Given the complexity of the Salton Sea, it is easy to understand how an assortment of myths and mistruths can pop up from time to time. Some myths are playful and inconsequential, while others have pervasive ramifications if believed and spread. We here at Salton Sea Sense hope to shed light on some of these ideas, giving validity to the ones who deserve it, and debunk those that do not.

Here is a list of some of the most common myths surrounding the Sea.[1]

  • “A Spanish ship filled with pearls from the 16th century is buried at the bottom of the Salton Sea.”
  • “The Salton Sink would be dry right now were it not for the accident in 1905. Therefore, we should just let the Sea dry up.”
  • “It is not safe to swim in, nor is it safe to eat the fish.”

  • “The Salton Sea is a marginal ecological and economical resource.”
  • “All of the Salton Sea’s problems are the result of pollution from Mexico.”
  • “The Salton Sea is a toxic dump created by agricultural pesticides.”
  • “There are three-eyed frogs living at the Sea.”
  • “Geothermal energy is expensive and not competitive.”
Ship
Figure 1. Spanish Galleon, http://www.iro.umontreal.ca/~vaucher…

Let’s start with the first one, about the Spanish ship:

Now, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that around 500 years ago a ship could have made its way north through the Gulf of California all the way to where the Salton Sea currently exists. That route was navigable by water. And it is well accepted that Spanish conquistador Hernando de Alarcon was searching for the Seven Cities of Gold and ran across the Colorado River Delta.[2] It is also known that his expedition continued north via the Colorado River. Could Hernando de Alarcon’s ships have wrecked somewhere between the current Gulf of California coast and the Salton Sea? Maybe, but the furthest north Alarcon went up the Colorado River was present-day Yuma, AZ. Was he carrying pearls or other treasure with him? Almost definitely not. Alarcon was on an exploratory expedition, so he brought supplies, food, and weapons. And the kicker? He returned to New Spain, disappointed he did not find the Seven Cities of Gold. So we can say with certainty that one of Hernando de Alarcon’s ships is not buried under or near the Salton Sea.

But is it possible another ship full of treasure traveled to the Salton Sea? As scientists, we are trained to have a certain level of skepticism for absolute statements. It is what allows us to learn new things that may not agree with what we previously thought. As a result, we try not to say “never,” or “impossible,” or “always.” So, to keep my conscience clear, I will say it is extremely unlikely that there is any sunken, 500-year old ship at or near the Salton Sea, and even more unlikely that it would contain treasure.

We will tackle all of these eventually, so stay tuned!

Written by Drew Story


[1] Help Save the Sea, “Get Informed,” http://saltonsea.ca.gov/Help-Save-the-Sea/Get-Informed(accessed April 1, 2015.)
[2] Social Studies Fact Cards, “Hernando de Alarcon,” http://factcards.califa.org/exp/alarcon.html (accessed April 1, 2015.)