The Salton Sea: California’s Nightmare Coast

A dead palm tree slumps toward an abandoned snack bar at the site of the former North Shore Beach and Yacht Club in North Shore, Calif. on Jan. 7, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Just minutes from the glamorous golf resorts of Palm Springs and raucous week-long concerts of Coachella lies the remnants of one of California’s worst ecological disasters. Created in 1905 after a failed irrigation project accidentally rerouted the Colorado River into an arid valley, the Salton Sea is the state’s largest lake by volume at more than double the size of Lake Tahoe. It was once a picturesque oasis, but in recent decades, through a series of natural and man-made disasters, it has turned toxic. However, despite being known as a dying, noxious, post-apocalyptic hellscape, the massive lake wasn’t always the wasteland that it is today.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Salton Sea was thriving. Marketed as a trendy alternative to the rapidly developing Pacific coast around Los Angeles and San Diego, people flocked to the Sea; dozens of sprawling resort communities cropped up overnight. Beachfront property was in such high demand that realtors would rent airplanes and sell land to wealthy clients from the sky, selling dozens of plots a day without ever setting foot on the ground. The Salton Sea once attracted more daily visitors than Yosemite National Park. Celebrities like Sonny Bono and the Beach Boys frequented the area, and with them came high-end restaurants, yacht clubs and a feeling of endless grandeur.

But unbeknownst to the seaside revellers, the good ol’ days were numbered.

By the late 1960s, the idyllic Salton Sea had begun to turn toxic. The Sea was becoming dangerously polluted as agricultural runoff laced with pesticides from nearby farms seeped into the lake, pouring in at almost the same rate the water evaporated. Rising salt levels in the water, combined with massive algal blooms, poisoned many species that once called the lake home; fish populations died off in huge quantities, routinely washing ashore and littering the area’s beaches. While still technically safe for humans, the water gained a reputation of being poisonous, killing any living creature that dared come into contact with it — people avoided the Salton Sea like the plague.

A mummified tilapia rots on the Salton Sea’s eastern shore on Jan. 5, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

A mummified tilapia rots on the Salton Sea’s eastern shore on Jan. 5, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

In the 1970s, as beach-goers found elsewhere to vacation, salt levels continued to skyrocket and die-offs became increasingly common. The foul-smelling air choked all but the most hardened lungs; if wind conditions were right, the odour of rotting fish from the Salton could be smelled almost 200 kilometres away in Hollywood. And to add insult to injury, two notably severe floods in the early ‘80s inundated the settlements on the Salton Sea’s eastern coast with water, forcing the remaining residents to evacuate. The fluctuating sea level made entire towns uninhabitable. It was the final nail in the coffin; a tragic conclusion to the short but epic history of California’s largest lake.

In North Shore, a boom-town-turned-ghost-town whose geographic location is given away by its name, a handful of residents continue to live alongside the toxic lake. While most of the settlements around the Salton Sea had begun to collapse by the 1980s, North Shore endured much longer, supporting a stable population until the onset of the Great Recession in the late 2000s, which crippled the community. After the town's only motel was demolished in 2007 and the local grocery store was shuttered the following year, people fled in droves, abandoning the once-vibrant beach community for more prosperous parts of California.

Multiple signs warn trespassers to stay away from an abandoned housing complex in North Shore, Calif. on Jan. 7, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Multiple signs warn trespassers to stay away from an abandoned housing complex in North Shore, Calif. on Jan. 7, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Felix Auto Repair sits abandoned near Skip’s Liquor in North Shore, Calif. on Jan. 6, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

The crumbling exterior of the abandoned Toro Loco Carniceria and Grocery in North Shore, Calif. on Jan. 6, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

The disheveled interior of the abandoned Toro Loco Carniceria and Grocery in North Shore, Calif. on Jan. 6, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Fred Garbutt, 53, is one of the few remaining residents of North Shore. His family owns the only operational business left in town, Skip’s Liquor — a derelict, highway-adjacent convenience store and former bar recognisable amongst the salt-encrusted dystopia by its many prominent advertisements for "Bait - Ice - Beer.” It was once the go-to spot in North Shore, but after the bar floundered during the economic downturn of the late 2000s, Skip's faced a dilemma: either drum up some new business, or wither away and die like the rest of the town.

