Blog about Underwater Life and Scuba Diving

Ice Diving in Lake Baikal, Russia

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LOCATION – Buryat A.S.S.R. and Irkutsk, Russia

  • 51:29-55:46N, 103:40-109:55E; 456 m above sea level.
  • Surface area [km2] 31,500
  • Volume [km3] 23,000
  • Maximum depth [m] 1,741
  • Mean depth [m] 740
  • Length of shoreline [km] 2,000

One of Russian folk songs about Lake Baikal is called The Holly Sea – Sacred Baikal, and this is not by chance that the lake is called a sea. It actually possesses some of the sea qualities. Firstly, its dimensions and volume; secondly, its tectonic origin; thirdly, the in-lake water circulation is similar to that of a sea, namely, it is in constant movement – the lower water layers come to the surface and the surface waters go to the bottom, this process leads to the water being well saturated with oxygen, which, in its turn, results in dense biological diversity from bottom to surface. However, you will not be smashed species variety when going underwater. How come? Well, this is all because it is micro world that plays the first fiddle in the Baikal fauna. The best way to get a stunning view of the lake creatures is to look at them through the microscope in the Baikal Museum (located right on the shore in the settlement of Listvyanka). And this is the essence of Russia in general – appearances are deceptive. What looks dull turns out to be full of fun. Indeed, right was Winston Churchill when saying, “Russia is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside enigma”.

It is not by chance that I started my narration about ice diving in the Baikal with general information about the lake. You see, the process of the Baikal ice formation depends on special features of the lake. To start with, the Baikal is not completely covered with ice until last decade of January – beginning of February, i.e. well in the middle of winter. This is due to a number of reasons: on the one hand, the water accumulates warmth during summer time (even though in Listvyanka coastline the water temperature rarely goes higher than +10 Celsius (+50 F) and the warmest water in the bays is often around +18 Celsuis (+64,4 F)), so it takes quite a long time for the water to get cold enough to form ice crust. By the by, the best time to visit lake Baikal is early September – a real feast for a tired soul: woods full of autumn gold, the air is thick with herbal fragrances, the sky is as clear as a bell and the sun is still kindly warm as compared to the aggressive heat of the summertime. On the other hand – strong late autumn winds cause storms on the lake. The waves can get as high as 4 meters (13 ft). The ice starts forming in the north of the lake in late November – early December and gradually covers its surface, reaching the southern parts in early February. The best time to launch an ice-diving expedition is March – April. The sun is already warm enough for you to feel comfortable in the day-time (we usually make these funny pictures of us standing in our swimming suits with tons of snow and ice in the background); at the same time the ice is still thick enough (1-1.5 meters (3.3-5 ft)) to hold our deeps. So off we go!

The best place for ice diving in Lake Baikal is near the Olkhon island. It takes about 5 hours of traveling by car from Ikrutsk to get there. Cape Khoboy, Shamanka, Bolshiye Olkhonskiye Vorota (Olkhon Wide Gates) and Maliye Olkhonskiye Vorota (Olkhon Narrow Gates) are our destination points. Why? To start with, there is absolutely no snow on the ice in this area, because of the mountains of the coastal line – the snow falls in the mountains, never reaching the big island in the lake (this also explains the fact why there are very few rainfalls in the Olkhon during summertime). So the ice is crystal-clear and transparent here. Besides, thanks to the autumn winds, the ice is often broken in the early stages of its formation, which results in its unusual underwater surface – not just a plain flat ceiling, but a cave-like stalactite roof.

We usually combine diving with banya (Russian sauna). Say, a morning dive around 12 o’clock, then lunch, and several hours after lunch – banya (we have a banya house that travels on sleigh, so it can be pulled on ice) and refreshing jumping into the Baikal welcoming cold! Better try it once than read about it, as it feels as if you are born anew.

What else can be added? I sometimes feel lost for words when describing lake Baikal diving. It offers all sorts of challenges not only to freshmen in diving, but also to experienced techno and cave divers. To sum it up, I am not ready to put a dot at this point, saying – to be continued…

Article contributed by:

Andrey Bobkov
AI PADI  #270446
mobile: +7 914 950 20 46

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