First lesson about visiting the Dead Sea - choose carefully WHEN to go. Unfortunately, this was difficult to work out on a long trip like mine. I visited this place in quite possibly the worst time, at the height of summer, in mid-afternoon when the temperature peaked at 46 degrees Celsius. It was unsurprising then, that I was the only person in the sea at the time.
But man, did I suffer. Not least because you're in the water - there is no shade and thus no respite from the scorching sun. And it's not like the water is cool and refreshing as the brochure-cover-lady-in-bikini-floating-on-tranquil-blue-waters would have you believe. It's actually pretty scalding because you're trapped, unable to submerge, on the surface which is superheated by the sun. So it's like being grilled from above and boiled from beneath. Sort of like a creme brulee. And after being immersed in the hypersaline waters for a while, you start turning into a pickled vegetable.
Which brings me to the second lesson - extremely salty water can be extremely uncomfortable. If you have an open wound, you don't even want to think about jumping in. Pouring concentrated hydrofluoric acid (the stuff which spew from the Xenomorphs in the Alien movies) onto your skin is less painful. Needless to say, you may want to hold back on that shave (guys and girls). Also, however tempting it may seem, especially when the sun is burning a hole into your skull, you do not want to submerge your head. Because even a drop of seawater getting into your eyes makes them feel like they're on fire.
Sounds pretty horrible huh. Should you make the trip? Well yes, but only in the winter. And if you have to go during the summer, an early morning dip will save you a lot of grief. And maybe bring a bottle of fresh water (it'll float, don't worry) with you into the sea to wash your eyes out if you get salt water in them.
This aside, the Dead Sea is actually a pretty fascinating place. At 400m below sea level, it's the lowest point (on land) you can go on this planet. And the term "sea" is a misnomer - it's landlocked. Only the Jordan River flows into it, and there is hardly any rain, only about 2 inches a year. The rate of evaporation is higher than the rate of replenishment, so the "sea" is gradually shrinking, at the rate of one metre per year. Which I suppose is a lot because the sea is only 50km long and 15km wide.
Exactly how salty is the Dead Sea? Well, 34.2% salinity is a bit hard to describe, but imagine dissolving 60 (yes sixty) teaspoons of salt into one litre of water. Normal seawater has a salinity of 3.5%. So the water in the Dead Sea is 1000% more concentrated than your typical ocean. See what I mean about NOT getting any into your eyes? This is about as salty as naturally occurring water gets. The saltiest lake/sea in the world which is in Antarctica has a salinity of 35.0%, so we're talking decimal points here. This makes swimming a bit of a challenge because you're so buoyant that most swimming styles don't work. So you either have to bob along and doggie-paddle, or do a backstroke and risk getting water into your eyes. Floating aimlessly on your back seems like the best option.
The Dead Sea also has a fascinating history, biblically speaking. It was on the West Bank of the Jordan River, very close to the Dead Sea where Jesus was supposedly baptised by John the Baptist. And David of Israel (yes, the one who killed Goliath) sought refuge here as he was pursued by the jealous (some say possessed) King Saul. And historically significant figures such as Herod, King of the Jews (37-4 BC) and Cleopatra of Egypt were said to have built recreational facilities here, motivated by the therapeutic qualities of the Dead Sea's mineral-rich waters. This tradition continues today and one can get the full royal spa treatment for about USD300(!!!) at a five-star hotel. There are, unfortunately, no budget options. Unless you bring a tupperware to scoop up some mud and DIY at home.
I only snapped five photos before running for cover: