Mysterious balls found on Salton Sea beach



SALTON SEA – Along the shores of the Salton Sea, a group of researchers has recently been spotting something different among the bones of dead fish: balls of brownish waxy material baking in the sun.

The researchers have studied those balls and determined they’re made up of adipocere, a fatty substance left over from the flesh of dead fish after it’s broken down by bacteria in the lake.

Edward Simpson, a geology professor at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, said he first saw the waxy spheres littering a Salton Sea beach in March.

“We’re trying to figure out when they first appeared,” Simpson told The Desert Sun. He and other researchers presented their findings last week in Denver at an annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.

Their research was featured last week in a report by LiveScience’s OurAmazingPlanet. Simpson said he and his research partners plan to submit their findings to a scientific journal in the coming months.

The balls they found on the beaches varied in size. Some were as small as peas. Others were larger than golf balls.

The scientists collected them and examined the detritus under microscopes.

“We actually dug trenches down into the shoreline,” Simpson said. “And in those trenches, we don’t see these things. So to me, something has kicked in there that allows these unique things to develop. Something is different.”

The Salton Sea has for more than a century been sustained largely by agricultural runoff. But that runoff has been decreasing and is set to decline sharply in about four years. The lake has been shrinking and growing saltier, plagued by algae blooms and periodic die-offs of fish.

Douglas Barnum, who leads the U.S. Geological Survey’s Salton Sea Science Office, said he wasn’t previously aware of the fish balls described by the researchers. He said, however, that it has been well established that anaerobic bacteria are acting on decomposing fish and other organic matter in the Salton Sea.

In September 2012, a strong odor of hydrogen sulfide – which smells like rotten eggs – emanated from the Salton Sea and drew hundreds of complaints across Southern California.

Explaining that “big stink” event, Barnum said that the top several meters of the lake teem with living organisms – algae, bacteria, bugs and fish – and that when they die, they generally sink to the bottom. As they decompose, the process generates gases and compounds that usually remain near the bottom.

Barnum said the heat layers in the water typically act like a lid on a boiling pot, but that sometimes the gases can rise through the water and escape into the atmosphere.

Simpson said the waxy balls, which turned up on beaches on the northern side of the Salton Sea, don’t smell that bad. He said more of the “fish balls” were being shipped to him and that the researchers will carry out more studies.

Simpson hopes the research may yield clues about how the Salton Sea is changing as it grows saltier and as the tilapia increasingly struggle to survive.

“My concern is, is this a signal of some sort of crisis that’s going to occur there? I don’t know,” he said.