By Alexey Zaytsev.
Did you know that deep diving is possible not only in the seas and oceans, but also in the mountains?
Blue Lake is situated in the North Caucasus, in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic (the Russian Federation), at a height of 900 metres above sea level. This mountain republic is a mecca for amateur hikers, mountaineers, downhill skiers and snowboarders.
The First Dive
The sunken tree trunks in the shallows are followed by weed-covered slopes, which further turn into a canyon. The canyon unexpectedly ends with a rocky wall that goes vertically down. At the edge of the abyss the depth is 40 metres. I swim off the edge and stop over the emptiness. The water transparency is about 30 metres, the semi-darkness, the lifeless ‘Martian’ rocks of the limestone go into a frightening but enticing depth. There is more than two hundred metres of water below me. You may ask – so, what of it? In the Red Sea, Egypt, near the Ras Mohammed National Park, the wall is almost a kilometre deep and dozens of divers swim there every day without even thinking of the depth. Yes, in the warm Red Sea, in the light blue water, surrounded by colourful fish and admiring the corals, you do not notice the depth. You are simply distracted from it. But here, in the dark and cold depth of Blue Lake, you are one-on-one with the abyss. Nothing distracts you from watching its ascetic beauty.
This is the name I gave to the vertical wall of fifty metres, to the left of the water entrance. The pilots of bathyscaphes exploring the gloomy abyssal depths of the ocean must see similar scenes. The lake’s maximal (explored) depth is 258 metres. Imagine – if the 328m tall Auckland Sky Tower was placed in Blue Lake, it would be submerged in water together with its observation decks and restaurants! Only the 70-metre long part of its spire would be above the water… There is no stream in the lake and I slowly move along the rock at a depth of 30 metres. Only the flashes of my flashgun lighten the semi-darkness of the abyss. Trying to convey the scale and sense of depth, I chose to angle my camera upwards from the depth. The lake surface is as smooth as a mirror and only slight ripples and air bubble circlets on the water allow distinguishing it from the blue sky with its white cumulus clouds. The water is so transparent that it seems to me that my buddy does not swim, but flies in the blue July sky, blowing soap, not air bubbles.
I leave the depth and go up along the wall of the limestone heterogeneous in colour and texture, the layers of various rocks of all shades of yellow, brown and green intersperse with insertions of blue clay and sulphur. It becomes light, algae appear and I get in to an ‘aquarium’ – the shallow water zone adjacent to the mouth of the river flowing from the lake. It is as if the great aquarium designer from Japan, Takashi Amano, has worked at this landscape. The sunken trees and snags, covered with algae as if with a century-old moss, golden meadows of musk grass, the water surface, through which the trees overhanging the water are visible, occasional boulders and sunken tree trunks grown in the muddy slopes – a true Eastern garden. One can swim here for hours admiring the atmospheric dance of sunbeams at the bottom and looking for the best shooting angles. In the tangle of branches and roots of sunken trees one can see the Loch Ness monster, the evil orcs from The Lord of the Rings and surreal pieces by Salvador Dali.
The deepest in the Russian Federation and the second deepest in the world, this karst (cave) lake has got its name for its characteristic smell of hydrogen sulphide (‘Tserik-Kel’ in Balkar means ‘a stinky lake’). The water, the transparency of which sometimes reaches up to 50 metres on dry summer days, is saturated with this gas and magnesium salts. Evidently, for this very reason, the lake is not densely populated. Several types of weed and sand hoppers constitute the whole biodiversity. But the beauty of this lake is not in its flora and fauna. The underwater landscapes and high water transparency compensate for the absence of underwater life. The water does not freeze in winter, because its temperature is 8–9°C all year round. Somewhere on the bottom of the lake there is a spring fed by an underground river or even a whole system of underground reservoirs. The water flows out of the lake’s depth in an endless stream and forms a river. The river takes up to six million buckets of water from the lake daily!
The lake is almost a vertical shaft slightly widening at the base very deep down. The ascending waters have widened the shaft’s top and at the surface the lake’s maximum length is 235 metres and the width is 120–130 metres. The well is in the shape of an ellipse 150m long and 85m wide. The mountains make the climate mild and predictable. There is plenty of sun and clouds here. Heavy snowfalls are possible during the winter.
It is possible to dive in the lake round the year. In 2004, two Russian technical divers, Igor Galaida and Roman Prokhorov, set a diving record here at a depth of 180 metres. In 2005 they opened the first and currently the only diving centre there. As a natural pool Blue Lake is ideal for a deep diving training. There are dual air cylinders, cylinders for staging, nitrox, helium and gas mixture preparation equipment at the diving centre.
The conquering of the depths of Blue Lake is a dramatic story. On January 19 2012, British technical diver Martin Robson dived in the lake to a depth of 209 metres. But the price he paid for the record turned out to be very high. The support diver, Russian Andrei Rodionov, who was to wait for Martin at a depth of 60 metres, died – because of a rebreather breakdown he lost consciousness and drowned at 15 metres. Martin himself got a severe decompression disease and was saved only thanks to being evacuated to the air pressure chamber of Russian deep water rescuers. The treatment at the stationary pressure chamber helped and Martin survived…
In May 2016, the world freediving champions Guillaume Néry (France) and Alexei Molchanov (Russia) visited the lake. Guillaume and Alexei dived into the lake to a depth of 60 metres. I was lucky to watch them train and take pictures of them at a depth of 30 metres. The freediving popularity is growing and, who knows, perhaps Blue Lake will become a popular place for training.
So how about you? Are you ready to dive in the mountains?
About the Author:
Alexey Zaytsev was born in 1966 in Novosibirsk, USSR. His first dive was in 1984, and his first underwater photo was 1986. He is a professional underwater photographer, member of the Union of Journalists of Russia, and writes for numerous popular Russian magazines about diving as well as having also worked as Chief Editor of Maximum Depth and Dive Tech. He is also a certified PADI Instructor, published author and co-organiser of the Russian underwater photography festival “Wild Underwater World”.