The lowest spot on Earth: The Dead Sea

The lowest spot on Earth: The Dead Sea

Do you ever think about when you studied physics in high school? Among the few concepts I remember is Archimedes’ principle that explained why things that weigh little float on the water’s surface, while heavier objects go straight to the bottom. Humans fall into the latter category until we learn how to swim. There is, however, at least one place in the world where Archimedes’ principle does not apply and a person floats without swimming! The Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea is unique among the world’s lakes. It is the saltiest body of water in the world, with 34% salinity. This level of salinity is more than nine times that of the world’s oceans. This extraordinary degree of salinity means that the Dead Sea is a harsh environment in which plants and animals cannot grow and flourish. None of the creatures we typically associate with aquatic life can survive here. In the Dead Sea there are no fish or frolicking dolphins or seaweed to get stuck between your toes. The massive levels of salt prevent the existence of all life forms, except some types of bacteria. Its name, the “Dead” Sea, reflects this reality.

For centuries, people have reported health and skin benefits from exposure to Dead Sea water and mud. Some studies have shown that taking a dip in Dead Sea, which is rich in magnesium salts, can reduce inflammation and dry skin and increase the skin’s ability to hold moisture. The mineral content of the water, the low content of pollens and other allergens in the atmosphere, the reduced ultraviolet component of solar radiation, and the higher atmospheric pressure at this great depth combine to yield dramatic, specific health effects. Over the years, the Dead Sea area has become a location for research aimed at the development of potential treatments for a variety of conditions. The various shops at Ein Gedi offer some of these popular products attractively packaged for tourists to “take with.”

The first time I visited the Dead Sea, I had just completed a tour of Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found during the last century). I had roamed around the ruins at this ancient site trying to think if I had ever in my life experienced heat like this. Then suddenly, the local guide directed everyone to the bus and we drove a short distance so that we could walk along the edge of the lake. 

I gazed out over the Dead Sea and thought of some of the historical events that occurred here. In the Old Testament, for example, it is suggested that King David came here to relax and enjoy the Dead Sea’s healing waters. There were scores of bathers enjoying the water that day, but there was no time for me to take a dip. I would have to wait until another day to experience the waters of the Dead Sea.

The tiny nation of Israel actually boasts two “seas” within its borders. Of course these “seas” are not seas at all, but rather inland lakes. That the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are called “seas” at all relates more to the paucity of water in this part of the world than to the actual definition of a “sea.” 

The Sea of Galilee in the north is connected to the Dead Sea further south by the meandering Jordan River. These three geographical features are all situated below sea level. They are found along the floor of a deep rift in the earth’s surface known as the Jordan rift valley.

The Dead Sea may well be the most unusual lake in the world. Since this 233 square mile lake is located at the lowest point on earth –whatever flows in, stays in, because there is no place lower for its water to flow. Also, the Dead Sea is 1,300 to 1,400 feet below sea level (Death Valley, the lowest point in North America, is 282 feet below sea level). The deepest part of the Dead Sea lake bed is about 2,300 feet below sea level. The shores of the Dead Sea reach beyond Israel to the Palestinian Territories and to Jordan on the east.

The Dead Sea’s climate, low elevation, and the mineral content of its waters have made it a popular center for various physical therapies. As one of the world’s first health resorts, it has attracted visitors from around the Mediterranean Basin for thousands of years. Historical figures like Herod the Great and Cleopatra knew about the healing properties at the Dead Sea. Today,  its “healing” waters attract visitors from all over the world who come here seeking relief from incurable chronic conditions such as psoriasis, asthma, and arthritis.

On my most recent trip to Israel I spent a day at Herod the Great’s mountaintop fortress where the Jews made their last stand against the Roman legions. From the heights of Masada, I enjoyed sweeping, panoramic views of the Dead Sea that drove home for me the enormity of this body of water in the midst of an area of the world where the presence of water is so very rare. The Dead Sea’s main northern basin is 31 miles long and 9 miles across at its widest point. 

I spent the night near Masada so I could depart the next morning at first light for a day-visit to the Ein Gedi Spa. This 15-minute drive took longer than it should have because of the numerous photo stops I made along the way. It was so early that the heat-haze had not set in across the desert. What a wonderful experience! The scenery was absolutely awesome. The various “lookouts” along my route provided glimpses of the Dead Sea that were beyond description. I saw camels, goats, and sheep on the far-away mountain slopes.

The Ein Gedi Hotel and Spa is one of the most famous of the spas that are found along the shores of the Dead Sea. This particular spa is situated at the intersection of the sea and the desert. The Dead Sea with its many shades of blue lie in one direction and the Judean Desert in the other. Between them lies the Ein Gedi Natural Reserve, a lush, green oasis with an abundance of water and wildlife. It is here that tourists have flocked for decades to receive the rejuvenating treatments offered at the Ein Gedi’s Synergy Spa where I spent my morning enjoying its sauna and Turkish bath as well as its heated Dead Sea water pool and its thermo-mineral “sweet” water pool. After a light lunch and fruit drink in the refreshments “corner” inside the spa area, I boarded the shuttle for a short ride across the beach to shore line.

For me, the major attraction at Ein Gedi was the chance to enjoy a mud bath while soaking in the Dead Sea itself. As I waded out into the water on this particularly hot summer day, the first thing I noticed was that the water felt thick and almost like motor oil against my skin. But I did float without exerting any effort whatsoever!

Its cobalt-blue waters did, despite the amount of litter floating nearby, feel refreshing and exhilarating. I rubbed a generous amount of its mineral laden mud all over my body before walking to dry land. I then proceeded to let it dry–which in the bright sun required but a few minutes. I will admit that the “treatment” felt soothing to my skin despite the appearance of the many “mud” bathers! Fortunately, situated along the shore were numerous cold water shower heads where I could at least begin to remove the oil-like beads.

Floating in the Dead Sea and enjoying the proverbial “mud” bath will forever remain for me a vivid memory from my years of travel.

Dr. Watson E Mills, here taking a dip in the Dead Sea, is a member of the Travelers Century Club and to date has visited 276 of the more than 320 countries and provinces on the club’s list.  He has traveled to 174 of the 193 member-countries of the United Nations during his more than 140 overseas trips. He is also a member of the Circumnavigators’ Club having completed three trips around the world.