One of the many “Bait - Ice - Beer” advertisements found around Skip’s Liquor and the International Banana Museum in North Shore, Calif. on Jan. 5, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

In 2009, with his convenience store — the last remaining relic of North Shore's glory days — on the brink of extinction, Garbutt and his mother hatched an ambitious plan to revitalize Skip's Liquor and make their backwater town stand out on an otherwise bleak map. Through eBay, the pair found a California banana enthusiast who was selling his Guinness-World-Record-setting collection of banana-themed items, and figured having it would be the perfect roadside gimmick to draw in customers. After the 17,000-item collection (originally listed for US$45,000) failed to sell at auction in 2010, the Garbutt family swooped in and purchased it in a private transaction for an undisclosed sum.

“It was a huge gamble, but it clearly paid off. Now I’m top banana,” joked Garbutt, who weaves banana puns into his speech so naturally that you’d be forgiven for thinking he was once a spokesman for Chiquita, rather than a retired contractor from nearby Palm Springs. Clad in a banana-printed Hawaiian shirt, Garbutt said that since he converted his failing bar into the International Banana Museum seven years ago, the enormous collection has grown to over 20,000 items and attracts dozens of daily visitors. “The Salton Sea is pretty bleak, so to have something fun like this museum out here, it really is a-PEEL-ing to a lot of people,” said Garbutt, who winked to make sure I got his joke.

A Union Pacific freight train speeds past the International Banana Museum in North Shore, Calif. on Jan. 6, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Tourists wait to be served banana-flavoured treats at the International Banana Museum in North Shore, Calif. on Jan. 6, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

But no amount of colourful banana puns and playful winking can mask the fact that life around the Salton Sea is undeniably grim. The neighbourhood surrounding the International Banana Museum is a dry, monochromatic wasteland of abandoned businesses and withered palm tree stumps. The communities surrounding the saline lake are consistently ranked among the poorest and least educated in the United States; in Mecca, the largest city in the area, just 1.4 per cent of residents hold a college degree. The air hangs heavy with the stench of dead fish. Life is bleak, indeed.

Just south of North Shore is Mecca Beach, a vast waterfront expanse composed of equal parts mud, razor-sharp barnacles and rotting tilapia carcasses, and whose amenities include a crumbling concrete parking lot and antique picnic tables half-submerged underwater. In the halcyon days of the 1960s, Mecca Beach was the playground of the rich and famous; well-to-do families frolicked in the white sand and yachts docked off shore. But now, the only regular patron of the beach is Robert Gonzalez, a California State Parks ranger who is one of a handful of employees that staff the Salton Sea State Recreation Area’s visitor centre.

A newly restored sign welcomes visitors to the Salton Sea State Recreation Area at Mecca Beach on the Salton Sea’s east coast on Jan. 6, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Hundreds of dead tilapia carcasses litter Mecca Beach on the Salton Sea’s eastern shore on Jan. 6, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Mecca Beach at low tide on Jan. 5, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

A damaged picnic table sits partially underwater during high tide at Mecca Beach on Jan. 6, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

“People have the wrong idea about the Salton Sea,” said Gonzalez, who has been working at the SSSRA for two years. “The fish are safe to eat, the water is safe to swim in. I swim in it in the summer and have never had a problem,” he said, adding that he often came to the Salton with his family as a child because it was the closest beach. “Bottom line: it’s not dangerous.” Despite the fact that Mecca Beach has no actual sand and is currently littered with mummified fish, killed in a 2013 die-off and subsequently preserved thanks to the damp salty air, Gonzalez insists tourists still patronise the beach, occasionally sunbathing and having picnics there.

Dead tilapia from a 2013 mass die-off still cover Mecca Beach four years later on Jan. 6, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Twenty-five kilometres down the coast is Bombay Beach, an eccentric beach town that was largely destroyed in the floods of the 1980s, but has found new life as the home of hippies and hermits alike who aim to take advantage of some of the lowest real estate prices in California. In many ways, Bombay Beach is like any small town. It has a church, an American Legion, two convenience stores — but ironically, the community named for its seaside sprawl doesn’t actually have a beach; in fact, due to a towering levy constructed to protect the town from flooding, the Salton Sea is not even visible from within city limits. But that’s not Bombay Beach’s only quirk.

