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Dead set on the Dead Sea

For the diver who’s done it all, this place is one for the logbook

Text by Michel Braunstein
Photography by Michel Braunstein & Jacki Soikis 

Photo by: Jacki Soikis - www.soikis.co.il

 

I’ve had the good fortune to dive in many parts of the world. It’s the variety of experiences I’ve enjoyed that keeps my eye sharp for the unusual, for the dive destination that will add to that experience. The Dead Sea was such a place. It’s not likely to be found on the average diver’s ‘must see’ list. It wasn’t on mine, despite the fact it’s pretty much in my own backyard. And so for all of the above reasons I became dead set on diving the Dead Sea.

Everything about this place is unusual, unique even. For one thing this inland sea is 1,400 feet (426.5m) below sea level. It’s the lowest (dry) place on Earth, even before you go into the water. And its deepest point is 1,237 feet (377m), which makes it the deepest hypersaline ‘lake’ in the world, because it’s landlocked. Also called the Salt Sea, it’s situated in the Jordan Rift Valley. It borders Jordan to the east, Israel and the Palestinian Authority to the west and runs 34 miles (55km) in length and 11 miles (18km) at its widest point.

Decompression Tips for the Dead Sea: When you are on the shore at the Dead Sea, you’re already at the equivalent pressure of 3 meters below surface of the ocean or -3m mean sea level (msl). If your dive computer does not automatically compensate for this difference, you will need to set your computer for -3m (-10 feet). And due to the high salinity, the Dead Sea water is much denser than ocean water; each 1m of depth in the Dead Sea is equivalent to 1.3m in the ocean. Hence, at a measured depth of 10m, your gauge/computer will show 13m (10m x 1.3m equivalent). Finally, when leaving the Dead Sea, your journey will take you to higher altitudes (think flying and diving). Depending on your dive depth and bottom time, it may take up to 4 hours before you can leave the dive site.

 

High Sodium Dive
Salinity in this world hot spot reaches 35 percent! You’ve likely seen those photos of people floating in the Dead Sea reading a newspaper, bobbing high in the water as if they were wearing some kind of flotation device. That kind of salinity, though it’s not the highest in the world, poses a challenge when it comes to diving down into the water and staying there for a while. Lake Assal in Djibouti at about 40 per cent is the saltiest body of water in the world, though I’ve heard there are some hypersaline lakes in Antarctica that may rival or even exceed that number.

To put this in context, Dead Sea salinity is in the order of ten times greater than the ocean at 3.5 per cent. There’s some room for movement with these numbers, but the point is that a dive there is not like any you’ve made before. You need between 90 and 110 pounds (40-50kg) of weight to sink, depending on body size. That’s a lot and is spread around with blocks around the waist, the front of the body and on the BCD harness.

This high concentration of salt also makes the Dead Sea rather oily, which means gear must be thoroughly rinsed post dive, especially an exposure suit, which is worn for overall protection and thermal insulation. As you might imagine the water doesn’t offer the best visibility, which fluctuates.

Dead Sea Ups and Downs: The low level of the Dead Sea today is due to evaporation. Rainwater in this very dry, drought stricken part of the world is diverted for use in residential, industrial and agricultural applications. The below ground freshwater that once fed the Dead Sea is also routed away to populated areas though there remains a natural inflow to the Northern Sea, which can be seen in a video by scientists at Ben Gurion University. See http://youtu.be/MHLiobkTUd0 or search ‘First Scientific Diving Expedition at the Dead Sea’ on YouTube. Because this is one of the hottest places on Earth, water temperature can vary by about 4 degrees C in just a few hours in shallower depths. Water temperatures range from about 60°F to 89°F (15-32°C) from January to August and can get as high as 95°F (35°C) in August.

 

Dry Eyes Important
A full facemask is essential to protect the eyes, in particular, and the mouth and the rest of the face as well. We organized a full facemask pool dive in advance of our Dead Sea dip so that we had some familiarity with this equipment. When the time came to hit the water my dive buddy and I met with instructors from Dead Sea Divers who equipped us with 5mm suits and a refresher drill in the use of the masks that included a strong reminder to avoid getting water in the eyes. We navigated a few salt-crusted rocks and once at water’s edge we donned the weight, the belts, the BCDs, all of which was very heavy and uncomfortable.

It was not easy to descend even with all that weight. It was also a job finning around in this dense water. As we reached 25 feet or so (8m) I began looking around and as an avid photographer began sizing up my surroundings with photos in mind. A tall pillar of salt showed promise so I checked it over for the best angle on a later dive when I’d have camera in hand.

Photo by: Michel Braunstein - www.michelbraunstein.com

 

It was just my luck that a drop of water did seep into my mask and then my left eye. This was not pleasant, as advertised. I couldn’t open the eye and there was nothing I could do to remedy the situation except signal our instructor. A trip to the surface and a thorough freshwater rinse was the solution.

For the record, you won’t find coral in the Dead Sea, as I find whenever I go to the Red Sea or in some other equatorial water. The Dead Sea is aptly named. There’s no life. Just a vast expanse of white salt formations that look rather like bleached coral. Occasionally we’d see a salt ‘cathedral’ that added to the otherwise uniform bottom relief. Sometimes we’d see walls forming cuts and gullies, or a cave would appear. But in general this was an otherworldly underwater landscape. It’s a truly unique experience.

After a couple of dives in this very unusual place you might think you’ve seen it all. But Avi Bresler would disagree. He’s the owner of Dead Sea Divers and says the ancient, holy land waters are “almost mystical…I can’t imagine going even one week without a dive in the Dead Sea,” he said.

If you’re visiting this part of the world there’s lots to see that include other diving options and plenty to see topside. The fortification at Masada is truly ancient history that overlooks the Dead Sea. Jerusalem is fairly close at hand and a few hours drive to the south are superb  Red Sea dive sites near Eilat in Israel and Aqaba in nearby Jordan. The historical and archaeological treasure of Petra, in Jordan, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site also not far from the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side. There are fabulous desert canyons and marvelous vistas in this region and just an hour north is the Mediterranean Sea.

This is my home and I know I’ll return to the Dead Sea. The diving it offers is extreme but strangely compelling.

Photos by Michel Braunstein - www.michelbraunstein.com

 

Dive Stores
Dead Sea Divers is the only company operating at the Dead Sea, now almost 15 years in business. They provide instruction, equipment and guide services. Go to: www.deadseadivers.com 

Dive Sites
The most popular dive site and the easiest to reach is located close to the hotels in the southern part of the sea. At some places in the North Sea, it’s possible to see the springs. In this area of freshwater inflow you sink faster because salinity is diluted. Some caves have been discovered but they are relatively deep. They are accessible only by boat.

 

 

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