Salton Sea Revisited


I certainly did not expect that I could go out and visit the Salton Sea again so soon after the trip a couple of weeks ago.  But a good friend of mine and I were going shooting and they had never been there before.   Besides, I really was interested in finding the Mud Pots/Volcanoes that had eluded me the last time; so once again I was on my way east to El Centro then north to the Salton Sea.

The sky had a few streaky clouds in it but was mostly clear.  The weather was warm out in the desert but not hot; perfect in my opinion.  There was very little wind to disturb the water surface or fill the air with dust which is great for breathing but sometimes a loss for shooting.  We’ll see…

I know it is not a proper “guy thing” but rather than drive endlessly up and down the grid of roads we went first to the Visitors Center of the Salton Sea Wildlife Reserve where I did the unthinkable: I asked where they were.  The lady on duty happily pointed out the location on a map.  It was slightly embarrassing because I missed them by ONE ROAD the last time.   So close and yet so far… But NOW I knew.  They would not elude me this time.

But before we got there other possibilities presented themselves.  The area around the southern end of the Salton Sea, lying as it does astraddle of the San Andreas fault, is seismically active with serious geothermal activity associated with it.  There are a handful of geothermal power plants in the area taking advantage of the natural steam to generate electricity for the area.  They are nestled in with the agricultural land and the natural wetlands.  Here is a shot of one of them from the parking lot of the visitor’s center.

One of the many Geothermal plants along the southern edge of the Salton Sea. This is looking across some of the rich irrigated agricultural land fromn the Wildlife Reserve’s Visitor Center Parking lot.  Taken with Canon  1Ds Mk II and a Canon 85mm f1.8 lens.

In late February (according to the lady at the visitor’s center) because this area is on the Pacific flyway for migratory birds, both the Salton Sea Reserve and the Sonny Bono Reserve, as well as the entire area will be inundated with birds of all types.  In fact it is thought by some that more birds will pause here on their trip north than in any other single place on earth.

But some are content to simply stay here for the mild winter.  All around the area are marshes and wetland areas where ducks and coots were happily splashing around.

Marsh lands are alive with ducks and coots playing in the shadow of another of the geotermal power plants. Taken with Canon 1Ds Mk II and Canon 400mm f4L lens.

Of course, again, you can see one of the other power plants in the background.

The Salton Sea’s water is evaporating faster than it is being replaced, fed now only by agricultural run-off.  Once it was fed by the ancient Colorado River as it flooded the low lying (below sea level) bed of an ancient sea many, many times it current size.  But silt finally created a delta then a sand bar and finally a dam that re-routed the river and closed off this body of water, spelling its death sentence.

Near what was once a marina with boat ramp and fishing docks is now completely out of the water, deeper water for water skiing is now shallows where various shore birds wade and float around feeding on the brine shrimp and whatever else they can scavenge.

Shore birds wading and feeding in the now shallow waters at the Red Hill Marina where once this was deep enough for a boat ramp. There was no wind but apparently the RVers in the Anza-Borrego desert were raising enough dust to play with the light and diffuse the mountains.  Taken with Canon 1Ds Mk II and Canon 70-200mm f4L lens.

Remains of a boat dock for fishing and skiing boats near the Red Hill Marina, south east shore of the Salton Sea. Taken with 1Ds MkII and 85mm f1.8 lens.

Where once numerous small docks jutted out into the water to moor fishing  and water skiing boats, all that remains are the uprights and a pair of old skis in the now shallow water.

It is hard to imagine the heady days when this inland sea was seen as the site of the next great recreational boom.  It was, they felt, destined to compete with Palm Springs, just up the highway to the north.   Town sites were created, platted, streets built and signs posted, ready for the expected throngs.  Hotels, a casino, restaurants, markets, gas stations, all were built and purchased with people’s savings as investments in the boom sure to happen.  With eager anticipation they awaited the crowds of people to pour in to play in this saline sea saltier than the Great Salt Lake, saltier than the Dead Sea, salty enough to float an anvil they said, so come and swim and ski in safety and in water where you cannot sink.  Promotions to buy the property for vacations forever were created and broadcast all over.

But they never came.

Oh, a few did.  They came, seduced by the thoughts of fleecing the tourists or simply to find a wonderful new spot to spend their retirements in the warm desert by a great and beautiful body of water.  They purchased businesses and homes or launched their boats and blasted up and down the water skiing till their arms fell off and fishing for the tilapia the State stocked in the water by the millions.

But the expected boom never materialized.  And as the water evaporated and the run off from chemically treated agricultural water flowed in, the fish died… by the millions.  The shore “sand” is actually layer upon layer upon layer of fish bones and carcasses.  And the carcasses of many of the houses also remain along the shore.  The wind blowing through empty rooms with broken glass for tuning reeds sings a sad requiem for the untold dreams dashed anew with every new inch the great sea has lost to evaporation.

