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The Salton Sea

I have found a place in California where the apocalypse happens every single year. That makes it the perfect vacation spot for people who want to find a place where the world will end–and when it doesn’t, they can try again next year. I’m talking about the Salton Sea.

Many centuries ago, the fresh water Lake Cahuilla existed about thirty miles outside Palm Springs. The native Cahuilla lived here, but then the lake began to dry up.

In the mid-1800’s miners came for the salt. They found fertile land and began creating irrigation canals.

But in 1905 a series of dam and levee failures resulted in the flooding of the Lower Colorado River. The waters poured into this basin and created 400 square miles of salty sea.

By the late 1950’s, the Salton Sea was a popular recreation area where vacationers came for swimming, fishing, boating and water-skiing.

Over time, however, the sea had no fresh river to fill it up. Only agricultural and storm runoff dribbled into this waterbed. Blended with the hot sunny days, the salt levels rose. The normal algae growth of the sea took a turn towards mayhem.

The algae began to die. The bacteria then ate them up. These decomposers used up the oxygen in the sea and the result was the emission of stinky gases. People fled the area and developers lost out: visions of a Disney World Oasis sunk.

As the bacteria used up the oxygen, the fish began to struggle for life. They then died in great numbers and piled up on the shore… after laying their eggs.

Nowadays, this cycle reoccurs every year. The fish eggs hatch, their numbers swell until the algae bloom, when they die off in droves.

I went to go see it for myself on the hottest day of the year. That is, I went in July. I took pictures. I took video. I stomped around in the carcasses with sandals. You can see the results.

Rangers at the Visitor Center portrayed an optimistic picture of the Salton Sea. Their books, placards and videos showed that this is an essential stop on the migration route known as the Pacific Flyway. Of the 660 species of birds known to breed in North America, over 400 species have been spotted here. Pintails, White Pelicans, Curlews, Northern Orioles. What’s more, brown bats arrive in late spring and migrate on to Mexico for the winter. Monarch butterflies also pass through on their way to their wintering areas in the mountains of Mexico.

I noticed, however, that the animals don’t seem to stay. Then, I decided to tell the rangers the truth. “There are fish carcasses everywhere.” After their initial defensiveness, I added, “This is why I came to visit.” Oh. Yes, the rangers conceded, this isn’t the best time to visit unless you want to come see the fish carcasses and smell the stink.

They were a bit surprised by my candor, but I left thanking them for their hospitality. They encouraged me to come back again soon. Next year, maybe.

Address: 100-225 State Park Road, Mecca, CA 92254

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