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“Diving where few men have dived before.”
It was months before my trip to The Middle East, and I’d come across an article about scuba diving in the infamously lifeless Dead Sea. Where few men have dived before? What about the ladies!
In that moment, I became dead set on diving in the Dead Sea.
I did have some hesitations, especially as I read accounts of the laborious gear required for and the technical difficulty of the dive. Then there was the risk of getting the high salinity water into your eyes or mouth, a potentially dangerous error. Not to mention the price — at over six hundred US dollars, it’s one of, if not the most, expensive dives in the world. When I mentioned my plan to my friend Erik, now famed for being a member of the Thai cave rescue team, he told me he didn’t think it was a smart idea. Hmmm.
Still, I’ve always been drawn to the world’s unique and quirky dive experiences. (Ahem, altitude diving at Lake Atitlan, staying in an underwater hotel, dive sites accessed by camel ride.) Surely I couldn’t pass this one up. Plus, it was part of a larger, also unique and quirky goal — diving Israel’s three seas in three days.
The Out Of The Blu crew and I arrived in Ein Bokek after a day of diving in the lush and lively Red Sea in Israel’s South, a stark contrast to the barren landscape we arrived to. We met up with the Dead Sea Divers team, as well as the one other customer for the day, a Bulgarian with a self described adrenaline addiction. Circled around the pool at the Taj Mahal restaurant, we were greeted by Dead Sea Divers founder Avi Bresler, a tech diver who built a career servicing the industrial plants that many travelers to Israel are shocked to find dot the coastline of the Dead Sea.
Avi still spends most of his time repairing underwater pipes — but these days, when the season is right, he also takes out tourists diving a day or two a week under Dead Sea Divers, a sub-department of his industrial diving company.
It all started when a Japanese television crew approached him about advising on a segment in which they’d attempt to pickle a cucumber in the Dead Sea (having never been, it still somehow feels appropriate to label this an #onlyinjapan moment) a goal which was, Avi is proud to report, successful — though not very tasty.
After guiding the Japanese television host underwater, Avi had an “aha moment” — maybe he could bring other adventurous divers to the Dead Sea. He started out in 2007 with an English website and marketed only to international travelers, eventually translating his site into Hebrew and beckoning domestic divers, too, who today make up about half the customer base. Eventually, he drew divers from the US, Philippines, Italy, Israel, India, and Japan.
With the intimidating gear configuration and diving conditions, the high price tag, and the remote location, Avi acknowledges that his potential worldwide customer base is a small one — in fact, he sometimes wonders if he’s tapped the market. Based on the number of hardcore divers I’ve spoken to who didn’t know this opportunity even exists, I think he might be surprised.
It’s an extensive operation, with a team of three Dead Sea Divers staff for three divers — Udi, the Bulgarian, and me. The first mission is to become acclimated to diving with a full face mask, a must for protecting the eyes, mouth, and nose from the extreme salt levels in the water — plus, the team uses them to communicate underwater during the dive.
The downside? The airspace in the mask makes your head even more buoyant, in this already extremely buoyant salty sea. And for those who have never used them before, it can be a big adjustment.
I admit I was very intimidated by the full face mask, and the requisite pool session did little to increase my confidence.
Having taken a sidemount course, tried drysuit diving, modified my equipment for self reliant diving, and experimented with cavern diving configurations, this certainly wasn’t my first rodeo with a new gear setup. But I found equalizing the mask to be nearly impossible, and didn’t understand how I was supposed to clear it. “The point is not needing to clear it,” the instructor assured me, to which I blinked in reply. “You need to trust the mask.”
Eventually, we moved our way down to the shores of The Dead Sea — which is, in fact, technically an inland lake — for a briefing. Today, the concentration of salt in the water is about 35 percent, causing it to crystallize on the shore. That shore currently sits at 430 meters or 1,410 feet below sea level, a rate that’s constantly being recalculated due to the rapid volume loss. The drop has led to a number of sensationalist headlines claiming The Dead Sea is dying, a topic I’ll dive into in in another post.
At a little more than 30 miles long and 9 miles wide — more figures constantly being recalculated — the Dead Sea is tiny, and Jordan seemed so close we might be able to swim to it, if we tried. We were on the shores of Ein Bokek, in the southwest, technically cut off from the sea itself and in the evaporation pools of the industrial plants on the shores. Hence the name of the day’s dive site: “The Pools.”
While it’s the go-to site for beginner divers, Avi and his team have spent years exploring various corners of the Dead Sea, finding springs and caves in the North Sea that are deep and accessible only by boat. One is even named after its discoverer; Bresler’s Cave.
contemplating the complete craziness I signed myself up for
Beyond the full face mask, we were diving with standard gear — aside from the weights. I’d be saddled with just under one hundred pounds of it, a significant percentage of my own body weight.
When I tried drysuit diving in Iceland I wore a similar number of kilos, and there was a long walk from the van where we set up to the dive site entry. I felt very distinctly like my body was ripping in two, and I literally hurt for days after. So I was not particularly looking forward to an encore of that.
Luckily I wouldn’t have one. In Israel, it’s so warm you really can’t gear up more than a second before you need to. Instead, you set up and then wade into the water while one of the crew brings you your gear and helps you get into it while in the shallows. And you must complete the entire process getting no water near your face, or you’ll have to run out for an emergency fresh water rinse and start all over again. As they lowered the full face mask on, I thought okay, this is it.
