A solar energy desalination process utilizing solar radiation directly for the evaporation of salt water is described. Ambient air takes on water vapor as the air passes through an evaporative medium. It is then directed between a saline water-covered, solar absorbing surface and a solar collecting housing. The resulting heated and moisture-saturated air is cooled in a heat exchange means where condensation of fresh water occurs. Simultaneously, cool salt water is utilized as the cooling water in the heat exchange means, and takes on the heat of condensation given up by the condensing vapor. The heated salt water from the heat exchange means is partially directed over the solar absorbing surface, and at least a portion of it is also directed to wet the evaporative medium. Several optional sub-processes are described for operation of the system during periods of reduced insolation, and an alternative process is described for operation of the process on a floating platform.