People swim in the salty waters of the Dead Sea, from Jordan to Israel, on November 15, 2016. Ariel Schalit, AP

Swimmers Cross Dead Sea for First Time, Carefully

Wearing protective snorkels, swimmers from around the world made their way from Jordan to Israel, across one of the earth's saltiest bodies of water.

It was a swim across a lake, but none of the participants from around the world dared dive into this body of water.

In merely swimming from one side of the Dead Sea to the other – from Jordan to Israel – swimmers did something that has never been done before: crossing what is one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water.

Two groups of swimmers came together for this unusual challenge, completed over the last 24 hours. The Israelis among them had broken the Guinness world record when they undertook a relay swim 380 kilometers from Cyprus to Israel. They hosted members of a group called MadSwimmer, who had swum in a frozen lake on a 6,000 meter-high mountain. Other extreme swimmers from around the world make an exotic mix – a joint swim of 16 kilometers across the Dead Sea from Jordan to Israel. No one has ever swam across the Dead Sea before.

In addition to the physical challenge, the project, sponsored by EcoPeace Middle East and the Tamar Regional Council, aims to raise awareness of the fragile state of this lowest and saltiest body of water on earth, which is receding at the rate of one meter a year.

How does one swim in water that is 10 times saltier than regular sea water? One essential piece of equipment is a special snorkel mask that allows swimmers to immerse their faces in the water, while keeping the salt away from their eyes and mouths.

Nir Elias / Reuters

“Swallowing one cup of this water is equivalent to a viper bite in terms of damage to the nervous system, and that’s why there are more drownings in the Dead Sea than in the Mediterranean,” says Uri Sela, one of the leaders of the swim challenge. “One little sip dries out your brain,” added Sela, a senior swimming instructor and owner of a chain of swimming instruction centers.

Sela noted that before the swim, organizers were worried that swimmers would be reluctant to admit that they weren’t feeling well, would press on, and then suddenly collapse. “There is a process of osmosis in which pressure between the body and the salt equalize and salts are drawn out of the body,” Sela explained.

To avoid that, the swimmers took a break every half hour to drink and every hour to eat – a protein or energy snack, a slice of bread with tahini or honey. “You have to revive the cells all the time. The body has to consume food all the time or the salt will draw all the moisture out,” Sela said.

When the swimmers stopped to rest, they removed their masks and were doused with fresh water on their arms and face.

Even experienced swimmers had to get used to a different way of swimming in the Dead Sea, not using their legs because of the water’s buoyancy. “You can’t move your legs. Any movement of the legs puts tremendous pressure on the back muscles.” Riding high on the water, Sela says, makes the swimmer feel like “a boat with an oar.”

At 3 A.M., before starting out, some of the swimmers were given an EKG and blood tests, the results of which were compared with post–swim tests, in order to understand what impact salt has on the nervous system. At 4 A.M. they were bussed to the beach, given a last safety briefing and boarded boats for the Jordanian side.

At 6 A.M., the swimmers set out from the beach at Jordan’s Wadi Mujib and began swimming toward the Israeli side. “The last practices were wild. Everybody was screaming and excited over how beautiful it was, with the boats in an arrow formation like birds, a different feeling, the horizon, the color of the water, the mountains and the danger that might await us there,” Sela posted before leaving.

On Tuesday at 1:30 P.M. after more than seven hours in the salty water, the swimmers reached Ein Gedi. As expected, 80 percent made it the whole 16 kilometers, while the rest stopped and boarded the accompanying boats.

“It was amazing,” Avishag Turk, who last year swam a continuous 42.2 kilometers in the Mediterranean, posted. “This isn’t like the Mediterranean. There’s something much calmer and more tranquil. On the one hand it’s easier to swim because you float and use only your arms, and on the other everything is burning so much I can’t describe it.”

“This is the Dead Sea,” said Sela, “but we received life and fell in love with the place.”

Gali Tibbon / AFP
Gali Tibbon / AFP
Gali Tibbon / AFP
Nir Elias / Reuters
Nir Elias / Reuters

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