly ten feet, turning thirty-six square miles of sea into playa.
At the edge of the beach, we watch a hundred Least Sandpipers feeding along its edge. A lone Black-necked Stilt trails behind them, it’s reflection is undisturbed in the still water.
The Bombay Beach Documentary
n 2011, the documentary film Bombay Beach, directed by Alma Har'el, won several international awards. The film succeeded (it is among my favorite films) because Har'el spent a year living in Bombay Beach and creating a narrative from three residents of different ages. While the film did capture that extreme poverty and decay of the town, at the forefront was a human story; putting real faces in front of the camera.
A 2004 documentary, Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, narrated by director John Waters, captured the environmental drama and the outwardly unusual characters of the Salton Sea; but only Bombay Beach gave a heart to the town.
With renewed focus on Bombay Beach, there is even an art festival held here now, there is perhaps a new intent to use art to elevate the region and bring attention to the environmental concerns of the sea’s decline. But, outside of these examples, there seems something off about the way they visitors here seem disconnected from the place. It’s too easy to say that today is the Instagram Age, but the tourism here seems to be a replacement for the bathroom mirror; it doesn’t appear to acknowledge the poverty or the decline of the sea. It is a form of travel that lacks the heart that Bombay Beach tried to instill.
Graffiti, New Residents
s the sun fades, I take Kellan on a walk through the town itself, following the same route I took twenty years ago. Most of the mobile homes closest to the sea, which I remember as being non-descript, are now vacant, with shattered windows and bold graffiti.
We pass by a young man, well-dressed and talking business on his cell phone just outside a slew of homes wrecked by graffiti and vandalism. After saying hello, it dawns on me that this man lives here. And he is not alone. Outsiders have bought up properties in Bombay Beach, turning them into unlikely art studios and off-the-grid living experiments.
Has Bombay Beach reaped some benefit from the last twenty years of attention? Maybe. But like the sea itself, the population of Bombay Beach has declined, dropping in population by over thirty-percent. Maybe Bombay Beach, and the sea itself, are an allegory of the fate the rest of us may glimpse just around the corner?