Generations of over-farming, pollution and poor environmental policies have led to the the degeneration and depletion of the Dead Sea between Jordan to the east and Israel to the west. To raise awareness and bring people and cultures together to preserve, protect and enhance the marine environment and to stop the degeneration and depletion of the Dead Sea, the Madswimmer teamed up with Ori Sela to organize the Dead Sea Swim.
The Dead Sea Swim is the lowest marathon swim in mankind’s history and Part 2 of the High/Low Challenge of the Madswimmer group from South Africa.
Last year, Madswimmer did the highest swim in history in the Andes Mountains at 5,909m (19,386 feet) above sea level. Now, the next chapter is the lowest swim at 423m (1,388 feet) below sea level in the Dead Sea, a 16 km crossing from Jordan to Israel. The swim is life-threatening in waters 10 times saltier than the ocean. They will be the first group ever to do this unprecedented swim.
They are doing this all in their spare time…35 ordinary people doing extreme charity swims in order to make a difference in children’s lives. For this swim, Madswimmer is joining forces with an international group including Israelis, swimming to raise awareness and driving change to stop the depletion of the Dead Sea whose water levels are dropping at an alarming rate of almost a meter per year. We stand a chance of losing this natural wonder if there is no further intervention.
Madswimmer is also making this message known that all money raised by the South African Madswimmers will benefit our children’s charities.”
There are significant dangers in swimming across the Dead Sea:
* Its salt content is ten times that of the normal ocean. This creates viscosity in the water due to the mineral content.
* It is considered to be the second most dangerous place to swim in Israel; the density of the water makes it hard for you to turn your body over if you swim face down.
* There can be severe sodium poisoning and electrolyte imbalances from even swallowing a few drops of the Dead Sea.
* The salt content can blind you and cause respiratory distress and possibly death, if it gets into your lungs.
* Headaches and breathing difficulty from the exertion are common.
How do the participants train for the Dead Sea Swim is unique. Feldman explains, “Other than their daily training schedule, the team underwent intensive training with worldwide hydrotherapy expert, Ori Sela.
They have also had to purchase a special French-designed full face protective snorkelling mask that covers their eyes, nose and mouth. The mask will enable them to completely immerse their faces in the Dead Sea.
We aim to stop every 30 minutes to take hydration, clean the mask and face, and continue. The salt will build up quickly by drying on our backs and we will need to spray this off with fresh water. We need to be clinical as an itch in the eye can result you using a salted hand to wipe – then you are out. So we need to train and understand all the issues before.
We will have 3 special unit trauma doctors with us. Each boat will be assigned to each pod of swimmers. Each pod must stick together and maintain space as we don’t want the mask being kicked off. Its very easy to be disoriented if you find yourself without a mask all of a sudden and drowning becomes a reality.
Responsibility and calmness are key. This is not a race; we need to all finish safely.”
The mask makes swimming difficult for a number of reasons:
1. There is no turning of the head as the head stays down
2. There is a pain from wearing the mask over a long period
3. The C02 buildup takes place within the mask
4. The mask reduces forward momentum
5. The head position needs to be specific or the auto valve locks as a result
6. The mask leads to a much slower and more difficult stroke
7. There is no kick and no use of the legs with only the arm stroke. Legs are used to keep you balanced and from flipping over.
8. Training started with only a couple of lengths at a time and was increased progressively
9. Training was conducted with fins and a buoyancy compensator in order to assist with the feeling of floating
10. Training continued every second day to daily sessions with one 6 km swim a week and 4-5 harder intense sessions with sprints.
Feldman describes the protective mask stroke. “It is freestyle without using a kick. The legs keep us balanced in position. Luckily, when we need to take our masks off to drink and get fresh water, we can almost stand in the water or else it would have been impossible to try bob and do this. The wind can turn your back and arms to a sand board and it is very difficult and very painful. We will use a lot of Vaseline to protect the creases on our bodies.
Pre-swim training with the masks takes place in swimming pools. Individuals train on their own wherever they are based (e.g. Pavillion swimming pool for the Capetonians). The first Dead Sea group training swim will take place the day before the actual swim in the Dead Sea.”
Feldman has been all over the world attempting these extreme swims in the name of charitable actions. He explained why he and his fellow Madswimmers are so motivated to attempt the Dead Sea Swim. “Normally, Madswimmer has a twofold reason for attempting these challenges – they are both a charity and personal challenge. But this swim has an additional element. As a group, we are also focused on change in order to stop the depletion of the Dead Sea. Awareness has an expiration date – we want to bring attention that will force change.
The Dead Sea is so named because its high salinity discourages the growth of fish, plants, and other wildlife. This salt lake resides in a depression in the Earth’s crust, where the continents of Africa and Asia are pulling away from each other. It has pulled in visitors and industries for thousands of years.
The Dead Sea is the lowest surface feature on Earth, sitting more than 400 meters below sea level. The extremely dry climate, diversion of streams for farming irrigation, and heavy handed salt evaporation projects in the south have led to the sea losing over 1 meter per year.”
The popular image of the Dead Sea focuses on the beauty of the Dead Sea. Visitors float on its water and cover themselves with mud. However, there is a more urgent issue than tourism. Feldman continues, “The Dead Sea is dying. Some of the people there are very reliant on tourism and will face bankruptcy. There is little to no media coverage on this issue.
