Dead Sea dip: Swimmers endure salty agony to highlight disappearing wonder

Surviving a 'Dead Sea' swim
Surviving a 'Dead Sea' swim

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Surviving a 'Dead Sea' swim 01:11

Story highlights

  • Group made first swim across the Dead Sea
  • They endured stinging salt to draw attention to the drying of the sea
  • Shrinking sea blamed on resource policies
  • Israel and Jordan have signed a deal to try to tackle the problem

Dead Sea, Israel (CNN)The swimmers pulled themselves from the water exhausted, their lycra swimsuits stiff from all the crystallized salt. The water had stung their eyes, burned their skin, and exposed cuts they never knew they had. But after seven hours in the water, just after the shadows started growing long again in the afternoon sun, they were finished.

The group of nearly 30 swimmers had become the first people ever to swim across the Dead Sea from Jordan to Israel, a nine-mile (15-kilometer) swim that had never been accomplished before because the water is so inhospitable to marathon swimming.

    Dead Sea rapidly disappearing

    "I can't believe it. It's such an emotional moment," said record-breaking marathon swimmer Kim Chambers, wrapped in her native New Zealand flag.
    "It was teamwork at its finest. This is what happens when you get 28 crazy people together who think it's a good idea to swim across the Dead Sea."
    Chambers and the group of swimmers, who came from all over the world, wanted to raise awareness of the rapidly dropping sea levels.
    The world's lowest and one of the saltiest bodies of water is in danger of becoming extinct as its level drops at the rate of approximately one meter (3.3 feet) per year, according to Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East.
    "That demise of the Dead Sea is not global climate change -- it's policies of the governments here in the region," said Bromberg.
    Most of the water of the Jordan River, which feeds the Dead Sea, is diverted to other uses, Bromberg said.
    The effect is to starve the Dead Sea of its only source of replenishment. The industry mining the sea for its minerals also promotes evaporation, according to Bromberg.

    Canal plan to avert crisis

    Last year, Israel and Jordan signed a deal on a $900 million plan to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.
    The waterway, running approximately 124 miles between the two seas, would provide drinking water to the two countries while pumping water into the Dead Sea to stabilize its levels.
    This summer, 17 companies offered bids to build the canal, which is expected to take four to five years to complete. When finished it will pump hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water per year into the Dead Sea.

    'Acid burning your eyeballs'

    In the interim, the sea (which is actually an inland lake) is becoming saltier -- something the swimmers couldn't help but notice.
    "One drop of this water and I can tell you from experience in the last 24 hours ... It's like acid burning your eyeballs," said Chambers. "I had to take my contact lenses out so I couldn't actually see shore when we came in."
    The Dead Sea is dying
    The Dead Sea is dying

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    The Dead Sea is dying 02:52
    Chambers has completed marathon swims in Japan, America, Gibraltar, and Scotland among other places but this swim posed its own unique set of challenges.
    The swimmers had to wear full face masks to protect their eyes and mouth but the masks leaked.
    "We got water in our eyes, we were in pain. We're chafed, but everyone just stuck together and kept an eye out for each other," Chambers said.
    "We all rallied around this single purpose, which was to draw attention to the Dead Sea, and it had to be something as flamboyant as this to get international attention.
    "To be able to do something like this when you get unprecedented diplomatic support from both sides, to save this sea, which is why we're all here today, it's going to take a long time to process. This is so special."