THE PEARL OF SIBERIA
By René Lipmann
Baikal: The world’s oldest, deepest lake is an ocean in the making, teeming with bizarre and beautiful life forms, more than half of which are found no where else on Earth
CAPE KHOBOY We arrive by Jeep from Irkutsk and drive over the frozen Lake Baikal. We have to be careful; gas bubbles can make the ice very thin in winter. We see locals trying to save their sunken truck. We overnight on the ice at Olkhon Island, 300 kilometres from Irkutsk. To get under the ice we’ve used a large hole made by adult seals for hunting. Adult seals have one breathing hole, but this hole has many auxiliary openings. Suddenly, I’m hundreds of kilometres from any ocean and diving with a seal pup! With his beautiful silvery grey coat, the freshwater pup swims in circles around my bubbles. He is very interested in the dome port on my camera – it works like a mirror. He wants to play with that other “puppy” and tries to catch it! When I look through the lens, the pup is looking straight into my eyes. OK, it’s freezing cold, but now I’m melting! I can see his mother through the crystal clear ice floor. She is waiting to feed her pup. Then an adult seal slips through the hole, and starts maintaining it, scraping at it with strong claws to keep it open. Incredible! This is the adventure I was looking for when I took the plane to Moscow.
WATER TEMPERATURE: Between 0.5 and 1.5°C.
VISIBILITY: The best visibility is usually between January and mid March where it is often around 40 to 45 metres. Ice diving is still possible in late March although the visibility may drop to around 10 metres as the snow starts to melt.
MAX DEPTH: 10 to 15 metres
OTHER CONDITIONS: Ice, ice, ice! Air temperature is –35°C!HIGHLIGHTS: Lake Baikal seal, or nerpa. Massive colonies of sponges, bullheads, graylings. Unusual topography,
ice formations, caves and grottoes. CHANCE ENCOUNTERS: You might be lucky enough to observe a school of endemic fish called omul, Coregonus autimnalis.
LIFE LIKE SCIENCE FICTION A historic locomotive provides shelter from the cold as we change into our drysuits. The 5,500-kilometre railroad that connects the lake to Moscow ends here. What was once a vibrant destination on the Trans-Siberia Express is now desolate and nostalgic. We are in Listvyanka, a small settlement not far from Irkutsk. Today we are conducting an open-water dive, because the stream of the Angara River prevents the water from freezing. Thriving on a carpet of stone, lurid green sponges form a dense forest. All is energy and movement. Competing for any space available, these creatures are clearly alive. And so are the prehistoric arthropods, gamaruses, gastropoda, sculpin fish and much more. During the dive we even watch a comedy of ducks feeding on the underwater weeds! Moving back to shallower waters the white, sandy bottom looks almost tropical, overlaid by a roofless water column and blue sky. Everything breathes. Diving here, you feel spring is at the front door. Our ice dive safari proves to be one of the best dive safaris I have ever done, and we’ve only just begun to grasp why Lake Baikal is named the Pearl of Siberia.
HIGHLIGHTS: The acanthogammaridae – a family of amphipod crustaceans, endemic to Lake Baikal – must be one of the weirdest amphipods around: it looks like an ancient fossil! Baikal shrimps, Acanto gammaridae. Sponges, bullheads, and schools of graylings on night dives. CHANCE ENCOUNTERS: If you’ve got air in your tank, you can enjoy the magnificent drop-off, swathed in massive sponge colonies. WATER TEMPERATURE: Between 0.5 and 1.5°C. VISIBILITY: Very good, takes my breath away, 30 metres for sure. MAX DEPTH: 30 to 35 metres. OTHER CONDITIONS: Open water. Listvyanka is a popular tourist destination, the result of its local fish market, colourful houses and spectacular hiking routes. LOGISTICS: Listvyanka is 70 kilometres by car away from Irkutsk, and the dive site is easily accessible. SDOP
SURFACE INTERVAL MUST TASTE: Baikal fish, omul and grayling, Buryat meat dumplings, buuzi, buhler, a local broth, and kvass, a fermented grain drink made from bread. And vodka, of course, lots of vodka. DON’T FORGET YOUR… Shorts and sneakers in the summer, and jacket, warm shoes and insulating base layers for the winter. MUST SEE: The historic centre of Irkutsk, the Museum of Wooden Architecture in Taltsy, and the Baikal Limnological Museum in Listvyanka. YOU’VE GOT TO TRY Under-ice hockey in the winter, and trekking or along the Circum-Baikal railway in the summer. STAY HERE: Nikita’s Bencharov Hotel and Homestead in the winter, on Olkhon Island, or, in the summer, on the safari boat Valeria. IF YOU TIME IT RIGHT: Catch the impressive annual Ice Sculpture Festival, which normally takes place in February. DID YOU KNOW? Around 20 tonnes of gold belonging to the last Tsar of Russia, reportedly worth tens of billions of dollars, are rumoured to have been lost or stashed at Lake Baikal. It is likely that the gold is resting at the bottom of the lake, but so far, the treasure has not been recovered!
René Lipmann from the Netherlands, started diving in 1982, making his first 'try dive' at the age of seven. Today he is editor in chief of the Dutch dive magazine Duiken. He prefers to dive in the cold waters of Antarctica, the Arctic, the White Sea, Lake Baikal, Newfoundland and Scandinavia. His interests range from fresh water and marine life, to wrecks and caves.
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