The Dead Sea is a unique natural site being depleted by businessmen looking for the natural resources within. The extraction process for these materials require evaporating the water in pools to collect the deposited minerals. These industries continue to grow and become a greater contributor to the shrinking of the Dead Sea. This depletion has a far-reaching impact. As the Dead Sea recedes, the freshwater aquifers running along its perimeter also decrease. This freshwater can slowly dissolve salt deposits left behind, causing a disruption in the earth and creating sinkholes.
As the Dead Sea shrinks and sinkholes become more common in the area, local farming communities are displaced, the region’s water scarcity increases, the tourism industry continues to struggle, and the surrounding habitat is degraded.
So the solutions are complex. They are doable, but require laws to be enacted and funds to be allocated. Desalination needs to occur to pump fresh water from the Red Sea to the Sea of Galli. This feeds the Jordan River – alleviates the drying up of the aquifers and makes its way into the dead sea. No2 is changing the ancient method extraction. Right now, extraction is simply done by pumping water out the Dead Sea into special lakes where once the water is evaporated, we are left with the remaining minerals. New modern methods would pump the water out, extract the salts, and pump the water back in. The Jordan River is the holiest river for the three main faiths and right now it serves as a sewage system. The fresh water would assist in alleviating this issue.
The Dead Sea has the highest concentration of oxygen in the air throughout the world; this is opposite to Madswimmer’s high altitude ascent and swim. It is a spiritual desert where there is peace and quiet that allows you can hear your heartbeat. When was the last time you heard your heartbeat? It is like the belly button of creation. If it disappears, we fear for humanity.
The sinkholes are so huge that we cannot save the sea totally. Some are 500 meters wide. Roads, homes, and farms vanish like in a Harry Potter movie. We need to halt the situation. The sea is declining by 1 meter per year. Go look out your window at a tall building of 30 meters; that is what the Dead Sea has lost in the last 30 years. There used to be amazing wildlife around the area including jaguars. There are believed to be 5 or 6 jaguars left. They have vanished.
So the local council and communities have raised money to assist the group with this cause. They realise that change is needed. We spoke to Virgin and we managed to get their ear. They totally understand this project and support it. They have put their commitment and name behind the initiative. Ambassadors from Spain, Denmark, South Africa, and Australia have been invited and will be attending the occasion. The head of the council for the area is very excited and will make up part of the team.
So we are trying to put together a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It has been touch and go. The planning and logistics are a year in the making and even with six weeks to go we have much to do.”
The logistics of the swim presented significant hurdles. Governmental permissions were required. “We are dealing with military and political issues in these relationships because we are crossing a border. The last thing we want is for boats to dock in Jordan at sunrise and the next moment need to explain to military force what we’re doing. This is a reality in the region.
The political landscape between Israel and Jordan remains tricky. We chose to work Oded Rahav and a group called Eco Peace because they have offices in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. This has given us some leverage with our agenda.
Our Israeli colleagues have been dealing quietly with the military and chief of staff, as well as the navy. We have made decent progress with them and the Jordanian military, but there are still issues that pop up. Practical issues like will our passports be stamped and are visas needed? Because we are crossing a border, at worst case if the whole issue falls apart in the fragile environment of Middle East politics, we have a Plan B.“
The team plans to set sail at 4:30 am for an hour from the Ein Gedi Kibbutz in Israel on 8 rubber inflatable boats towards the Jordanian side. “We have identified a delta to land the boats and prepare for the swim. The swim should take between 6-7 hours. Plan B would be to cross to the halfway mark, thereby still crossing the border and then swimming 8 km or 3-4 hours back to Israeli shores.”
Those logistics are not the only difficulties the group faces.
“This is a dessert; there are no boats on the Dead Sea. There is no reason to have a boat because there is no fishing or diving in the area. Also boats do not survive well in the Dead Sea because the salt is highly corrosive.
Getting owners to commit to supply us with boats was no small feat. The boats must be trucked from the Red Sea marina across the desert on trucks. There are two boats per truck that are then launched into the sea. But this is not simple because there are massive earth sensitivities related to the sinkholes. The trucks cannot just approach the Dead Sea; they must use an identified safe route that geologists have checked for us.
This will involve us have to lay many tons of gravel to support potential issues for the trucks. It is a harsh location.
Then the boats will need to be lifted and lowered by special cranes and then a tractor to help get into the water. All the time, we have to make sure that the ground is stable. We will have seismic geologists assisting us.
If this all actually works, then we can proceed to the training swim.
We aim to be there on Monday and do a training swim if all goes well. Why do we need a training swim? The effects of the water are so dramatic that this becomes our most technical swim to date. We have to be patient careful and responsible.
One glass of Dead Sea water is enough to kill a human if there is no immediate help. Just one sip swallowed will mean the end of the swim for that person. Nausea and cramps and spasms will follow. Regarding the eyes, the salt will cause blindness if soaked. One drop will burn as if your eye has been set alight. It is a harsh environment.
This, together with the real chance of dehydration, makes for a tough swim. We have allocated a window period of three days. If the weather is bad, we cannot swim. On a normal ocean swim, we could easily swim with 20 cm waves, but in the Dead Sea where the atomic weight of the water is 2,5 times that other seawater, a 20 cm wave is like a baseball bat to the face – it can easily knock our masks off.”
Sela explains his perspective of the protective mask. “The first hypoxia swim workout with the mask is amazing. At first, you are out of air, after you swim 50% slower. If your average pace in open water is 15 km for 1 km, then your first swim with the mask is probably 22 minutes for same 1 km.”
Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association