Driving through the desert in Southern California is a study in contradictions. We drove from the opulent resorts of Palm Springs to the abandoned buildings and forgotten towns of Imperial County, where the unemployment rate is the highest in the state. The desert landscape is dotted with date palms, scrub, and not much else. When my son looked up from his video game player long enough, he looked up and said, “Hey, mom, is that the ocean?”
I was looking in the opposite direction and replied, “We’re pretty far from the ocean.” Then, I saw it: the calm, blue waters of the Salton Sea, looming on the horizon like a mirage in the desert.
The Salton Sea is on of the world’s largest inland seas and one of the lowest spots on earth (-227 feet below sea level). The sea existed in ancient times, but dried up until 1905 when high spring flooding on the Colorado River crashed the canal gates leading into the developing Imperial Valley. For the next 18 months the Colorado River rushed into the dry seabed, creating the current 35 mile long,15 mile wide inland sea. The sea is saltier than the Pacific Ocean, but not as salty as the Great Salt Lake, and the increasing salinity over time has lead to changes in the ecosystem. The only fish that can be caught there are tilapia, but hundreds of gorgeous waterbirds make their homes and migratory stops along the shores of the Salton Sea.
About 14 miles of the shoreline is used for human recreation (boating, kayaking, fishing, and camping), but due to state budget cuts, most of these services are dwindling. There is a State Recreation Area near Mecca, California, and that is where we stopped for a visit.
We drove through a thicket of palm trees to the park entrance, where a friendly park attendant named Nick took our $5 entrance fee and gave us a sticker to put on the car. We drove to the lot by the Visitor’s Center, which was closed when we arrived. There was one other family in the parking lot at the time, and a lone fisherman out on a jetty casting a line out to the sea. We decided to explore the beach a little, and could see hundreds of gulls and large white birds that looked like swans floating by in pairs.
Walking up to the beach at the Salton Sea is like walking through a fish apocalypse, with thousands of dead fish strewn across the sand, some looking as though they were cast out in schools along the beach. Some have pieces missing, as though they were a partially-eaten bird’s lunch. It is a disquieting, eerie sight.
The group of birds floating slowly by on the water had fluffy, snow-white feathers, elegant necks and long yellow beaks, but I knew they weren’t swans. Frank thought they were pelicans, but I didn’t see any diving for fish the way I had seen other pelicans behave. We later found out that these were American White Pelicans and 30% of their remaining population live in the Salton Sea area. They float along and hunt for fish in groups, circling their prey and forcing the fish into tight groups before sticking their heads in and feasting. They don’t dive for fish like brown pelicans, and have a much daintier way about them.
I watched the White Pelicans and the gulls by the shore for quite a while, trying not to step on the dead fish carcasses along the salt-encrusted seashore. It was a beautiful, serene sight, despite the creepy fishpocalypse. It reminded me that we need to preserve the habitats and homes of these creatures who share our planet. I thought of the lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner that I learned in high school, many years ago:
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I hope that something can be done to preserve the Salton Sea recreation areas, “for both man and bird and beast.”