Haunting photos of animals “turned to stone” by the caustic waters of Lake Natron took the world by storm after wildlife photographer Nick Brandt captured images of crusty corpses found in the region back in 2013. Would a human who fell into the Tanzanian soda lake go the same way? No, at least not instantly, but it wouldn’t be a particularly nice dip.
Tales from Yellowstone National Park serve as harrowing reminders of what can happen when you slip into the wrong water bodies, with people having dissolved in its hot springs. Conversely, Lake Natron’s conditions might actually preserve your remains very well if your lifeless body was to sink into it, but it’s not somewhere you want to go paddling.
Why is Lake Natron so deadly?
It’s not, really.
Lake Natron is actually home to a host of wildlife, perhaps most prominently the lesser flamingos who casually wade in its waters, which boast a pH of almost 12 – close to the strength of household bleach. However, part of the reason it’s so popular for the hardy flamingos is that predators can’t survive for very long in its waters, making it a hunt-free zone.
As for why the water is so wild, the otherworldly environment sits in the wake of Ol Doinyo Lengai, the only volcano on the planet to belch out one of Earth’s weirdest lavas: Natrocarbonatite. Over time, the salty lake has absorbed sodium carbonate and other minerals in natrocarbonatite from the surrounding hills making the water a strong alkaline.
The resulting pH is enough to burn the skin and eyes of most animals and spell death for those who linger too long, but if a person jumped in would it turn them to “stone” like Brandt’s animals?
What would happen if you jumped into Lake Natron?
Flamingos have tough, scaly skin that protects them from the water, but humans are a little too soft and squishy to fare so well. First of all, there’s the heat with the water in Lake Natron sometimes reaching a scalding 60°C (140°F).
Then there are the razor-sharp clumps of salt that almost left camera operator Matt Aeberhard stranded in the caustic waters after his hovercraft got shredded while filming the BBC's A Perfect Planet.
The extreme saltiness of the soda lake wouldn’t turn you to stone like a glance from Medusa, but it would sting like hell if you had any cuts or breaks in the skin. Imagine what happens when you step into the salty ocean with a graze, it’d be like that but a lot worse.
Then you have that near-bleach alkalinity which too would get pretty burny the longer you lingered in the water. Depending on rainfall the exact pH changes but at its worst, you’d end up with corrosive burns. Not fun.
What would happen if your body was submerged in Lake Natron?
It’s not known for sure how the animals in Brandt’s photo series died, it’s possible some may have died of natural causes and then fallen into the water. Another theory centers around the uniquely mirror-like surface of the water which disorientates flying animals sometimes causing them to crash into the lake.
Were you to drown or have your body chucked into Lake Natron, the water's high salt content would stop the decomposition process meaning you'd be preserved like a pickle in brine. You could even end up like the crunchy creatures in Brandt’s images if the water evaporated enough to expose and dry your body.
“Discovering [these animals] washed up along the shoreline of Lake Natron, I thought they were extraordinary — every last tiny detail perfectly preserved down to the tip of a bat's tongue, the minute hairs on his face,” HuffPost quoted Brandt from his photo book Across the Ravaged Land.
“The soda and salt causes the creatures to calcify, perfectly preserved, as they dry."
If you don’t like the idea of turning into a salty statue, you could always go the other watery way of processing bodies: aquamation.
Has anyone ever fallen into Lake Natron?
There have been several helicopter crashes involving Lake Natron, some of which may have happened for the same reason so many migrating birds end up in the water. One in 2007 included a group of wildlife photographers who were hoping to film when their helicopter plunged into the lake.
“The skids hit the water and we just crashed and smashed into pieces,” Sydney cameraman Ben Herbertson told The Sydney Morning Herald. “The next thing I knew I was in the lake and the water was burning my eyes.”
Herbertson and his crew survived with the help of the local Masai Tribe who worked their walking sticks into makeshift stretchers to carry them out of the water, but it was a bad experience.
“It was so sweltering you could dehydrate in about half an hour,” he said. “The sweat ran down your forehead and the sulphur would run back into your eyes.''
Want our advice? Admire the magnificent waters from a safe distance.