10 Salton Sea Paddler Questions - Answered

Salton Sea SUPLast March when we first met up with the organizers of the upcoming North Shore Xtreme, the first ever paddle race at the Salton Sea, Greg and I had lots of questions. And we are pretty sure you have the same questions. So we thought we would share with you what we learned as I paddled OC2 that day, and Greg SUP'd during a subsequent visit. Hopefully, anyone who is 'on the fence' about going to the race, can benefit from the 10 paddler questions and answers below. :)

1. Is the water condemned, contaminated, polluted?
Ironically, the water is termed "nutrient rich". At first we were like, "are you blowing smoke up our canoe?" But decided to get the full scoop on what this means. This term is used because the water is affected by agricultural farm run off and exceptionally high salinity of the Sea. So there is no contaminants like we normally think of with oil spills, trash pollution, and boats dumping their sewage. Our harbors should be so lucky. Now when we walked down to the water, did we want to bust out a straw and drink? No. However, we have paddled in harbors and bays throughout California and the same is said about most of those too. Especially some particular marinas, cruise ship harbors, and river mouths after a rain. So when we arrived here, we kept an open mind. As we came to find out, the water at the Salton Sea is not condemned but actually completely safe for recreation. So, to prove this, we tested the waters and paddled out form the race site out to the middle of the Salton Sea to see for ourselves. We did not grow any new limbs, nor did we lose any. In fact, once we pushed off, we pretty quickly felt like we were on any other body of water and the 'paddle-stoke' kicked in. Especially with the scenery all around us with mountains and desert-scape. We kept talking about how cool it was to be paddle pioneering these waters, and next think you know, our 3 mile test run ended up being a 7.5 miler as neither of us were in any hurry to end the paddle! (Check out our Garmin route and speeds here.)

Salton Sea OC2

2. Are there dead fish?
In all truthfulness, we saw some Talapia fish skeletons on the shorelines. When we inquired about this we learned that every five or so years there are algae blooms. During this time the algae consumes the oxygen in the water which can cause fish die offs. During our tour around the Sea, we saw many fisherman casting their lines at various places to catch these same species of Talapia fish. I asked if they eat them? Their reply was a very well-duh-of-course "yes". So, that tells me something.

3. Did it smell?
Where we camped, and stayed for the weekend (Salton Sea SRA where the race is at) we didn't really suffer whatsoever from the smells we had feared and expected. However, other areas we explored during our driving loop around the Sea, like several towns that have been abandoned, and where salt and algae have crusted onto structures and walls, yes. Pretty effective at making us want to do what we can to protect the areas that are fun to recreate, and restore the dilapidated ones.

4. Wasn't the Salton Sea a man-made mistake?
It is true, a long time ago in 1905, the Salton sea was created when engineered canals from the Colorado River broke and water flooded into the valley for two years before repairs were made. While originally fresh water, the salinity grew by the 60s due to the region being where a vast inland sea left salt deposits millions of years ago.

Salton Sea SUP

5. Why should Californians care about saving it if it is a 'mistake'?
As you can imagine, in the course of a 110 years a lot of people, animals and birds can make a home in a particular area. And that has happened. In fact the Salton sea is now one of the most important bird migration stops in the south west us. 425 species of birds use it on their annual migration.
In addition to being a huge impact to water birds, should the sea disappear humans would also suffer. Fine particulates at the bottom of the sea from agriculture runoff would be exposed and would go airborne in the wind. Scientists predict winds would carry the particulates of the dried Salton Sea to Phoenix and Los Angles causing massive air quality issues for millions of children and adults from dust clouds. As it stands, asthma cases in the surrounding valleys are already on the rise from the existing shrinking due to long term exposure.

6. Why is it receding?
Due to water apportions changes from the Colorado river and other sources, water is being routed away from the sea that historically have fed into the Sea and maintained its levels.

7. Is it fast to paddle on?
You will get the chance to be the final judge of that, but as a paddler, you know salt water is more buoyant than fresh water. And hence faster to paddle on since you don't sink as much. Well the salinity here is 44 grams per Liter. Compared to 35 grams per Liter in the Pacific Ocean. So 125% of the salinity of any ocean/harbor/bay paddler you normally go in. Get your Garmins charged and log into your MapMyRide accounts, because we expect some records to fall!

8. What are the wind and water conditions like?
Mornings seemed pretty tame in regards to wind. When we went and paddled in the middle of the day there was some texture and bumps on the water for us to score on which netted us an speed change 1-2 MPH when we turned direction. Later in the afternoon, the wind can rip down off the local mountains and create some fun runs. Then, much like the ocean, we noticed a nice evening glass-off.

As far as water temp, when we were there it was about what we were used to in SoCal Pacific Ocean, 56-61 degrees in the winter. I heard in the Summer it gets high 80s! Water visibility was 2-5 feet where we were paddling.

Salton Sea Sunset

9. Are there any tips on what to bring or do differently?

  • We found the beaches were not super soft sand, but more of the rocky barnacle shell kind of beach. So we plan to have booties, aqua-socks or flip-flops that can get wet so we don't have to worry so much about walking by the water.
  • Bring cradles, stands or something to set your water craft on. This goes for OC6 clubs too, as you 'might' be rigging in the parking lot so make sure you have canoes resting on something soft.
  • Not so much for this race, but if you ever paddle here on your own and go exploring out into the middle of the Sea, make sure you are regularly looking behind you to look for landmarks of the direction you came from. As with any new/foreign place, when you paddle away from shore, you want to make sure you know where home is when you return. And using something like "that set of 3 palm trees" won't cut it once you are far from shore.
  • Bring a jacket for the nights. It can get chilly, but warms up pretty fast in the mornings.
  • Get a banana shake form the banana museum about 10 minutes north of the race site. Actually, scratch that...get two and bring me one!

10. Why is this place, race and event cool?

  • Saltwater in the desert!
  • Lowest elevation of water. 234' below sea level!
  • Largest body of water in our state (yes bigger than Tahoe) . 343 sq. miles (which would contain city of San Diego).
  • Chance to be the first paddlers to ever race there!
  • Music, local artists, bbq, camping, paddlers.
  • Without our help in raising awareness, it could be gone soon!

Save the Salton Sea

We hope these answered some questions you might have had. The NSX event on Feb 11-12, 2017 is the second annual race. Last year it was a very fun weekend of camping and paddling. Seeing how much heart and passion have gone into making it a fun weekend, we are confident folks we will leave there very stoked they made the drive. The organizers' goal is that if more people know about the Salton Sea, and experience its beauty, more can be done to help save it.

The Salton Sea made honorable mention in our California's Top Places to Paddle Bucket list. Read about it and the others!

Share this post...
Previous post Next post


  • Dave Phillips - February 18, 2016

    I ended up going as a spectator. I took a friend. It was stellar. Perfect, clear, windless day with snow on San Gorgonio and San Jacinto Mountains above. My friend and I were blown away with how PERFECT everything was, dead tilapia notwithstanding. Will go back next year. Polynesia in the desert was superb, memorable. Thanks, guys. (I bought two of your shirts…)

  • Tina Cox-Prasad - February 02, 2016

    Awesome article – thank you for the information! Can’t wait to paddle North Shore Xtreme and be a part of this fabulous event!!!

Leave a comment

Paddle Pledge Non-Profits