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Ambassadors Programme

Explorer

Franco Banfi

Oct05

Diving in the blue pearl of Siberia

By Franco Banfi, Wednesday October 05, 2016
The ship MV Valeriya anchored in front of a beach, Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens inside a Seacam underwater housing; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/20, ISO 640.

The ship MV Valeriya anchored in front of a beach, Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens inside a Seacam underwater housing; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/20, ISO 640. © Franco Banfi

Lake Baikal, located in southern Siberia, Russia, impressed me with a number of superlatives: it is the deepest (1,642 metres), the largest per volume and the oldest freshwater lake on Earth, existing for more than 25 million years. It also contains about 20 percent of fresh non-frozen water of the planet.

Diving in the Baikal was different than anything I’ve dived so far. Not because of the low temperature (with an average water temperature between 4-6 °C), to which I’m used to because I often dive in the Alps’ lakes and other chilly waters, but because of the clarity of the azure waters, cliffs, deep walls and omnipresent neon green lights that let divers’ hearts beat faster!

Diving in the Baikal is recommended only with dry suits and to divers who are not afraid of cold water. From one point of view, the Baikal is considered technical diving. One of the main issues is the cold temperature, not only for the divers, but also for the scuba gear which undergoes particular, uncommon operative conditions. The same conditions have to be faced by photographic gear – beyond the known problems with battery endurance – mostly the underwater housings and strobes, which must be fitted with specific devices.

In 1996, the Baikal region was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Lake Baikal is the largest reservoir of fresh water on Earth (almost 24 percent of fresh water reserves of our world) and has a volume of 23,000 km3, which is greater than the Baltic Sea. The catchment area of the lake and its tributaries is around 1.5 million km2. That's more than four times the size of Germany.

Lake Baikal and its environment have unique flora and fauna: about two-thirds of some 1,500 animals and 1,000 plant species are endemic. Diving there was like landing on a strange new planet for me. The large green sponges growing everywhere like a forest, on a similar green bottom covered by different soft mosses and lichens, were nothing that I have ever seen before. Many of the large sponges were colonised by small, psychedelically coloured anthropods with far too many legs.

Because the lake is steadily deeper, the animals had plenty of time to adapt, so also at a depth of 1.6km, a high diversity of species is found. One of the only two occurring freshwater seal species of the world lives in Lake Baikal: the Nerpa, also called Baikal seal. The Omul, Coregonus migratorius, a whitefish species of the salmon family and the Golomjanka, a fatty fish, which is the deepest living freshwater fish on Earth. These fish have managed to preserve eyesight even at the greatest depths, although they see only in black and white.

The lake counts 52 species of fish and 27 of them are endemic to the lake. There are more than 350 species and subspecies of amphipods and all are endemic. They are exceptionally diverse in ecology and appearance, ranging from the pelagic Macrohectopus to the relatively large deep-water Abyssogammarus. The "gigantism" of some Baikal amphipods, which has been compared to that seen in Antarctic amphipods, has been linked to the high level of dissolved oxygen in the lake.

Green sponges (Lubomirskiidae), Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens inside a Seacam underwater housing; with two Seaflash 150 strobes; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/8, ISO 320.

Green sponges (Lubomirskiidae), Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens inside a Seacam underwater housing; with two Seaflash 150 strobes; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/8, ISO 320. © Franco Banfi

Amphipod gammarus (Acanthogammarus victorii), Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens inside a Seacam underwater housing; with two Seaflash 150 strobes; the exposure was 1/15sec at f/13, ISO 160.

Amphipod gammarus (Acanthogammarus victorii), Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens inside a Seacam underwater housing; with two Seaflash 150 strobes; the exposure was 1/15sec at f/13, ISO 160. © Franco Banfi