On The Road – Part Two, The Salton Sea

Published On April 8, 2011 | By Mike Carroll | DSLR, Greyhounds, Mike & Bonnie, Salton Sea

The skeletal remains of a 1970s mobile home on Bombay Beach at the shore of the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea is a photographer’s Disneyland. A desert lake. Barren, harsh and beautiful. Not so much natural as unnatural.

Located thirty miles south of Indio, which is just next to Palm Springs, the Salton Sea is 229 feet below sea level.

(Technical Note: I’m going to go into greater detail on the shooting of these photos in a few weeks. Later in the morning I started shooting from a tripod and shooting both stills and video of the same thing. I have an idea for what I’m going to do with it, but am going to go into greater depth on that after I’ve done something with the video portion, which shall incorporate all of this an much, much more. In short, though, shot with a Nikon Coolpix for the grab shots and the serious photos shot with Canon 7D, Tokina 11-16mm F2.8 lens with ND4 filter and Polarizing filter to heighten the skies. Wish I were more up to speed with PhotoShop. Black & whites created and punched up in Apple iPhoto.)

Bonnie wanted to take a road trip to someplace where we could take the dogs, Alex and Ava, and I wanted to go someplace where I could take pictures.

The Salton Sea is an ancient lake bed. It had been virtually dry for most of the known history of the region, even having a town with a Southern Pacific railroad line running through it. Then in 1905 high waters in the Colorado River cause the failure of a dike and flooded the Salton Sea with water again, submerging the town and the rail line. An extraordinary phenomenon. Now the Salton Sea’s water level declines for times, then is replenished by the water levels from the Colorado River.

At various times the lake has thrived, producing marinas and yacht clubs. Most of these have become lake history with the passage of time. But they have left contemporary ghost town relics of the lake’s heydays.

A community center with a museum about the Salton Sea now stands where the old North Shore Beach & Yacht Club once stood.

Inside the community center, this 3-dimensional sculpture is made out of actual dead fish from the lake.

Wisely, they permit greyhounds in the center. Ava and Alex mingle with fellow tourists. Bonnie serves as chaparone.

Temperatures can hover around 128 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. On this day in early April it was only in the mid-80’s, but plenty warm enough for Ava and Alex to turn into Salton Sea Dogs for the day.

While I was exploring with the Canon 7D, Bon was exploring with Alex and Ava. Swimming in the Salton Sea is not encouraged because of the extremely high salinity — the water is saltier than the Pacific Ocean. But Ava, like most women, like a good salt bath now and then.

Ava the Salton Seadog.


Ava the Salton Sea Dog from Mike Carroll on Vimeo.

Part of Sean Penn’s film Into The Wild was filmed here, capturing some of the independent-spirited residents. Some of them military retirees, people on fixed incomes, loners and hermits, and people who just want to “get away.” From these pictures you can definitely tell that this is a place that qualifies as “away.”

The shoreline shimmers white and crunches under your feet. That’s from the decades accumulation of tiny seashells and crunched skin and bones of fish kills that happen as a result of the lake’s high salinity. The sea water in the Salton Sea is, in fact, saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

Bruce Davidson photograph of LA in the 1960s.

In the 1960’s Brooklyn-based photographer Bruce Davidson traveled to Southern California and did a photo-essay of Los Angelenos as out-of-place people in a surreal landscape. Everything about his photos looked alien and bizarre.

Those pictures resonated in my head as I was exploring the Salton Sea with my Canon 7D, exaggerated by the super-wide angle perspective of the Tokina 11-16 F2.8 lens. It’s hard not to feel like a kid in a candy story when you’re in an other-worldly landscape like this.

Bonnie even got into the photo spirit with her iPhone.

Allegedly there used to be a general store here at one point. The sign out in the water says, "Tomatoes."

At one point I felt so excited by the images that I pulled out the tripod, which I almost never use, to record the images in 1080 HD 24p video.

Bombay Beach is a place of the ruggedly individual Salton Sea residents call home. On the other side of a levee wall are the skeletal remains of some of the residents’ old homes, a mobile home park that was flooded in the mid-70s and has been decaying and deteriorating every since. And a destination for photographers ever since.

Downtown Indio has historic murals on the sides of buildings depicting the community and their role in the area. They must be very respected because there wasn't any grafitti.

Our room in Motel 8 in Indio. Alex got first dibs on the bed nearest the air conditoner. Ava gives Bonnie a kiss goodnight. "Thank you for the swim, Mom."

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About The Author

Mike Carroll joined the digital revolution in 1999 with a Sony TRV900 camcorder and Final Cut Pro, when it was only Final Cut Pro and not version 2, 4 or a Suite.

One Response to On The Road – Part Two, The Salton Sea

  1. Jan Mendoza says:

    Love the Salton Sea photos Mike! You are right! What a place for awesome photos! You got me thinking I need to go get some filters for my Cannon and PLAY!

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