This I have photographed before and some of those images are on the gallery section of my web site (

But the sea doesn’t much care; it has its own problems of survival to worry about.  Not only is it evaporating, it is threatened by the San Andreas, but also it is sitting on top of a huge geothermal area.  If salt and chemicals don’t kill it, boiling water and mud might chime in to lend a hand.

A half moon rises over a mud volcano and boiling mud pot along the south east edge of the Salton Sea. Canon 1Ds Mk II + 17-40mm f4 lens

There are a few places where the boiling water and mud pop out of the surface and one of them has an assortment of spouts, tiny volcano/geysers, and boiling cauldrons of mud.  You have to be careful where you walk as my friend Steve Burns found out when we were here a few years ago.  Here are a couple of shots of this particular patch.

The first photograph is of the moon over one of the mud volcanoes.  These mud cones look more like middlin’ sized termite mounds but they can be dangerous all the same.  Getting drenched with scalding mud could pretty much ruin your whole day.

The second shot is of one of the burbling spouts.  I tried to catch it blowing out little gouts of med but it was nearly random in its spurts.  You can see the flow of new mud down its slopes to indicate it can put out quite a bit of new material when it chooses. And if you look very close near the top center of the picture you can see where I did managed to catch a few dark drops of mud being spit out.

Drops of scalding mud spit out from the spout of a mud volcano along the south eastern edge of the Salton Sea. Taken with Canon 1Ds Mk II and Canon 17-40mm f4 lens.

All around you can hear the bubbling and churning and hissing of the superheated water and mud.  If you look around you can see where every once in a while, one of these angry little volcanoes has sprayed scalding mud for many yards away from its mouth and that realization motivated me to quit standing right at the base of one to get my shot, only a couple of feet from the spout.

After photographing at the mud pots we drove up to Bombay Beach where I wanted to try again for some of the surreal imagery and this time the conditions must have taken pity on me for coming back for a second try.  Although the wind was quiet, there was a lot of dust in the air over the desert probably kicked up by the hordes of RVs visiting for the Holiday week.

At the beach, there is an ancient pier crusted with salt and minerals from the water that has caught my attention on several visits.  It was the backdrop for my shot of an old ragged chair I called, in homage to Otis Redding, “Seating by the Dock of the Bay.”

That chair has long since disappeared (or disintegrated) but the old dock’s pilings still remain as the concretions from the water serve to protect (or replace) what is left.  And when the wind over the water calls it a day and the water turns to glass, visual magic can happen if you wait for it.  This evening’s sunset created a pastel backdrop for the flocks of birds heading back south to their nesting grounds in the reserve.  Stream after stream of them flew by in almost single file formations.  Though the sky, mountains, and sea did not blend as a seamless backdrop as it sometimes does, it still created a fairy-tale tableau.

I was able to make four exposures, the first three with a Canon 24mm tilt-shift lens and the last with a Canon 8-15mm fisheye zoom set to 15mm for a full frame fish eye view.

Sunset at the old dock at Bombay Beach (Version 1). Shot with Canon 5D MkII and Canon 24mm f3.5L TS-E lens.

Sunset at the old dock at Bombay Beach (Version 2). Shot with Canon 5D MkII and Canon 24mm f3.5L TS-E lens.

Sunset at the old dock at Bombay Beach (Version 3). Shot with Canon 5D MkII and Canon 24mm f3.5L TS-E lens.

Sunset at the old dock at Bombay Beach (Version 4). Shot with Canon 5D MkII and Canon 8-15mm f4L Fisheye lens.

The light was dropping with each shot but the sun was blazing into the fisheye as it neared the line of mountains to the right so I used two ND grad filters to hold it back.  I did not have a filter holder for the fisheye so simply held them in place for the shot.

As I worked on them and now uploading them, every time I look at them I like a different one, for different reasons.  Usually I pick the one from a series that I like best to show here, but this time I’ll just put them all out and you can decide.

Though I took the Wista Technical Camera and DSLR adapter because I planned on doing some more internal pans and mosaics, none of the shots seemed to cry out for that treatment so this time it stayed in its case.  But maybe next time…

That’s it for the moment.  The next few weeks at school will be a madhouse as we prepare for finals but if I can, I’ll try to sneak out now and then to track down some more of those wily images waiting out there to have their portrait taken.

Meanwhile, today is Thanksgiving Day.  Take a moment to give Thanks for all of the good things in your life.  Life itself might lead the list for some of us who have had that condition put in peril and question at times.  But also for the people who have graced our lives and, for their moment, shared our path, sometimes helping us to carry the load.  If there are those out there who have put a smile on your face, made your spirit soar and put a song in your heart, give thanks for them and, better yet…

Thank THEM!


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to Salton Sea Revisited

  1. I do accept as true with all of the ideas you have introduced to your post.

    They are really convincing and can certainly work.
    Nonetheless, the posts are too short for novices.
    Could you please lengthen them a little from next
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