Civilization drops off quickly when you drive east from Los Angeles on Highway 10 and the desert takes over. Go south on the 86 Expressway to CA-111 and eventually you’ll end up in what’s left of Bombay Beach on the shores of the Salton Sea. Once a desert resort and playground of the Hollywood elite in the 1950s, the inland sea has since experienced varying degrees of death and most of the residents, quite literally, just walked away from their homes long ago.

Salton Sea photo
Photo by oliver.dodd

Up until just recently tourists would stop to pick through the many abandoned trailers in Bombay Beach, which were kind of a time capsule. Recently the city cleaned out many of the old trailers but there’s still plenty of interest to see in the area. A little further down the road you’ll come to Slab City, the site of a former Marine base. When the base was closed the buildings were demolished, leaving the concrete slabs from which the area derives its name. If you want to get away from it all, Slab City is where you go. Even the cops don’t want to go there and the collection of crooks, oddballs and conspiracy theorists who live there, collectively called Slabbers, prefer it that way.

Over the centuries the Salton Sea has been born, died and born again. Due to flooding events, both natural and man-made, the sea has been, over the years, larger and fresher, then smaller and saltier. Since the entire area is 275 feet below sea level, much of the area surrounding the sea has, at one time or another, been underwater. The waters and surrounding desert still cover a collection of old wooden buildings, the remains of the salt factory and miles of 1800s vintage railroad tracks and, quite possibly, a king’s ransom in black pearls aboard a lost Spanish galleon.

As far fetched as it sounds, this wouldn’t be the first time a shipwreck full of treasure was found in the desert. In the 1600s the sea was much bigger and navigable by smaller ships to areas farther north than where the Salton Sea is located today. What we know for sure was the De La Cadena family had a pearl diving monopoly in Baja California in the early 15th century. According to the legend Spanish explorer Juan de Iturbe sailed a shallow-drafted caravel up the Gulf of California on a pearl-diving expedition. Sometime during the journey a freak high tide carried him across a narrow strait into Lake Cahuilla, the ancient name for the sea.

Those waters were home to English and Dutch pirates, so it’s not beyond the realm of plausibility that Iturbe, either searching for pearls or attempting to elude pirates in deeper drafting ships, might have been able to get a ship that far inland. Some of legends say he just got stuck, others that an earthquake stranded the ship and its millions in treasure in Lake Cahuilla. The story goes that Iturbe beached the ship and hoofed it to the nearest Spanish settlement.

Since then there have been numerous sightings of the remains of the ship in areas which would now be under the Salton Sea today. There have also been rumors that the treasure had been recovered or plundered over the years but, to date, there have been no sightings or recoveries by reliable sources. In 1870 prospector Charley Clusker claimed to have run across a ship carved with crosses and a broken mast in the midst of boiling alkaline mud springs. Another newspaper account ten years later indicated that Clusker was still looking for the ship and trying to raise money for another expedition to hunt for the elusive prize.

It’s a certainty the Salton Sea covers and corrodes a lot of secrets. There are at least 24 WWII vintage aircraft at the bottom of the sea, which used to be a bomb training area. Pilots flew out of nearby Thermal Airport, since renamed Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport, but most people still call it Thermal.

Given that the Salton Sea is saltier than the Pacific Ocean, it’s unlikely any precious metals treasures will ever be recovered. But an old wooden ship full of millions in pearls, well, that’s a different story. That might still be down there.