You can read about Masada online but floating in the Dead Sea is an experience that you won’t find anywhere else. The water is ten times saltier than the ocean and full of minerals, mainly bromine and magnesium.
Although it is called the Dead Sea, it is neither dead nor a sea. In the Bible it is called either the Salt Sea or the Eastern Sea. The Romans were the first to call it the Dead Sea but they were wrong on two counts, for it is actually a lake (a sea has to be connected to an ocean), and it is alive (there may be no fish in it but the salty water teems with bacteria and microbial fungi).
Visiting the Dead Sea
The Dead Sea, or Yam HaMelach (the Salt Sea in Hebrew), is 50 kilometers (31 miles) wide and Road 90 runs right alongside it, but for most of its length there is no access to the sea. In many areas along the shore there is a danger of sinkholes, so don’t get off the road where you are not supposed to. There are some beaches that you have to pay to use at the north end of the Dead Sea. Entrance is about 60-80 NIS (which is not cheap). I recommend going to the free beaches at the south, where the hotels are. The one advantage of the northern beaches is that they are the closest to Jerusalem so if you just want to go from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and back and don’t want to visit Masada or Ein Gedi I would recommend saving an hour’s drive to the south.
Next to Ein Gedi there used to be a free beach but it has been closed because of sinkholes. Ein Gedi Spa has a beach but entry costs 95 shekels. The hotel strip of Ein Bokek/Newe Zohar has a beach that is free and clean and it also has open showers to wash off the salt. There are also some kiosks (and the lowest McDonalds on earth).
Buses from Jerusalem have a couple of stops next to the hotels and beaches.
If you come by car, which I recommend, especially if you are in a group, be aware that parking costs money. Make sure you pay because if you don’t you can be sure of getting a fine faster than in Tel Aviv…
If you want to take a tour, I can recommend the Abraham Hostel tours.
Important info for visitors:
Swimming in the Dead Sea is an amazing and healthy experience, but there are some things you should know for your own safety:
– Do not drink the water: a few gulps of it could cause irreversible damage or even kill you.
– Don’t get water into your eyes as it will burn.
– Not a must, but it’s very useful to have sandals as the salt might be sharp.
– Silver jewelry will turn black; the same goes for gold jewelry that is less than 24 carats. It can be cleaned but you’re better off avoiding going in with it in the first place.
– Any cuts you have may burn. It is better not to shave on the day you plan to swim in the Dead Sea.
History of the Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is actually a remnant of the ancient waters of Lake Lisan. Ten thousand years ago, the sea was two hundred meters higher than it is today. Most of the water evaporated and only the salt remains. Ever since the 1950s, Israel has dammed up the southern part of the Sea of Galilee, meaning that the Jordan River, the main supplier of water to the Dead Sea, has almost dried up. In recent years, the Dead Sea has lost a meter in height every year. This is one of the gravest ecological problems in Israel today.
One of the results of the dropping sea level is the sinkholes: holes that are ten meters in diameter and rip through the beaches of the Dead Sea. You can see the enormous holes by the side of the road as you drive north of Ein Gedi. With the falling sea level, land in which the salt percentage is especially high is exposed. The fresh water from rain and underground springs washes the salt from the earth until it collapses upon itself, forming a sinkhole.
The Dead Sea is actually divided into two parts – north and south. The northern half is part of the natural Dead Sea while the southern half is man made. The height of the water in the southern part is regulated by the Dead Sea factories. Sea water is pumped from the northern half into the southern half, where it is spread out in evaporation pools. The Dead Sea factories then harvest the minerals from the water, mostly potassium, bromine, and magnesium. Recently, the Dead Sea factories have drawn public interest as a result of the damage they are causing to the Dead Sea. In addition, although the Dead Sea is one of the only natural resources Israel has, the enormous profits that the factories are making from selling its minerals don’t bring any benefit to the public.
Recently, a number of suggestions regarding how the Dead Sea may be saved have been put forward. The first, which was formulated a hundred years ago by Theodor Herzl, the founding father of modern Zionism, was to dig a channel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea. Herzl wasn’t thinking of saving the Dead Sea at the time, but of utilizing the height difference in order to generate electricity. Another suggestion was the construction of a channel from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea in order to bring in water and generate electricity. The main problem is that it isn’t clear how an influx of regular sea water might affect the Dead Sea. Another idea, perhaps the simplest and most logical of them all, is to let nature take its course and simply release the dam from the Sea of Galilee, thereby bringing the Jordan River back to life and bringing water to the Dead Sea.
If you’re traveling on a modest budget, you can also purchase my Booklets, in which I basically wrote down everything that I say on my 3 most popular tours: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the Judaean Desert. I also added maps, pictures and graphics which will enable you to be your own guide. The booklets are only sold outside Israel, so order now and come prepared! Or download as a PDF or EPUB (e-book).