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Lake Baikal - The Pearl of Siberia

Diving in Siberia? Who doesn't think immediately of icy water and unspoilt nature? But above all we experienced the elemental beauty and the magical power of Lake Baikal during a breathtaking dive expedition.

Text and photos by Jerome Konen
(Trip from 1 - 19 August 2002)

Closely along the steep vertical wall, we let ourselves fall, the transparency of the water pulls us magically downwards. Although the light beam of our diving lamps reaches far down, it runs out in the darkness of the abyss. Along a crevice in the rock, a shoal of small fishes swims towards us and we decide to stop our descend. A view upwards let us guess the weak greenish daylight shining through.

Olkhon Island

The Olkhon island with it's spectacular steep walls ranks among the most spectacular dive spots of Lake Baikal. These walls continue under water with rock labyrinths, canyons and countless fissures, all are magnificently covered with sponges of different sizes and forms, gleaming and shining in the most intensive greens.

The rock Shamanka

Olkhon is the largest island on Lake Baikal with a surface of 700 km2, it is along the north-west coast in the middle part of the lake. It is sparsely populated, mainly by Buryats, asiatic people of Mongolian descent. Not far away from the bank is the deepest part of the lake with -1637m.

The north-east of the island ends in huge steep and bizarre cliffs. It's here as well where the lake has its largest width of 80km. A trueful magnificent and splendid sight unfolds before our eyes from the boat on the water surface of this gigantic sickle-shaped lake being 636km long. Its size and purity fascinate us over and over again, testify for the magical power coming from the Lake Baikal, this sacred Siberian sea.

A dream comes true

We were dreaming about this expedition for months, having done innumerable travel preparations for this diving adventure in Sibiria, a region of which quintessence stands for cold and roughness, but also for banishment and cruelty.

Our boat

We booked this one-week journey live aboard the comfortable motor ship, the "Jacques Yves Cousteau", named after the French dive pioneer. It belongs to the dive center "Aqua Eco", that is based in Irktusk and owned by Andrey Baranovsky. A four-man crew takes constantly care about our well-being on the boat, our home for the next days.

The ship is equipped with three cabins - two for passengers, each with four sleeping berths and one for the crew, a galley, toilet and shower. All navigation instruments and air compressors are on board, even a decompression chamber, located in our cabin, but we didn't feel like tying it out. The cook deserves a special praise, he surprises us three times a day how rich and delicious the Siberian dishes can be. What a delicacy!

Transparency of the cold

It's beginning of August, the algae bloom has already started and reduces the visibility considerably to less than 10m in the shallow water.

Details and Facts about Lake Baikal
Ushkani Islands
The Lake Baikal, geographically located in Siberia near the Mongolian border is surrounded by mountains, forests and wild rivers. It holds 20% of the earth's liquid fresh water and is the deepest and oldest lake on our planet.

Formation: 20-25 million years ago
Length: 636 km
Width: maximum 80 km
Depth: maximum 1637m
Shoreline: about 2000 km
Altitude: 454 m above sea level

336 rivers and streams are flowing in, only one, the Angara rivers flows out of Lake Baikal.

> View map of Lake Baikal (by Steven Weinberg)

However at a depth of -15m we penetrate through the upper layer and an amazing transparency opens into the deep abyss along the enormous steep walls. We feel the bitterly cold water upon our face. Diving this lake requires some special diving gear, a dry suit and two non-freezing regulators is recommended for safety reasons. Warm gloves or dry gloves will protect your hands from a chilblain. If the water at the surface has only just bath temperatures in August, the temperature in the depths is scarcely above 4°C. The highest degree of transparency in the lake Baikal can be observed in spring time after the lake is free from ice, the visibility can reach up to 40 m.

The changing moods of Lake Baikal

During the evening the wind starts blowing stronger. Our ship pitches through more and more higher waves, that are lashing against the bow. Standing upright on deck becomes almost impossible. Now the Lake Baikal let us guess for a while what a little toy a ship on this lake can be. The captain had told us before that the feared north-west wind can cause high waves of up to 6 m, however mainly during autumn.

The bad mood of the Baikal forces the crew to drop the anchor close to the bank, no way to continue this night. On the next day the lake receives us again with its sunny side. The daily early morning shower with pure Baikal water cleans skin and soul and gives strength for the day.

The TransSib

We do our last dives close to the old Transsiberian railway track in the lower part of the lake. The bank falls in a flat slope underwater and in the light of our diving torches the night dive becomes a visual event of the extra class. The bottom of the shallow water is unexpectedly filled with life.

Underwater Fauna
Photo by Jerome Konen

Here Gammarids, shrimp-like amphipods, have a true joy between countless snails who fill their evening plate. Spotted sculpins are lying camouflaged in the sand and lurking to catch a prey. Among Lake Baikal's fishes are more than 30 species in the sculpin family Cottidae, lots of different colors and mainly night active, they are lying in between the green sponges largely covering the ground.

Despite the rich fauna, the scenery appears calmly and of eases. The abundance of species makes me forget whether I'm diving in a lake or in the ocean. The amazing aquatic diversity is mainly endemic, can't be found nowhere else on earth, thus the underwater scenery can't be compared to any other lake or sea in the world.

On the next morning we make another dive on the same site, but the abondant night active fauna, which had caused me so much enjoyment, is now like vanished away. But the magic of Lake Baikal lets shine beautiful large sponges into the sunlight flooded water, a successful compensation for the absence of numerous species of the previous night dive.

At the end of our journey, the elemental and pristine beauty of Lake Baikal has moved our soul in a wondrous way, already now we feel the urge to come back again.

Excursions
Irkutsk
Also known as Paris of Siberia, located about 70km from the Lake Baikal. As the TransSib stops here, it's an ideal starting point to visit the Baikal region.

A must is the central market and the wooden architecture in the town centre.
Listvjanka
This most charming village is located right at the shore and should be your first stay at Lake Baikal.

Visit the Limnological Museum and the street market.
Olkhon Island
The largest island on Lake Baikal. A site of natural beauty and a place for various adventurous trips.

Book a trip to the north end of the island, an unforgettable view on Lake Baikal from the top of the bizarre cliffs..
Ushkani Islands
This group of islands is famous for the unique fresh water seals, called nerpas.

Nerpas are very shy and therefore difficult to observe closely.
The boat
Live aboard on the comfortable motor ship "Jacques Yves Cousteau".

This is the best way to explore the dive sites on Lake Baikal.



Expedition members:

Jerome Konen

Jerome Konen - instructor and photographer
Pascale Wallers - assisting photography
Paul Kieffer - diver and additional photography

Pascale Wallers Paul Kieffer

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> AQUA-ECO Dive Center

More Info
> Lake Baikal Homepage
> Lake Baikal Guidebook
> WWW Irkutsk
> Baikal Watch
> National Geographic News
> Yahoo! Weather -Irkutsk

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