Jake Ben Zaken steered his boat along the western shore of the Dead Sea, cut the motor and bobbed amid the white towers of salt rising out of the turquoise water. Just last year many of these circular towers, their bumpy surfaces now glistening in the afternoon sun, were beneath the water in this shrinking salty lake.
“I look for the beauty in this environmental crisis,” said Ben Zaken, whose Salty Landscapes boat tours take travelers out onto the surface of the Dead Sea, where the water level is falling by more than 3 feet a year as human consumption depletes its sources. “I’m trying to the see the light, because the darkness is always there.”
The tours — the only current commercial option for boating on the Dead Sea — are part of a tourism industry that, paradoxically, is growing, even as the sea, famous for its highly salinated water, mud and minerals and for being the lowest place on Earth, dries up.
“The Dead Sea is truly a unique phenomenon, one that has drawn explorers and scientists for a long time,” said Yehouda Enzel, head of the Fredy and Nadine Herrmann Institute of Earth Sciences at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “But now the landscape around it, and under it, is exposed more and more.”
Because it is not connected to an ocean, the Dead Sea is not technically a sea, but a lake. For the last 60 years, it has been shrinking as the surrounding populations of Syria, Israel, Jordan and the West Bank have depleted its main water sources — the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee (also a lake) — and as fertilizer and chemical companies in both Israel and Jordan evaporate its water to extract minerals, scientists say. The surface area of the lake has contracted by about a third to its current 243 square miles, according to the Geological Survey of Israel.
Hotels and spas that once lined the waterfront are now hundreds of yards from the shoreline, and some resorts and beaches have been forced to close in recent years because of the thousands of sinkholes that have resulted from the drying up of the water and the ground around it.
Fences with signs warning of sinkholes line much of the western coast, whose dry brown expanse is also dotted with abandoned date palm groves, closed roads and shuttered buildings, including a defunct gas station. In many places the shoreline is covered with crusts of salt. Pillars and blobs of salt rise from the shallow edges of the water.
The eerie yet enchanting landscape is increasingly drawing visitors. In 2017 the number of overnight stays in Israeli hotels on the Dead Sea rose 35 percent compared with 2016, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Betting on continued growth, Israel’s tourism ministry recently spent about $13 million to renovate beaches and build a waterfront walkway at the resort area of Ein Bokek on the Dead Sea’s southern basin, where a new shopping mall opened in November. Two new hotels are also in the planning stages, the first significant development in more than 30 years.
The southern basin — always shallower than the deep northern basin where Ben Zaken runs his boat trips — would be completely dry now if the companies harvesting salts and minerals from the Dead Sea didn’t pump water into it, according to scientists.
In Jordan, where the number of tourists rose about 8 percent in 2017 compared with 2016 and is on track to increase at a similar rate in 2018, a new Hilton Hotel opened last year on the Dead Sea, and $1.5 billion joint Kuwaiti-Jordanian government project is underway to build more hotels, an amusement park and other tourism infrastructure along the seashore.
While the northern basin will likely not disappear anytime soon, it is expected to become shallower and to lose an additional 10 percent of its surface area in the next 50 years, said Nadav Lensky, head of the Geological Survey’s Dead Sea Observatory, which researches evaporation and other dynamics of the sea.
The falling water level also means that the salinity of the water has increased, and since the 1980s the water has become so concentrated that crystals of salt now accumulate on the bottom in a process called halite precipitation.
“The Dead Sea is the only place in the world where we see this phenomenon in modern time,” Lensky said, explaining that millions of years ago, halite precipitation in many of the deep saline lakes that once covered Earth led to the creation of massive, thick salt deposits in places like Poland’s Wieliczka salt mines and the oil-rich Delaware Basin under Texas and New Mexico.
It is also halite precipitation that has created the salt sculptures that first began peeking out above the surface of the Dead Sea about 10 years ago, Lensky said. Because the shape, size and number of salt crystals piling up on the sea bottom vary with the water’s salinity, evaporation rate and temperature, the resulting structures also vary in shape, he said.
With much of the sea’s western shore off-limits because of sinkholes, Ben Zaken’s blue-and-red Dutch-made boat — named Nefeli after a cloud nymph in Greek mythology — is the only way to see this otherworldly salty landscape up close.
“It was like being on the moon,” said Natali Tamir, a smartphone photography instructor from Tel Aviv who was inspired to take the boat ride in October after seeing photographs that one of her students had taken on a previous tour. “I have been to the Dead Sea many times and was aware of what was happening there, but on this boat I suddenly understood how dramatic it is and how sad it is seeing things that won’t be there in five years.”
The tours, which require reservations, leave from the Dead Sea shore near the Mitzpe Shalem settlement on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, about 45 miles from Jerusalem. A 1-1/2-hour tour is about $48, and a three-hour tour is about $66 per person. The boat holds up to 12 people.
“I am all alone out here,” Ben Zaken said as he reached a speed of about 25 knots, fast enough to leave a wake on the water, which reaches depths of about 1,000 feet. Aside from a scientific research boat several miles south near Ein Gedi, and not visible from here, Ben Zaken’s Nefeli — and the fleet of kayaks he began operating last year — were the only vessels on the Dead Sea.
Military restrictions, a constantly receding shoreline and expensive maintenance to prevent salt buildup on the bottom of vessels all make boating here difficult. Ben Zaken said that contributed to the discontinuation about 15 years ago of tours on a large wooden ship named Lot’s Wife (she famously turned into a pillar of salt in the Bible). But historical texts and archaeological finds of ancient anchors and harbors indicate that the Dead Sea had a thriving maritime culture for thousands of years.
“Like any other sea, it should have boats,” said Ben Zaken, who bought his first boat in 2011, when he was working as an auto mechanic, then waited two years for military permission to start using it and build up a tour business. Last year he added kayak tours, bought a second boat, and is looking to hire an additional skipper to meet growing demand.