Reporter's notebook

Dead Sea oasis’s new visitor complex showcases efforts to save unique ecosystem

Einot Zukim Nature Reserve – also known by its Arabic name Ein Feshkha – has a new standout desert-life education center that blends in with the surrounding cliffs

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The new visitor's center at the Einot Zukim (Ein Feshkha) nature reserve on the northern Dead Sea, southern Israel. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
The new visitor's center at the Einot Zukim (Ein Feshkha) nature reserve on the northern Dead Sea, southern Israel. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority has opened a new visitors’ complex at its desert oasis facility, Einot Zukim (Ein Feshkha) on the northern Dead Sea in the West Bank.

Opened informally to the public during the Passover holiday in April, it had an official ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 21 in the presence of Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman. It is still undergoing final touches.

Costing around NIS 35 million ($9.4 million), the upgrade positions the nature reserve to increase its annual (pre-Gaza war) 170,000 visitor number and attract overseas tourists, whose visits to the Dead Sea traditionally comprise Masada, the Dead Sea, and the oasis at Ein Gedi further south.

One of six Israeli national parks located in the West Bank, Einot Zukim is well known to Jerusalemites (including many school groups) and West Bank Jews and Palestinians, for the welcome escape its trees, spring-fed pools, and shady picnic tables — some in the water — offer during the spring and early summer months.

By July and August, the temperature and humidity are nigh unbearable. But the water remains a steady 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round.

On weekends, guided tours are available of the so-called hidden reserve — a nearly 100-acre expanse normally off limits to humans featuring impenetrable vegetation, bubbling streams, ponds, and trees — tamarisks, palms, Euphrates poplars, and Christ’s thorn jujube. The latter is so-called because of a tradition that its branches supplied the thorn of crowns placed on Jesus’s head.

Having a dip in one of the spring-fed pools at the Einot Zukim (Ein Feshkha) Nature Reserve on the northern Dead Sea shore, May 29, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The new visitors’ center aims to amplify and deepen that experience with two movies. One has a geologist, microbiologist, and ecologist describe how much life teems in and around the reserve and below the surface of the lowest salt lake on Earth, which is anything but dead.

The other opens a window onto the world of the reserve’s busy nightlife, featuring camera footage of a host of animals, from wolves, spotted hyenas, bats, owls, and snakes to the rare swamp cat, an ant that weaves nests on tamarisk trees to attract aphids and cicadas on whose honeydew secretions it feeds, and species of fish found only in the reserve’s waters.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority kindly provided The Times of Israel with one of the videos, an excerpt of which can be seen below.

The center, built to blend in with the cliffs behind, also features an Alice in Wonderland-like entrance hall furnished with oversized models of fauna and flora.

The new complex includes an entrance area, store, washrooms, and a building for the reserve’s staff.

The Dead Sea has halved since 1976

A mark on a rock at the northern end of the Dead Sea by the Palestine Exploration Fund to indicate the level of the Dead Sea in the early 20th century. (rpoll, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The level of the Dead Sea has waxed and waned over the years.

At the turn of the last century, British explorers came to the springs of Ein Feshkha and marked a line 50 centimeters (1.6 feet) above the sea’s surface on the rock face on the western side of Route 90, just south of the reserve’s entrance.

However, below that level, archaeologists discovered a 2,000-year-old farmstead within the reserve’s boundaries that could only have existed when the lake was smaller than it was in 1913.

Remains of a 2,000-year-old farm at the Einot Zukim (Ein Feshkha) Nature Reserve on the northern Dead Sea, May 29, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Since 1976, according to official figures, the Dead Sea’s surface area has almost halved and its elevation has dropped more than 50 meters (164 feet) — from 390 meters (1,280 feet) below sea level to minus 438.76 meters (minus 1,439.50 feet) today.

This retreat has exposed more than 300 square kilometers (115 square miles) of seabed and altered the shoreline from a straight line to a jagged one with coves. Today the area is peppered with some 7,000 sinkholes — cavities that form when the saltwater between salty rock and freshwater recedes and the freshwater dissolves the rock, causing the land above to fall in.

Aerial view of the Dead Sea with its salt formations, December 3, 2021. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

The two reasons for the Dead Sea’s decline are well understood.

One is that not enough water is coming in from streams. Syria, Jordan, and Israel are diverting it for human needs.

The other is that water is being pumped out by factories on the Israeli and Jordanian shores to extract valuable potash, bromine, and magnesium in massive evaporation pools. The factories only replace around half of the water that they remove.

Both issues are complex and while many ideas have been suggested over the years, Israel currently has no approved plans on the table to deal with refilling the Dead Sea.

Waters from a relatively new spring at the Einot Zukim (Ein Feshkha) Nature Reserve on the northern Dead Sea shore, May 29, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

At Einot Zukim, scientists are following a phenomenon by which springs (with water that is between sweet and salty) are moving in the same southeasterly direction as the shrinking shore of this part of the Dead Sea.

As the springs migrate, places where there were once springs are drying up, along with the vegetation supported by the water.

Mohammed Alian, deputy director of the Einot Zuki (Ein Feshkha) Nature Reserve explains how the British would once measure the quantity and speed for flow from a spring that has since moved, May 29, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Mohammed Alian, the site’s deputy director, took this reporter on a tour of the complex attempts to turn new springs into visitor attractions while pumping water from them to the area of former springs to keep ecosystems alive. Site workers are transferring the fish as new springs pop up.

Those who visited the site up to the 1970s will remember a spring-fed pool adjacent to a pair of parallel walls built by the British. These were constructed to measure the amount of water from a spring now a 15-minute walk away. The walls allowed for a measurable quantity of water to pass through and sticks placed on the surface enabled measurement of the speed.

Water is being pumped into the area once inhabited by the stream. The spring is now a 15-minute walk away from those two measuring walls.

Canyons formed in the mudflats adjacent to the northern Dead Sea, May 29, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

On the outskirts of the closed reserve (accessible only with guides), groundwater moving southeast has cut through mudflats exposed by the declining Dead Sea. Miniature canyons have been formed in just a decade, whereas elsewhere in the world, according to Alian, canyons can take millions of years to be formed.

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