Decent cell phone reception has yet to be introduced. Empty lots are littered with rusting Airstream trailers and partially scrapped classic cars, likely unmoved since they were originally abandoned. The town is a time capsule whose eclectic mix of residents shun standard conveniences like credit cards and automobiles, instead opting to pay with cash and travel by bicycle. I only saw three cars during my entire time there; a restored Volkswagen bus, a modern yellow school bus dropping off the town’s few children, and a dusty PT Cruiser with blacked-out windows whose driver honked continuously for at least 15 seconds as he or she drove past me, as if to say: “You’re not welcome here.”

But locals are understandably weary of outsiders. Bombay Beach has received a significant amount of bad press in recent years, with Vice calling the city “post-apocalyptic” and Mental Floss calling it “iconically awful.” Hit video game Grand Theft Auto V portrays it as a violent, backwards, half-abandoned hick town. Only one person spoke to me; a stocky man on a bicycle who stopped, pointed at my camera, and asked if I was making a documentary. I told him no. He rode away. But his uniquely cold demeanour came as no surprise; visitors to town are met with scepticism and treated like they are invisible, as if on the receiving end of a bad Twilight Zone episode.

The Seaside Baptist Church in Bombay Beach, Calif. sits unused on Jan. 5, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

An sign warning drivers not to enter an abandoned stretch of 1st Street in Bombay Beach, Calif. on Jan. 5, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

A rowboat sits abandoned on a dry lakebed near the community of Bombay Beach, Calif. on May 17, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

However, few kilometres away from the reclusive (former) beach town is a place where all are welcome. Just inland from the Salton Sea is Slab City, a commune-style town built on the concrete slabs of a former World War II military barracks. It is a community of hippies, RV owners and free-spirited vagabonds who exist almost entirely “off the grid” and live their everyday lives like they’re at a bizarre, year-round version of Burning Man. And just like Burning Man, Slab City too is anchored by an awe-inspiring art installation of truly epic proportions: Salvation Mountain.

A crude sign welcomes visitors to Salvation Mountain in Slab City, Calif. at sunset on Jan. 6, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

A Ford Pinto station wagon hand-painted with Bible verses is one of many such cars surrounding Salvation Mountain in Slab City, Calif. on Jan. 6, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

A small brushfire scorches the desert just outside of Slab City, Calif. on May 17, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Started as “temporary monument to God’s love” in 1984 by local resident Leonard Knight, Salvation Mountain has weathered many storms, both literal and metaphorical — the original mountain, constructed largely of straw, collapsed in the mid ‘80s and in 1994, authorities in Imperial County, Calif. tried to remove the installation after claiming the Mountain’s paint was leaking dangerous toxins into the soil (a claim that proved to be false). This, combined with damage that occurs during heavy rains, would make it seem improbable that Salvation Mountain would be anything more than temporary.

According to a plaque placed at the foot of the Mountain, Knight worked for almost 30 years without reliable electricity and running water to create the massive “God Is Love” monument, and lived at the site until he was placed in palliative care in 2011 due to his failing health. Since Knight’s 2014 death, Slab City’s largest art installation has been maintained with donated paint and is monitored by an elusive caretaker who lives in a trailer somewhere on the property, but welcomes all visitors between sunrise and sunset. But despite its rickety origins and questionable future, Salvation Mountain might be one of the most permanent and stable things in the region.

A sign warns tourists about a freshly painted section of Salvation Mountain in Slab City, Calif. on Jan. 6, 2017. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Unfortunately for the Salton Sea, the forecast for the future isn’t bright. At present, the Sea loses around six inches of elevation each year, and with a warming climate and mitigation waters currently flowing into the lake scheduled to be shut off in 2018, its demise will only be sped up. The receding water level, coupled with ever-increasing salinity, is threatening the hundreds of unique species that live in or rely on the Sea. California has taken steps to alleviate this issue and recently announced a $383 million plan to build artificial wetlands to supplement the shrinking lake and reduce dust that originates from the drying region.

The Salton Sea in its most prosperous form died in the natural disasters of the 1970s and ‘80s, but the saline lake is now facing a much more grave threat. If the threats to the Salton aren’t resolved, it is projected that within 30 years all the fish in the lake will have been killed and the region will become drier than the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The lake’s first death came with the exodus of vapid tourists and beach-goers, but the very core of the Salton Sea as we know it is now in jeopardy. As it says in both the Book of Revelations and on the side of Salvation Mountain:“This is the second death.”