The Salton Sea is an inland sea, situated in a desert basin 236 feet below sea level and lying directly on the San Andreas earthquake fault in Imperial County.
It was created in 1905, after engineering mistakes caused a levee break that turned the canals into rivers that fed the Alamo and New Rivers. As a result, floodwaters from the Colorado River rushed into the Salton Sink and created a flood that lasted two years before engineers could make repairs.
During its early years, Salton Sea attracted vacationers, fishermen and boaters, and in the 1950s, several small resort towns and businesses sprouted up around its shores. Today, it has become a brackish sewer where fish are dying because of the increased salinity and pollution caused by agricultural runoff and evaporation. The once-healthy sea is rapidly dying, and the towns and resorts have become ghost towns, slowly eroding into the briny sands.
However, the government is making plans to restore the Salton Sea.
But this is nothing new for this vast desert sink that was once covered by Lake Cahuilla, a huge body of water five times larger than the Salton Sea.
Lake Cahuilla once covered a large portion of Imperial and Coachella valleys. It measured 2,000 square
surface miles, and was 114 miles long, 33 miles wide and 315 feet deep. It has also been known as the Blake Sea, Widney Sea and Lake Leconte, and was formed not by human error, but by natural forces and changes in climate that influenced the flow of the Colorado River.
For millions of years, the waters of the Colorado River cut deeper and deeper into the Grand Canyon and then flowed into the Sea of Cortez, carrying tons of silt and creating a huge river delta. Eventually, the delta built up so high that it dammed the river flow, and the course of the river was diverted westward, where it began flowing into the Salton Sink, creating a huge freshwater lake.
Researchers believe this cycle happened many times, as indicated by the levels of ancient wave cuts that are visible on nearby mountain slopes. Other evidence of the ancient lake’s existence includes shoreline deposits of water-worn pebbles, seashells, sand bars, salt-encrusted playas and travertine (freshwater lime) deposits.
Inflow at Lake Cahuilla balanced evaporation, thus maintaining the freshwater lake. However, if the inflow was reduced due to a change in the course of the Colorado River, the lake would slowly dry up and become brackish until the next cycle. If the flow from the Colorado into Lake Cahuilla increased following a series of flood years, earthquakes or volcanic activity, it would begin the cycle again.
The Algodones Dunes that border the ancient lake’s eastern shoreline were created by sand blowing from the lakebed during periods when the lake was dry. Today, these shifting dunes have become a popular playground for campers and their dune buggies.
But many years ago, Lake Cahuilla was a place occupied by the Cahuilla, Kumeyaay and Cucapa tribes, who came there to catch fish, trap waterfowl, harvest salt for curing meat, gather tulles for building shelters, and collect mesquite beans, seeds and desert herbs. Considerable evidence of their existence — including stone fish weirs, old campsites, firepits and artifacts — can still be found in places surrounding the ancient lake site.
When Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza came through the area in 1774, the lake did not exist. Native Americans of the 18th and early 19th centuries told legends of their ancestors visiting a large lake where fish and other game were plentiful, and that the water vanished “poco a poco” (little by little).
They also told stories of the existence of a strange ship buried in the sand, having a snake’s head at one end and round wooden objects (shields) on the sides that indicated it was a Viking longship. Tales persisted about the existence of this ship and of strange, come-from-afar men with beards and blue eyes who landed the ship long ago.
Dane and Mary Roberts Coolidge, in their book “The Last of the Seris,” wrote how the Seri tribe of Tiburon Island in the Sea of Cortez told the tribal legend of “giants who once visited their island in longboats
driven by sweeps (sails). These yellow-haired strangers wore heavy clothes, built houses by the sea and hunted whales with spears.”
They described, as translated, “The beautiful wife of the captain who had long braided red hair and how the strangers remained on the island for a year and a half and then sailed away to never return.”
As related in “The Wanderling,” Myrtle Botts of Julian, and her husband, Luis, claimed they found the Viking shipwreck in 1933, while camping at Agua Caliente Springs in the Anza-Borrego Desert, just west of the Salton Sea. By then, the wreckage was partially buried and badly weathered by sun and sandstorms, and only circular depressions remained where the shields had once been. By the time they returned to examine the ship closer and take photographs, an earthquake had covered the area, and they could never find the location.
However, based on their story, the site would have been somewhere on the southwest shore of ancient Lake Cahuilla.
Historians tell how the Vikings, led by Eric the Red, were known to have begun their westward sea exploration about 985 A.D., at which time they landed their longboats in Greenland. There, they established three separate settlements on the southwest coast, where they farmed, raised cattle and traded. Archaeological evidence from old garbage dumps indicates changes in their diet, most likely due to changes in the climate. They remained there until about 1360, or after the beginning of the Little Ice Age (1300–1850 AD), when it’s believed it was becoming too cold for farming to continue.
Nevertheless, because the Vikings were also daring explorers, they may have attempted further exploration sometime during their years on Greenland. Evidence shows that Leif Erickson led them to Newfoundland in 1000 AD, almost 500 years prior to Columbus arriving in the New World. However, due to the warm climate during the years they occupied Greenland, the Northmen may have been able to sail through the Northwest Passage when it was ice-free and then enter the open sea, where they followed the coastline southward until they reached the tip of the Baja California Peninsula and steered into the Sea of Cortez.
This could explain the encounter with the Seri tribe on Tiburon Island, from where they took their shallow-draft longboat north, into the Colorado River and eventually into Lake Cahuilla, where the ship became stranded or damaged and had to be abandoned. It’s said that to this day, many of the natives around Sonora, Mexico, near Tiburon Island have light skin and blue eyes.
There are other legends of a lost pearl ship in the same region. According to Spanish records, in the year 1612, three ships were commissioned by the governor to be built in Acapulco and used to harvest pearls in the coastal waters of Mexico. These shallow-draft ships, called “caravels,” had square sails and rows of 13 oars.
One pearl ship under the command of Juan de Iturbe made its way into the Colorado River, and then into Lake Cahuilla. Like the Viking ship, it may have become grounded or disabled in the shallow lake and had to be scuttled. There are many tales speculating on the fate of the cargo of pearls, and the location and sightings of the ship.
Starting in 1850, scores of articles about the pearl ship were written and reprinted in major newspapers, magazines and scientific journals. In one account, a Cahuilla woman said her ancestors remembered that, “Men came in a white bird. It stayed for a long time and the bird’s wings fell off and the sand covered it up.” Other accounts describe how Charlie Clusker, a prospector, found and lost the ship near the mouth of San Felipe Creek, and how Nels Jacobson, an El Centro farmer, found the shipwreck and some treasure, and used the old timber to build a pig shed. The L.A. Daily News reported in August 1870, that Col. Albert S. Evans sighted the ship in 1863, buried in the sand near Dos Palmas at a location now beneath the Salton Sea.
But probably the most significant visible evidence of the lost pearl ship is a petroglyph scratched on a boulder in nearby Pinto Canyon that depicts a square-mast ship with rows of oars.
Though stories of adventure and lost treasure are often embellished and modified each time they’re repeated, there is always a kernel of truth in every story — and that’s especially true of these intriguing tales of the mysterious shipwrecks of the desert.