VermPhoto | Salt of the Earth and the Stench Too

Salt of the Earth and the Stench Too

November 16, 2015  •  5 Comments

The Salton Sea has been on my photo bucket list for years.  With over 400 different avian species recorded there, it promised to be a wildlife photographer's dream. 



When I dream it’s primarily visual, a bit tactile, but never olfactory.  So the reality of The Sea was a bit of a shock to the ol’ nostrils.



Ah, the beaches I visited at Salton Sea sported multiple bathtub rings of dead tilapia.  (As the Sea’s salinity has increased over the decades, tilapia are the last sport fish able to survive.) When life gives you limes, make Vermaritas.  When life gives you dead fish, make still lifes.



The sand under the fish is primarily composed of barnacle shells.  The barnacles are not native to The Sea, but were introduced from the hulls of Navy seaplanes that landed there back in WWII. 

In the 50’s The Sea was a resort destination for Hollywood types.  As the lake became saltier and saltier, the ecosystem evolved into sub-resort quality conditions -- the fisheries cratering, rising lake levels from agricultural runoff and pollution, the barnacle beaches taking on a razorwire texture.  Now, when you manage to make it to the shoreline you sink into bacteria-rich muck.  As your feet ooze down, the hydrogen sulfide fumes rise to compete with the rotting fish aroma.  No wonder the resort towns are mostly deserted now.  But what’s a bit of stench and shredded feet when you have 30% of North America’s White Pelican population wintering there?



The White Pelican is one of the biggest birds in North America, with a 9-foot wingspan, it’s second in size only to the mighty California Condor.



The white flock is pelicans.  View from Rock Hill lookout at the southeast end of Salton Sea.

There are also the formerly endangered Brown Pelicans at The Sea.


I dig watching these birds utilize their mastery of ground effect aerodynamics.  By flying just inches above the water surface, they compress a layer of air under their wings that provides lift, allowing them to glide long distances quickly without wingbeats.



Egrets are predictably common.


Great Egret with pelicans


Snowy Egret landing


Cattle Egrets


The Cattle Egrets thrive at the local agricultural fields, as do the White-faced Ibis.




The wind cranked up when we moved to the south end of The Sea to visit the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Reguge.  Whitecaps raced across the surface and waves crashed on the rocks.


Cormorants on their morning commute.

The grebes were unperturbed by the rough water.



When confronted with a wave. They’d just dive under it or punch through the curl like this Western Grebe (Clark’s Grebe?).



Why not fly over?  Turns out the1.5 million Eared Grebes that winter here give up flying for the winter.  So much so that their flight muscles waste to near nothing while their digestive organs greatly increase in size.  (This is an even greater morphologic change than my body undergoes during football season.)  After gorging all winter on brine shrimp and the such, they reverse the changes, put back on their flight muscle and migrate to the breeding grounds.  I’m not sure if the Western Grebes undergo the same metamorphosis (still researching this) but I didn’t see them fly at The Sea either.

The dead fish fragrance was not as pungent at the south end of The Sea and Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR. 


Rock Hill pokes out of the shoreline to the left.  A trail leads to a lookout at the summit.  Steam rises from a geothermal plant to the right of Rock Hill.


Is this due to the competition from the geothermal plants or agricultural fertilizer?  Or could it be a sweet whiff of eau d’Cher?


A Northern Harrier send a flock of blackbirds flying, geothermal plant in background.


Doves on power lines.


The Refuge grows crops for the Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes to keep them from raiding the nearby agribusiness fields.



Back at the coast, cormorants are abundant, but still can’t eat all the tilapia.



Nor could the Pelicans.  This next scene cried for B&W.



I spent only 100 hours at the Salton Sea, but had an amazing and prolific time.  Who knew the Wildlife Photographer's Dream smelled like a dead fish farting fertilizer in a bucket of rotten eggs?


Can you count all the cattle egrets?


Text and contents all ©John Sherman – no reproduction without prior written permission. 


rachel gaspers(non-registered)
Back in January we took the chance to check out the Salton sea to sea if our memories of it from about 20 years ago would hold up. Yup--it's hard to pretend the Fragrance de' Fish is not permeatingly present, but it's the same along a pacific northwest river when the salmon
are spawning to death (different aromas for different species, no doubt. ?)
Your photos, Verm, are, as always, amazingly composed thanks to your sublime eye---Thank you---love them. take care, r
These are the only Salton Sea photos I've ever seen. Now I know why. Nice job!!
Jo et Françoise Montchaussé(non-registered)
Tout simplement magnifique !
Jody Langford(non-registered)
John, those are spectacular! I have been drawn to dry, arid, places lately with saline lakes(mostly dry). The beauty of arid deserts, etc is unsurpassed in my opinion. Check out my website for Soda Lake/Carrizo Plain could go there and have a field day. Maybe I could meet you there and you could teach me a thing or two?
these are the best salon sea photos i have ever seen
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