Siberian Summer

Siberian Summer

By Andrew Penniket

The tourist books call it the Sapphire of Siberia.The tourists call it Lake Baikal. But at one stage I was calling it about twice a week. I had been communicating with Kiril Ivanov of the Baikal Museum who was organising our filming expedition to the lake in May 1999. Our mission was to film life around Baikal, the world’s deepest, oldest and largest lake (by volume), for the Natural History New Zealand / NHK Japan co-production – Wild Asia, for the freshwater episode of the eight part series.

From New Zealand we had a rather round about route via Japan to pick up a new hi-definition camera, via Frankfurt and Moscow, where we had a brief stop (and I got told off for having my hands in my pocket in Lenin’s tomb) and on to Irkutsk, gateway to Baikal. Here we were met by Kiril and a couple of dilapidated vans. After the customary debate over something I couldn’t understand with someone wearing a uniform, we were allowed to load all our gear and disappear.

We trundled through herds of very Russian looking cars and wonderful apartment blocks from the Soviet concrete brutalist school of architecture. It was just like being in a spy movie. After a bit of shopping for supplies (me pointing and grunting) we headed on through silver birch and larch forest. It was all very beautiful with new spring leaf just appearing and drifts of snow on the ground. After an hour we came to the Angara River and finally Baikal itself, a huge sea cradled among the mountains and stretching over the horizon to the north (Baikal is over 700 kms long) and to the south, 70 km across the lake, more high white mountains.

Baikal is said to hold 20% of the world’s freshwater and it looked very cold! After a day or two of local hospitality while we assembled and checked our gear, Paul Donovan (camera) Peta Carey (behind-the-scenes camera) and I (underwater camera) soon found out there was some local etiquette to be observed. Number one: you don’t call it a lake. Either Baikal or The Sea is acceptable. If you call it a lake, Burkhan the maker-god of Baikal gets annoyed and makes the sea very rough. The only way to placate Burkhan was to toast him with vodka and throw a splash over your shoulder. I was also warned that being a film crew we would almost certainly anger him often so we should bring a case or two (best be two) of vodka – preventative measure I was assured.

We met Dr Failkov – museum director, Valodia – chief diver, Michaelis – seal scientist, and the crew of the very solid looking Topec, built along classic soviet lines – steel, half boat/half submarine, and almost identical to most of the other vessels. One design for all. We settled into the rear bunk room with mattresses slightly less comfortable than 4 inch nails and prepared with some obligatory toasts to Burkhan.

We set off on a beautiful evening on a journey that would take us over half way up the lake. It was a still surface, larch forest flowing down the steep coastal hills and the sun low over the western mountains. Next morning, after dreaming I was working in a dark noisy quarry, I was awoken by a change in revs in the drive shaft, located not far from my head. And there was a curious slushing sound. Stumbling up to the deck I was almost floored by the cold blast – I’d forgotten this was Siberia. And then I saw an endless expanse of ice stretching into the pale morning light, a very strange and very beautiful scene.

We had reached the edge of the ice, and in the distance was our first group of nerpa, the very cute freshwater seals only found in Baikal. No one quite knows how they made it here, two thousand kilometres from the Arctic Ocean, into which Baikal drains. We were told there are about 100,000 of the nerpa in the lake but each year up to 10,000 are shot for their pelts and meat.

Over the next few days we motored and floated around in circles, repeatedly stalking up to groups of seals lounging and sleeping on the ice flows, attempting to get close enough to not only actually see them in frame but even to get some behaviour. It was definitely a challenge. Each day Paul quietly paddled and drifted among the patches of ice, dressed in white and with the entire dinghy white. It was serious business. We also met white boat loads of hunters, all dressed in white. Even their high velocity rifles and the wind shields were white.

