Stinky fish balls at Salton Sea. Really stinky.


It was one thing to trace that urban stench last year back to the Salton Sea. It's another to commit to a scientific paper the precise reason that things sometimes smell so bad at the large, salty lake-like pool of water that formed accidentally in the desert south of Indio early in the last century. The key words here are rotting balls of fish flesh and corpse wax. From LiveScience:

DENVER — Boneyard beaches littered with dead tilapia line the shores of California's Salton Sea. Thousands of fish die here every year, suffocated when winds stir up low-oxygen water from the lake depths.

A fascinating and foul discovery on the skeleton-clad shores recently revealed the fate of the rest of the fish remains. Their flesh drops to the lake floor, where anaerobic bacteria transforms it into adipocere, also known as corpse wax, researchers from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania reported here Monday (Oct. 28) at the Geological Society of America's annual meeting.

Perhaps disturbed by fierce winds, globs of decomposed fish flesh recently rose from deep in the Salton Sea, coagulated into spheres on the lake surface and surfed the waves to shore, leaving the high-water line littered with thousands of sticky fish balls.

"We had putty knives with us, and we had to scrape them off our boots. That adhesive property is fundamental to adipocere," said Kutztown sedimentologist Edward Simpson, a study co-author.

Oh just one more. You know you can't eat anything now anyway.

Fresh fish balls were moist and malodorous, Simpson said, but older ones grew a dry, hard rind in the sun, like a cow patty....

Geochemical analysis then revealed the rotting balls were made of tilapia adipocere, a hard, waxy substance that feels slippery, like soap, Simpson said. Human adipocere is white. In the Salton Sea, tilapia adipocere is tinted orange to brown.


"It's amazing," Simpson said of the Salton Sea's smell during his 2013 trip. "It's evil. It was like licking down a car."

Bon appétit.

More by Kevin Roderick:
'In on merit' at USC
Read the memo: LA Times hires again
Read the memo: LA Times losing big on search traffic
Google taking over LA's deadest shopping mall
Gustavo Arellano, many others join LA Times staff
Recent Nature stories on LA Observed:
Prepping for the super bloom at Anza-Borrego
Climate change in the Coachella Valley
LA Observed Notes: Media notes, homeless ruling, scooters and lion cubs
Bimini Baths in 1927
Four lion kittens found and tagged in Simi Hills
Night of the living scorpion
Stunning: Mountain lion family on camera in the San Gabriels
Lunar eclipse, 5 a.m., Palm Desert