Back in February 2016, an interesting proposition was put to me... would I be interested in joining a team of international swimmers to swim across the Dead Sea? A feat that had never before been accomplished, let alone attempted. Politics aside, one of the reasons why no one has ever swum across the Dead sea is because it is completely inhospitable for any life form.
Due to the exceptionally high sodium content if the water is ingested by humans, the outcome is severe sodium poisoning and extreme electrolyte imbalance, both of which are potentially fatal. The salt can cause blindness, and if the water is inhaled it can cause respiratory distress. Despite these known risks, a group of purpose-driven swimmers decided to hatch a crazy plan to get the world’s attention on an important cause: to raise international awareness for the depletion of the Dead Sea – a critical body of water for the region - with the hope of initiating legislation for the rehabilitation and protection of the Sea. A worthy cause, and I was honored for the invitation. Without hesitation, I said yes.
The likelihood of the swim occurring however, was not guaranteed. We needed official and unprecedented approval from both Jordan and Israel. For this reason the swim plan was not announced publicly until just a few months prior to the swim. Considerable logistical and diplomatic planning occurred behind the scenes by a devoted group of both Israelis and Jordanians. Without their persistence and hard work over the course of 18 months, this swim would have never been possible.
Shared by three communities - the Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians, the Dead Sea is truly remarkable. The salt concentration of the water fluctuates at 33% (ten times more saline than the ocean), allowing for exceptional buoyancy. It is the lowest point on earth, approximately 1400 feet below sea level. The air is oxygen rich, with the highest recorded atmospheric pressure on the planet. Ultraviolet rays are less intense than at sea level, making sunburn less likely despite the desert surroundings and very warm air temperatures. Additionally, there are minimal pollens and allergens in the air, attracting those people seeking relief from a variety of aliments for thousands of years. Many such therapeutic health claims are now backed by recent research. At over 3 million years old, the Dead Sea is indeed a magical place.
Modern tourists travel to the Dead Sea to experience floating effortlessly on the surface of the water while reading a newspaper or book. This bizarre but fun moment is a “must-have” photo opportunity. Visitors are warned to avoid water contact with their eyes, nose and mouth. You cannot dive into the water. Freshly shaven skin is to be avoided for even the most minuscule cut will cause excruciating pain. Because the salt has crystalized on the floor of the sea you must have water shoes or flip flops to enter the water, or risk a very slow and painful entry with the possibility of experiencing deep gashes on the bottom of your feet from the sharp and uneven surface of the salt.
In planning the swim, we knew the 10 mile (15 km) journey would take some hours. Because no one had ever been in the Dead Sea water for any length of time, it was unknown what the effect would be on our bodies. Part of the plan therefore was to bring aboard a highly experienced medical team, including a top Israeli intensive care surgeon. Unlike traditional marathon swims with goggles, we would have to wear full face masks to protect our eyes, nose and mouth from the water. The day my own specialized mask arrived in the mail, my irrational fear of tight spaces set in immediately, and I wondered how on earth I would swim 5 minutes wearing this mask, let alone 8-10 hours. Though committed to the cause and the swim, I resigned myself to the possibility that this swim might not make my top ten list of wise decisions…