We steamed around, smashing through drifts of ice which disintegrated into thousands of dagger-like shards of ice that tinkled and cracked louder than the G’n’Ts at my Aunt’s 80th. Then in the distance, floating among the bizarre ice mirages, we would spy a group of shimmering spots on the ice – basking nerpa. Sometimes, to the north on the lake, we could see mirages of mountains that were hundreds of kilometres further north still. On about our fourth day Paul and Kiril managed to get onto a floe with a group of nerpa and got some excellent footage. The pups certainly looked cute on the replay. But it hadn’t been easy, Paul had had to lie on the ice for four hours, waiting. Now it was my turn for a lucky break.

I had made a couple of test dives, to check my suit and the camera housing, and to remind myself just how cold cold is. And yes, the water was an embracing 2°C. But there is not a lot to see in the middle of a lake a mile deep – just the underside of ice, which is very pretty I should add. But finally, while Paul was off stalking in one direction, we managed to get close to another group. At 200 metres I quietly rolled over the side of the slender wooden dinghy, a special design that locals use among the ice, and sneaked through the floes toward the seals. In places the floes were bigger and thicker and I had to dive between patches of open water, progressing slowly. Then suddenly a seal appeared just a few metres away. It was curious, but very wary so I pressed the record lever and edged closer. It turned and fled. But then a few moments later returned for another look.

This went on several times, and then the seal swam up for a close look before diving down into the depths. Considering they are a hunted animal it was a great encounter and I continued on to the big ice floe. Another seal swam past, putting on an extra burst of speed to get clear. And then suddenly several shot past at high speed, leaving nothing but trails of bubbles (I won’t mention the excrement, urine, hair and seal snot). Peering above water I could see the other seals had been alerted and had vacated the premises.

That night the boat crew made an admirable effort to appease any anger that Burkhan might feel. Everything from the cameraman’s steady hand and good eye to Princess Diana were toasted but the one that got me was the toast to the last toast, followed by the last toast!

Later in the trip I dived around the spectacular coast of Baikal and saw everything from murky weedy backwaters with perch, to clear water and vertical cliffs and canyons, with gardens of green sponges festooning the rock walls like an inverted cacti desert. There are over twelve species of sponges here, including one endemic family that seems to have origins in the sea. They even have a freshwater tubeworm (polychaete) elsewhere known only in the sea. And then there were the huge isopods that clustered under the rocks, waiting for nightfall. Yellow- fin sculpins were the most spectacular of a fairly unspectacular bunch of small inshore fish. The males were all busy courting females and guarding nests of gelatinous eggs cemented under rocks. There are around 50 species of fish, including sturgeons which are now exceptionally rare.

Amazingly, Baikal is also home to a seine fishing industry – (imagine purse seiners working the waters of Lake Taupo). The main target on Baikal being a couple of salmonid species –the greyling and the omul. We tasted these exquisite fish many times as the boat crew traded cigarettes and vodka for them with passing fishing vessels. And then each night the skipper, Sasha, would just drive the Topec up the shore and drop the gang- plank off the front. With no tides to worry about life is simple. Next a fire on the beach and out would come a smoke box and in would go some siberian pine cones and omul. It was divine. And while we waited, a couple of toasts to appease Burkhan.

Valodia, the chief diver, was an exceptionally helpful sort and we had long conversations about the weather, gesticulating at clouds and pondering wind directions, understanding hardly a word the other was saying. When we got back to the Baikal Museum Valodia showed me some of his considerable assortment of old Soviet diving equipment, including his Flash Gordon era rebreather. Apparently they were very good devices. The old dry suits were the most impressive, however. They have no zips but just a big rubber neck in the back that you fold over and over and tie a string around. You were totally sealed inside! And get this, the Russians were still making old-style hard hats until 1997!! Needless to say, the Baikal team were extremely appreciative of four brand new Moray dry suits that we took over for them. Could this be Moray’s first export to Russia?

Valodia also invited me on a wreck dive – Baikal style, on one of several submerged cars that dotted the lake, where they had broken through thin ice. No mention of the occupants. Sadly, our schedule did not permit it.

Well, the vodka toasts to Burkhan seemed to have worked. We had marvellous weather for most of our stay. In the end we were very sad to depart beautiful Baikal and the friends we had made but I knew we were overdue to leave. Not only had I got used to straight vodka, I was starting to look forward to it.

scroll to top