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Tanzania’s Lake Natron has a grim reputation of turning vibrant, living creatures into lifeless stone-like statues. And when photographer Nick Brandt first published his famous series of black and white photos portraying some of Lake Natron’s wildlife as calcified mummies, travelers certainly stopped dipping their toes in the water.
While Brandt’s book, “Across the Ravaged Land,” depicted the lake as a place where wild creatures were killed and frozen in time when they touched its waters, the science is actually a bit more complicated than that.
Lake Natron is certainly not a reservoir you want you dive into and swim around with your eyes open — the water’s alkalinity of roughly 10.5 pH actually burns the eyes and skin of creatures who are not used to it — but it’s not exactly a place of impending doom either.
The lake has an extremely high sodium carbonate content, which is deposited in the lake as runoff from the nearby Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano. Remarkably, sodium carbonate is an excellent preservative and was at one time used in Egyptian mummification processes.
The stone-like, frozen-in-time creatures Brandt found unfortunately died in Lake Natron, but it’s not likely that they were killed by the alkaline water there. With few predators in the area and an excess amount of sodium carbonate in the water, the creatures were preserved far better than they normally would be and look eerily lifelike.
“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. The entire fish eagle was the most surprising and revelatory find,” Brandt told Huffington Post in 2013.
Although the lake is unbearably hot and has been known to reach temperatures as high as 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit), it does support an ecosystem that’s home to a number of wetland birds, tilapia grahami and a variety of algae and bacteria that thrive in such unique conditions.
Lake Natron is also the largest known breeding area for over 2 million endangered lesser flamingos, home to the warm Maasai tribal people and a place offering such breathtaking natural wonders that it should be on everyone’s travel radar.