Ein Gedi, Israel—After pushing off from the Jordanian shore before sunrise Tuesday, 26 swimmers arrived seven hours later on the Israeli shore of the Dead Sea, becoming the first people in history to swim the full 10.5 miles across the salty, endangered body of water. Such a swim has not happened until now due to health concerns about spending long stretches of time in the mineral-rich water, and because the Dead Sea makes up part of the politically sensitive border between Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.
“We did something that no one thought we could do,” said Kim Chambers, a 39-year-old marathon swimmer from New Zealand who now lives in San Francisco. Chambers finished the swim Tuesday afternoon, her blue swimsuit shimmering from salt crystals and her skin red with irritation from the water’s minerals. “But the Dead Sea deserves our attention. That’s why we had to do something as crazy as this.”
The swim was sponsored by the local government (the Tamar Regional Council) and EcoPeace Middle East, an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian non-governmental organization dedicated to environmental issues. The mission was to raise awareness for the future of the Dead Sea—its radius is shrinking at the rate of more than three feet a year. The sea has lost about one third of its surface area in the last 30 years, creating thousands of sink holes that have closed beaches, agricultural fields, and roads in the area. The Dead Sea is third-most visited region by foreign tourists to Israel after Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, according to the tourism ministry of Israel.
The swimmers, from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Spain, England, and other regions, wore special masks to prevent the water from entering their eyes and mouth, something that can be fatal due to the high concentration of minerals. They stopped every 30 minutes to drink and eat honey sandwiches, bananas, and dates given to them by a crew of 20 doctors and other volunteers on a fleet of four 4 boats. “This was a dream of mine,” said Yusef Matari, a 61-year-old Palestinian from Ramallah. “I am tired now, but I would do it again.”