Bombay Beach in California is a town unlike any in the country. From vacation getaway, to art infused wasteland. What Bombay Beach lacks in creature comforts, it makes up for with hidden artworks and abandoned Americana.
The Death Of A Sea
We can’t tell the story of what happened to Bombay Beach, without first talking about the Salton Sea. Without it, none of the small towns or art would exist.
For hundreds of years the Colorado river would swell with water and empty out into Lake Cahuilla, just north of where Salton Sea is now. In an effort to control the water a dike was installed, but in 1905 that dike failed and created the 400 square mile “sea.”
The failure to divert the water caused flooding that lasted over two years. The water eventually settled into a natural basin south, now known as the Salton Sea. This massive source of freshwater attracted farmers from all over the area.
As the farmers began to water their crops, the state of California stocked the lake with several different species of fish in an effort to attract anglers. It worked. Quickly the Salton Sea was becoming a recreational hotspot, and investors were taking notice.
There were speedboat races, wild desert parties, and even celebrity appearances from stars like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Hotels were erected and even more yacht clubs popped up over the years. But the party in the desert wouldn’t last forever.
Slowly, the Salton Sea was dying. By 1970 the area was in serious trouble, and showing it’s first signs of major problems. What everyone had failed to realize was that the same farmers that settled the sea, were inadvertently killing it.
Agricultural runoff laced with pesticides and other waste seeped into the sea. With no way to flush out the toxins, the sea’s water began to turn toxic. The seas salinity sharply rose and caused toxic algae blooms which triggered massive fish die offs.
As hung over party goers began to wake up, they were greeted with the overwhelming stench of thousands of dead fish on the shoreline. This wasn’t good for their hangover, or for business.
Things only got worse. Much worse. By the 1990s the sea had receded in size and another massive die off was underway. Eutrophication had completely wiped out all the fish, and the dead fish carcasses littered the landscape as far as the eye could see.
Below is a satellite comparison of the water levels receding from 1984 to 2015.
To almost everyone this place was a cesspool, but to the local birds this was a free buffet. The rotting fish attracted hundreds of thousands of birds to the area, and unfortunately their death.
The eight million rotting tilapia infected over 150,000 birds with avian botulism, triggering one of the largest recorded bird die offs in history. There’s estimated to be over a million dead fish and birds covering the Salton Sea.
The yacht clubs and hotels were abandoned almost overnight. The small communities that had formed around the Salton Sea also began to dissipate. Now the high class vacation homes are now burned out husks of their former selves.
Bombay Beach Today
Bombay Beach is still home to about 300 residents who rely on golf carts to get around their small town. Local kids find entertainment by playing in the sea, or adventuring in the many abandoned buildings across the town.
When I visited, children were pretending to row an old marooned boat from the 1950s. It was caked in the middle of the sand. But their imaginations were hard at work, taking it far beyond the limits of Bombay Beach.
When walking down the dirt streets it’s hard to tell what’s abandoned and what’s actually being lived in. Squinty eyes peer from a window that I was sure was an abandoned home. I was wrong. Bombay Beach is a small, tough community of people who either can’t leave, or just don’t want to.
On the south end of the town, you’ll find dozens of pieces of art cobbled together from the remnants and junk left behind in the sea. Artists from all across California come here to express themselves and build freely.
A shipwreck is built from pieces of scrap and driftwood, which from a distance looked like a real wooden sailing ship. Strange metal figures jut out of the sand, and other odd primal art dots the shoreline.
If you venture into the blown out homes and abandoned structures, you might find an array of teddy bears lined up waiting to greet you in the apocalyptic landscape. Or one of my favorites, books suspended from fishing line that give the illusion they are levitating there in place.
If you can battle the harsh heat and relentless sand flies, Bombay Beach has many more amazing things to find, and even more stories to be told.
If you explore desert wastelands then be sure to check out the abandoned water park Lake Dolores.