Field Work At the Salton Sea, California- A Truly Bizarre Place

Unfortunately, I’ve been super busy with research and haven’t been able to keep up with the blog as much as I’d like to. About a month ago, I was a field assistant on a trip to the Salton Sea for Shannon Waters (a graduate student in the same lab I’m in at Sacramento State) project investigating the affects on fecundity in the invasive Tilapia, an Oreochromis species in the Salton Sea (most likely a hybrid of a few Oreochromis species). Besides Shannon and I, Esther Tracy, a lab member and Dr. Ron Coleman, lab supervisor also went on the trip. The goal was to collect some Tilapia females for Shannon’s study. Unfortunately, we only collected small fish, not adults.

Where Is The Salton Sea?

The Salton Sea is located in South East California’s Imperial Valley in the middle of the Colorado Dessert. It is about 40 minutes North of Mexicali, Mexico.It is a large body of water about 35 miles long by 15 miles wide.

Google Map of the area. A points to the Salton Sea.

The area is also on the San Andreas fault, creating very cool mud Volcanoes in the area.

Mud Volcano

It looks like this little mud volcano blew! All that was left was a crater

This mud volcano was very active and was bubbling with hot sulfurous mud.

Shannon Waters walking through the mud volcano field. There is an oddly placed factory in the distance.

Esther Tracy on top of a Mud Volcano

Me, mud volcano King!

Salton Sea History

The Salton Sea was created when a salt flat was flooded by the Colorado River. Throughout it’s history the area has been dry or wet due to floods by the Colorado River. The flooding was great as it created fertile farm land.

An old dock at the Salton Sea

Starting in the 1920’s the area started to gain tourist attraction. Fish were introduced to the body of water to draw in more tourists. In the 1950’s and 1960’s houses were built by the Salton Sea as it was supposed to be the next tourist mecca and be the happening place.

Bombay Beach was supposedly the place to be in the 1950’s

However, as the Salton Sea was a flooded salt bed in the middle of the dessert and didn’t have regular access to freshwater, the sea gradually became saltier through the years due to evaporation. This created quite a lot of fish kills and algae blooms, giving the area quite a distinct yet unpleasant aroma. Fish and Game tried various introductions of marine fish to hopefully inhabit the sea as salinity rose and still build a fishery, but introductions were for the most part unsuccessful. By the mid 1970’s the area was done for as a tourist destination. The area is no primarily run down and many little settlements set up for tourism in the 1950’s-1960’s are ghost towns. It is a very eerie place to drive through, but one that has a lot of a strange Americana feeling to it.

This little store was probably doing quite well back in the 1950’s

The area has a strange “Hills Have Eyes” feel to it.

Believe it or not, this building used to be a dry ice factory in the 1950’s.

Real Estate in the area is quite cheap!

Currently, there are only four fish living in the Salton Sea. The only native species to the region is the critically endangered Desert Pupfish, Cyprinodon macularius. Pupfish are amazing fish capable of living in some of the harshest environment. The other species are all invasive and include the freshwater to brackishwater Tilapia Oreochromis, native to Africa, the mosquitofish Gambusia affinis, and the sailfin molly, Poecilia latipina. The last two are native to the gulf coast of the United States and inhabit freshwater to full strength saltwater environments. All these fish were introduced to the Salton Sea by Fish and Game. What is amazing is at present, the Salton Sea is a bout one and a half times saltier than the ocean! The fish not only thrive in this salinity, they also thrive in the high water temperatures the Salton Sea has due to being in the dessert. When we were the air temperature was a blistering 114 degrees! As stated above, due to the harsh conditions of the environment, fish kills are quite a common sight in the Salton Sea.

The victims of one of the fish kills. These are all Tilapia.

There are a ton of barnacles in the Salton Sea and the beaches are essentially composed of fish bones and these very sharp barnacle shells. To say the least, my idea to wear flip flops was not a good one.

A male Oreochromis. These Tilapia get quite large, around 18-20 inches and 5lbs or more! This one was a victim of a fish kill. Males are jet black with bright red fins.

Female Oreochromis.

The skull of a tilapia, Oreochromis sp.

The Area is quite dry and California is in a drought, meaning the water can only evaporate in the Salton Sea, causing higher Salinity. Here you can see a dust devil off in the distance.


Apparently, a few years ago the water of the Salton Sea was right next to these trees. With evaporation, the water level has dropped and the Salton Sea has become much saltier. I’ve been told these trees are commonly photographed by tourists in the area, when in Rome!

Why Do Research on Invasive Fish in a Body of Water That’s Doomed?

So why do we research the Invasive Tilapia? It’s all about the birds! With a good portion of the natural wetlands of California destroyed due to human development, the Salton Sea has become a major part of the Pacific Flyway for many migratory bird species. The birds rest here on there migrations and occasionally breed. The fish, specifically Tilpia provide an excellent food source for the migratory birds. But, with rising salinity due to evaporation and no incoming freshwater, we don’t know how much longer the Tilapia can continue to breed and survive as a food source for the birds. Essentially, it’s save the invasive Tilapia to save the migratory birds (some of which are endangered species), while doing very little for the one native fish species, the pupfish! There have been talks of intentionally flooding the region with freshwater to lower the salinity to create a better habitat for the Tilapia and to hopefully keep a healthy bird population fed on their migrations. here are a few photos of the bird diversity.

Black and White Pellicans are a common sight at the Salton Sea, commonly diving for fish.


A bunch of birds taking off. There are a few gulls, pippers, egrets and cranes!

All in all, the Salton sea is a bizarre place that has some major environmental issues that need to be addressed.

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5 Responses to Field Work At the Salton Sea, California- A Truly Bizarre Place

  1. Veronica Solis says:

    You guys are great. Thanks so much for coming out. There is so much this great Valley offers. Its so sad that we haven’t got the ball rounding. I tell my kids all the time that not only should the Salton Sea be beautiful to look at. It should be revived. I know its easy to input, but I just know it in my heart that if the residents who are bless by it breathless sunsets could help in any form or way they would. I mean we only look at the Sea every single day

  2. John Mackey says:

    The “factory” you referenced is a geothermal electricity production facility. The brine from this factory will yield Lithium!

  3. dan o'malley says:

    great info! and pics… I plan on going there in oct. I am interested in the thriving sea fun of the 60’s too bad its gone.. reminds me of how they were in step trying to be like a Vegas or Tahoe

  4. Mark Tomasello says:

    Great info, Sam. You’ve convinced me to visit, if only to see it before it all dries up and blows away.

    • Sam Borstein says:

      Thanks Mark! It’s a really strange place and an interesting situation with the birds and the tilapia and whether or not there needs to be intervention to keep the Salton Sea from going anymore saline. Shannon’s work with the Tilapia is very interesting and will provide some valuable info into how to treat the situation. It’s a cool trip, it’s definitely different than any place I’ve been to before it’s a weird mix of ghost town and old Americana with a lake teeming with cool birds and an invasive fish and a few awesome pupfish hanging on.

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