René Lipmann explores Lake Baikal – the world’s oldest, deepest lake teeming with bizarre and beautiful life forms, more than half of which are found no where else on Earth. (Text and photos by René Lipmann)
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.
Getting there: Connect to Irkutsk airport: From Europe through
Moscow from Asia through Beijing, Shanghai, Ulan Bator, Bangkok or Seoul.
Best time to dive: There is ice from January to May, but the best months for ice-diving are March and April. For the Ice Diving Jeep Safari, February and March. The liveaboard Season is May to December.
Don’t dive without: Your drysuit and two ice-approved regulators.
Essential training: Advanced and Drysuit certifications. For diving under ice, specialist training is essential.
On arrival: Most foreign nationals need a visa to enter Russia, including citizens of European countries, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand. Check with your local embassy.
Dive with: Gennady Misan and Tanja Oparina own BaikalTek. Their dive operation is the largest in the area and provides ice-diving, liveaboards, seal safaris, technical and daily diving. Accommodation is primitive but comfortable. www.baikaldiving.ru
Currency: Russian Roubles
Time Zone: GMT + 9
For more information: www.visitrussia.org.uk