The water felt bizarrely warm, and incredibly dense — and the crushing amount of weight contributed to the struggle to move. As we first descended under the surface, I drew on every moment of experience and training I’d ever accumulated to stay at ease in the unfamiliar and disorienting conditions. For the first moments while we tried to get our buoyancy bearings, we literally crawled around on the sea floor.
Condition-wise, we couldn’t have come at a worse time. Extremely unusual flooding in the area had shocked the country, and left the sea’s visibility at an all-time low. The salt formations were covered in a thin layer of ash, so they didn’t quite glitter like normal, unless we brushed our hands over them to reveal the shining layer underneath. Later, the crew acknowledged that this was about as bad as conditions got, for taking out guests. But none of us would have missed it.
The conditions were a bummer for photography, for sure — my Canon G7X and Waterproof Housing were fun to bring along, but if you want to get a true sense of the magic of this dive, check out this photographer’s work! But, looking at the bright side, it made it an ever more incredible journey to overcome the heightened obstacles the weather provided.
After a lifetime of carefully avoiding contact with reefs, it felt like we were doing something naughty to make contact with the salt; actually a mix of potassium, calcium and sodium. But there was nothing there to harm. The Dead Sea moniker is an accurate one — there are no fish, no coral, no flora nor fauna. The salt concentration kills but a few strains of bacteria and fungi, hiding out in fissures where slightly lower salinity water seeps in.
So why dive it at all? For me, the answer was the self challenge — and the salt formations. “Marine life is not always the reason to dive. In caves or ice diving, you do it to prove you can and enjoy the challenge,” Avi has been quoted as saying. “Here, the power of the salt crystals and the unbelievable scenery are the attraction.”
While the low visibility on our dive made it hard to appreciate their overall structure, the salt forms coral-like mounds and sculptures, or folds into canyons and caves, across the barren floor of the Dead Sea. One diver’s account that I read while preparing for my own trip recalled the Genesis story of Lot and his wife, who disobeyed the order not to look back at Sodom when fleeing the city, and turned into a pillar of salt as a result.
About halfway through the dive my adrenalin levels dropped, I did start to trust the mask, and I finally felt a sense of ease in my surroundings. And that’s when it really started to sink in. I had done in. I had pushed through all the obstacles, fears, and hesitations. I was diving in the Dead Sea!
Joining that club of two or three hundred others on all of planet earth was one of my proudest moments as a diver.
Surfacing, we slowly and with the grace of baby hippos made our way back to the shallows. There, we were met by the Dead Sea Divers surface team, who rinsed us with fresh water before slowly helping us out of our gear and onto the shore.
On land, we were greeted by an incredible spread of snacks that included olives and salted herring — “the only fish you’ll find in the Dead Sea!” Avi cackled, clearly still delighted with the joke after what must have been endless tellings. An elaborate certificate, a nice polo shirt, and the lavish spread are probably intended to ease the sting of the incredible price tag of the experience.
I mostly, however, cherish one of the simpler souvenirs: an “I dived -425 feet below sea level” sticker.
The hype is real: this is an intense dive that only experienced divers should contemplate tackling. But it was an experience of a lifetime — I’ll never forget my time deep inside the Dead Sea, and I know I’m a better diver for having faced it.
Thinking of joining the club? Keep in mind these tips I wish I’d known before descending!
Tips For Diving in the Dead Sea
• Don’t rush it. Keep in mind that this dive is aimed for healthy, experienced divers with a minimum of fifty dives — two of them in the last six months. If you have a beard or wear glasses, you’ll need to make a date with a barber or an optician, respectively.
• Prepare to wash your gear like crazy after this dive — the salty, oily water is unlike anything your gear has ever been exposed to. Wetsuit shampoo and/or BCD cleaner should definitely be on your packing list. Out Of The Blu booked us at the Leonardo Hotel (which had incredible buffets for fueling up pre and post dive), and I used my hotel room shower to deep clean my dive gear.
• This is an altitude dive, so prepare to stay at the Dead Sea for at least four hours after your dive — better yet, overnight — to avoid decompression sickness. On that note, dive insurance is mandatory for each and every diver in Israel — World Nomads offers both scuba dive insurance and travel insurance, and I recommend you carry a policy for each.
• Make sure you time your Dead Sea trip correctly, if diving is a priority. Dead Sea Divers closes its doors from about mid-June to mid-September, when the water temperature is too hot for diving. Water temperatures in the Dead Sea range from the low 70’s to the low 90’s — the industrial divers actually wear special cooling suits in the summer in order to do their jobs. It’s one of the only dives I’ve ever done where HEAT rather than cold was the concern.
• On that note, cover your skin! Due to the heat, I thought I was in the clear to dive with bare legs. Huge mistake — salt is sharp and I was bouncing around like a parade float. A full wetsuit would have been too hot, but even a pair of workout leggings would have done the trick.
• Drink up! I’ve literally never been more dehydrated that I was after this dive. Chug water before and after your dive.
I’ve got more Dead Sea coverage coming your way. Stay tuned!
Many thanks to Out Of The Blu for hosting me on their three sea dive safari. Read more about diving in Israel here!