You don’t have to know how to swim in order to reach an island in Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). A bathing suit is not required either. A few dozen meters from the beach at Kibbutz Ma’agan an island was revealed as the waters receded due to a shortage of rainfall. The lake surface is now at 214.24 meters below sea level. If you’re willing to wade in thigh-deep you can reach the island without swimming.
You can reach the island by going to the kibbutz’s beach, which used to be covered in water. You head south from the improvised shelters that have sprouted near the water’s edge, walking along the tall vegetation. After a few dozen meters, walking in some boggy mud and then on some stones, you reach the isolated and pristine island. The scenery is different than the usual Israeli view of empty soda cans, scattered plastic bottles and used cutlery. The island is still clear of all that, with only thick vegetation to be found, with a meter-wide strip of beach around the island.
On the island, a roaming dog waslks around and an inhabitant can be seen not far behind - a person with long blond hair, a beard and mustache on a mud-covered face, used as protection against the sun. He doesn’t reveal his name or age: “I don’t believe in chronological age” he says, agreeing only to saying that he’s a drifter. Last week he slept there twice, happy not to encounter other visitors that would disturb his peace. He points to a buoy at the island’s edge, noting that it was still floating last time he visited the island.
Ely Kedem, a kibbutz veteran, notes that kibbutz members used to go to the lake shore and enter the water directly. “We’d go to the beach and enter the water, which immediately reached your shoulders,” he reminisces nostalgically. He says that the wide fluctuations in water levels began over the last 30 years. “Suddenly the lake would recede. No one knew there was an island and suddenly we saw it. Part of the time it was a peninsula.”
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According to Dr. Doron Merkel, the head of the Kinneret Department at the Water Authority and an adjunct professor at the Geography Department at Haifa University, the island, composed of hard rock, was formed thousands of years ago. “The Kinneret, which formed 20,000 years ago, was rounder. It then grew southwards, taking on the shape of a violin,” explains Merkel. “The rock in the southern part is soft and erodes quickly but at the island there is a harder spot that erodes slower, thus being preserved.”
Water Authority spokesman Uri Shor estimates that by the end of the summer reaching the island won’t be entirely water-free, with the water between the shore and the island reaching a depth of 20 centimeters. “By the end of the summer all the water sources, including creeks, springs, aquifers and the lake itself will be at their worst condition in years,” says Shor. “Some sources are breaking records for lowest flow levels. The surface of the Kinneret is far below the lowest red line and until the rainy season starts it’s expected to drop further, possibly reaching the black line that was set.”
Shor warns that the situation is dimmer than it was in 2001. At that time water was pumped out of the lake into the national water system, but that has almost completely stopped. “The levels are low despite the almost complete cessation of pumping water out. If we were taking water out, the level would drop below the black line and the lake would be finished.”
Despite the gloomy picture and the accelerated rate of growth of the island Merkel looks at the half-full part of the picture – the water quality which, despite dropping levels, remains at reasonable standards. “Salinity is high, and has risen over the last years due to a shortage of an influx of fresh water, but a diversion of a salt-water spring near Tiberias, which began last year, is yielding good results, with a slower rise in salinity. Moreover, we haven’t seen a significant rise in blue algae, the main threat to the water’s salinity, and this is encouraging. We prevent any influx of sewage and introduce one million tilapia fry every year, which maintains the water quality at reasonable levels despite the low levels of fresh water inflow.”
“We know for sure that water levels haven’t dropped below what they were in the past,” summarizes Merkel. “The lowest ever level was measured in 2001, reaching 214.87 meters below sea level. That year the island was joined to the shore and became a peninsula one could reach without getting wet at all. The forecast is for a rainier winter this year and even if the flow in feeder streams is low there is more flexibility in managing the water and in pumping water into the national carrier system.” He hopes this is the last year the island is exposed. “It’s time to bid it farewell.”