Swimming the Dead Sea – Swapping Ice for Salt

Courtesy of Ram Barkai, founder of the International Ice Swimming Association.

Ram Barkai, founder of the International Ice Swimming Association, is well-known for his ice swimming exploits in his native South Africa, in the Southern Ocean in Antarctica, in Patagonia, in Great Britain, Ireland, Siberia and Murmansk, Russia.

But he is shifting gears from the ice to extremely salty water in the Dead Sea on December 15th.

This is his story of this transformation:

Growing up in Israel, by the water, living in the water, the Dead Sea is the only water mass I haven’t paid my respect. I swam the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, but I never considered [swimming in] the Dead Sea.

It was a no brainer when I heard about the swim. I knew it had to be done. The swim is a joint venture of two groups of MadSwimmers: MadSwimmer from South Africa and Ori Sela, Oded Rahav, and many others.

It is so nice to join someone else’s mad adventure and only worry about my training. It’s the nature of what I have been doing to be deeply involved in many adventures and events. Many times behind the scene…and many times in the front. It is hard work, none gratifying and usually end up costing you more. This Dead Sea Swim is a serious logistic operation from safety, to army, to fund-raising to permits, and responsivity. I take my hat off to all involved in making it happen. I thank them for allowing me to take part in this Salty Madness. I am honoured.

There will be swimmers from other countries and even Jordan and Palestine. The group will include some big names and some strong swimmers.* The salt will humble us all. I am certain of that. But hey, this is exactly why we are all here.

I love to know more about my adventures. For me the geography, the history and the science is an integral part of what attracts me to wonderfully Mad swims.

So in short, the following is my take:

Biblical Period: King David, Jericho, Book of Genesis, Abraham, Sodom and Gomorra, and many more happened around the Dead Sea.

Greek and Roman Period: Aristotle wrote about the remarkable waters. The Nabateans and others discovered the value of the globs of natural asphalt that constantly floated to the surface where they could be harvested with nets. The Egyptians were steady customers; they used asphalt in the embalming process that created mummies. The Ancient Romans knew the Dead Sea as Palus Asphaltites [34] (Asphalt Lake).

King Herod the Great built or rebuilt several fortresses and palaces on the western bank of the Dead Sea. The most famous was Masada where in 70 CE a small group of Jewish zealots fled after the fall of the destruction of the Second Temple. The zealots survived until 73 CE, when a siege by the X Legion ended in the deaths by suicide of its 960 inhabitants.

The town of Ein Gedi, mentioned many times in the Mishna, produced persimmon for the temple’s fragrance and for export, using a secret recipe. “Sodomite salt” was an essential mineral for the temple’s holy incense, but was said to be dangerous for home use and could cause blindness.

Chemistry: With 34.2% salinity in 2011, it is one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water, though Lake Vanda in Antarctica at 35%, Lake Assal in Djibouti at 34.8%, Lagoon Garabogazköl in the Caspian Sea up to 35%, and some hypersaline ponds and lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica such as Don Juan Pond at 44% have reported higher salinities.

I looked at Don Juan pond. It is 10 cm deep, 100 meters long and it never freezes, even with air temp of -50°C. It is too shallow to swim. Lake Vanda is an interesting body of water. It is in the New Zealand Territory, it is covered with 3-4 meters ice sheet and have a little opening in the summer of few meters by the beach. The Kiwis have started The Royal Lake Vanda Swimming Club. To join the club, one has to fully submerged in the ice waters naked. No restrictions on photographs are allowed; however, you are allowed one real fig leaf to cover whatever… It has to be real and fresh. That’s sounds like a bucket list item.

The other two lakes are in regions that forced me to use Google to add to my geography knowledge. Do you know where Turkmenistan or Djibouti are? Anyways, they are both fascinating lakes, but their salinity is very close to the Dead Sea, they have nothing like its history and they are not as nearly as low below sea level.

The Dead Sea is also the lowest swimmable place on earth surface at -430 meters. The Dead Sea is the real deal.

The Dead Sea surface water (35m) fluctuate with the weather between 37°C to 19°C. We are expecting 24°C. I am little worried about that and I hope it will be closer to 19°C. What’s interesting is that the lower water level is consistent 22°C (72°F) temperature and complete saturation of sodium chloride.

The Dead Sea salinity means around half the amount of oxygen in the water which explains the reason why there is no life in the water.

The main challenge in the Dead Sea Swim is the fact that the water chemicals are just too dangerous for your eyes and lungs. A drop of water in your eye will blind you and will burn as if you rubbed chilly in your eye – I have done both, unfortunately. We will have the support boats helping us.

A more permanent danger is your lungs. This cannot be rinsed by water on the spot. So, although few drops will just taste horrible, a mouthful can simply kill you by shutting down your lungs due to the salt content.

So we have the specialized mask that make us look like a cross between E.T. and Hannibal from Silence of the Lambs. It feels like someone just buried you alive. You can’t just rip it off because of the salt; there is a special procedure, so better deal with it and endure.

Apparently water temperature will be around 27°C; luckily we start at sunrise so hopefully it won’t be too hot handle. The heat seriously worrying me. 27°C is hot. The whole adventure is coming; it will be an epic adventure.

* The participating swimmers include Udi Erell, Adina Faur, Kimberley Chambers, Abigail Thomson, Avishag Turek, Ori Sela, Oded Rahav, Juandre Human, Jean Craven, Evan Feldman, Ben Enosh, Doron Amosi, Munqeth Mehyar, Brooke Penney, Dov Litvinoff, Nick Papageorge, Samuel Moran, Luc Chetboun, Karon Marx, Neil Macaskill, Herman van der Westhuizen, Hylton Lokitch, Gita Osrin, Ram Barkai, Erez Amir, Yussuf Muhammad Ahmad Matari, Olfat Haider, Rachel Sharon Lane, Qusai Abdullah khalaf Al-louzi, and Ahmed Khalil Ahmad Murad.

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