Read my original article "Should We Save The Salton Sea?" here.
The beaches of the Salton Sea have a distinctive crunch. It’s a potent mixture of dead fish, salt, and sand. Some say that the smell of the sea carries for miles. That’s a myth. Only once you get closer to the water does its pungency become obvious.
The odor of the Sea is one I would recognize anywhere. Somehow, I always end up back there, even though I live three hours away. Take last winter. I wasn't on a birding trip, but I had somehow ended up at the North Shore. Again. It was right after Christmas. And I had run out of cash for camping, so I had to sleep in the back of the car with my travel companion Cynthia. Slightly excessive door-slamming prompted a noise complaint from a nearby RV, not quite the scene you imagine a "teenage disturbance," to be.
We were out late. It was 10:45 PM when we walked out to the North Shore of the Sea, attempting to appreciate the stars obscured by city lights and fog. A legion of Black-necked Stilts was feeding under the cover of the night. The scene was overtly depressing. I was tired, and Cynthia must have been more so, since she had just driven straight from Joshua Tree, where all the campgrounds were taken. We sat down on the slightly damp sand. In the dark, you couldn't see all the tilapia skeletons. But I had visited here so many times, and I had written an article, after all, so I knew all the important facts to parrot about the Sea to someone who knew nothing. There were barely any stars visible and barely any words spoken. But it was a movie moment, one of those scenes in your life that you feel could appear in a depressing art film.
It was on a clear day approximately eleven months before that gloomy night that I had crunched my way to water on the same northern shore, enjoying its sharp odor. Salt and fish skeletons crackled under my feet. A new camera was strapped close to my chest. The light was dimming, and I had an article on the conservation of the Sea to publish in Birding magazine. The photos accompanying the text were to be mine; my claims of a great lens were yet to be backed up. As I reached the edge of the sea, the sun was sinking below the mountains fast.
The classic position of the bird photographer is to lie on his or her belly while taking photos, usually of waterfowl or shorebirds. Only then can you get a good depth-of-view, and a more personal photo. Naturally, this included the swimming waterbirds on the water of the Sea. I dropped into position. An American White Pelican drifted along a glossy blue surface. The sound of a furiously clicking camera shutter mingled among calls of startled shorebirds.
As lines of birds flew back to their roosting grounds, the light disappeared behind the mountains. My ISO (a setting for sensitivity to light) climbed from 1600 to 3200 to 6400, until photography was retired and appreciation for the remainder of a glorious sunset began.
The orange and yellow hues were tinged with sadness. It was the sadness of a dying Sea. The water was receding and increasingly salty; the once magnificent sea was a now a pathetic groaning beast turned on its side. The article was due soon. I had to articulate a reason to save the Sea, and a glorious evening, in a thousand words and less than a dozen photos.
Maybe I am talented at photography, maybe I'm not; but it was the kind words that everyone had given my photography in mind that I had departed at 5:00 AM on a Saturday morning, ready to do whatever I could to save the Sea. On the drive back home, my camera felt new in my hands.
In April 2017, the fate of the Sea was written in my mailbox. “Should We Save The Salton Sea?” read the article title in glossy print. An image of a dried tilapia fish accompanied the cover page. My words dripped off the paper in orange sunsets, swimming pelicans and the smell of salt. That year, I knew that I would be writing and photographing for the rest of my life.
In December 2017, the fate of the Sea was written in Cynthia's words. "This is so dead," she said, as someone who knew virtually nothing about the Sea. And I had no choice but to nod and agree, and make my precious memories of a dying sea while I could.