IT’S ABOUT AN HOUR’S DRIVE from Siberia’s capital Irkutsk to Lake Baikal. The landscape is dissolute and endless, yet surprisingly full of colour. Light yellow soils tint the shimmering snow planes, and distant hills are covered with evergreen temperate forest and taiga. It is beautiful, calming.
Gennady Misan sits on the driver’s seat, and rouses himself from the sobriety of the landscape. “Ready, guys” he asks with a warming smile.
It is the last hill to climb. In front of us lies our planet’s most ancient lake: Lake Baikal.
It is as if we are hitting something. Everything intensifies: the colours, the air and the Russian music coming from the radio. The sound of rocks crushing the sides of the vehicle on this unpaved road. Gennady speeds up towards the waterfront, and before we can even think, he throws the Mitsubishi into a spin. This is unbelievable!
Frictionless, the car turns on its axis. The ice is as strong as steel – baby blue and lined with vertical fractures that form a white labyrinth in this unusual substrate.
A minute later, Tatiana Oparina arrives. Tatiana and Gennady own Baikal Tek, the biggest diving operation in the area. She pulls out a camping table to prepare local bread with bacon and mustard. Russian hospitality would not be complete without vodka, and four little cups are filled to the brim.
We sprinkle a few drops on the ice to ask for permission and prosperity.
“It is an ancient tradition,” Tatiana tells us.
The sweet vodka and sharp mustard immediately open up all my senses. Now I can feel the icy wind blowing in my face, here in the middle of Siberia.

DIVING SAFARI
Lake Baikal is located in the south of Siberia, between the Irkutsk Oblast to the north-west and the Buryat Republic to the south-east. The city of Irkutsk lies near its southern shores, and forms east Siberia’s biggest economic centre, with an extensive industrial sector.
The landscape is rendered somewhat grey by a montage of factories and Soviet apartment blocks. The city does, however, derive a certain charm from colourful churches and the beauty of the Angara River.
Going back in time, we leave this urban setting for a rural one, as part of the ice-diving safari we are on.
Carried by two massive 4x4s, we are travelling from place to place to dive in unique environments.
At night we stay at primitive settlements made up of traditional wooden houses called isbas, still heated by old-fashioned stoves. A shared banya, Russian for sauna, provides extra warmth as well as bathing, and forms an important social feature of the community here.
During the day we eat on the ice, but at night we dine with the locals.
Our first dive site is at Olkhon’s Vorota on the southern shore of Olkhon, Baikal’s biggest island. This island is home to the region’s indigenous Buryat people, descended from nomadic tribes in Mongolia.
Most of the population in the Irkutsk Oblast nowadays are ethnic Russians who migrated here around the 17th century.
Standing next to the maine, the Russian equivalent for “hole in the ice”, Tatiana attaches the rope to my BC.
It has been a while since I ice-dived, but I could hardly be more ready for the adventure that awaits me.
Descending to a shallow bottom, I perform a last equipment check and switch on my light. It’s unnecessary,
because natural daylight easily penetrates the crystal-clear ice. But something lurks from a much darker depth, reminding us of why we are here.
Cold cuts through the thick Neoprene gloves, and the air I breathe becomes dense and heavy. In the distance, as the light slowly vanishes, a greenish hue shimmers between the frozen ceiling and the rocky slope. It feels empty, lifeless.
But then, as if a window has opened to another world, a field of bright green sponges appears. Hundreds of them, jumping out of the ground, statically frozen into this inhospitable environment.
Adapting to the complete silence of this world, I find myself overwhelmed and mesmerised by a place so alien. It’s nature in its wildest form.

ENDEMIC
Lake Baikal contains a current estimate of 2500 animal and 1085 plant species, of which 80% are endemic. Among these is Lubomirskia baikalensis, a sponge unique to Lake Baikal, and thriving thanks to the oxygenated waters and high dissolved silica content.
Its skeletons are made up of silicates, which is rather unusual, as most marine creatures consist of calcite or calcium carbonate – the main constituent of limestone.
Tiny symbiotic algae are ensconced in the skin of the sponge, and deliver energy by means of photosynthesis.
It is because of these algae that the sponge has such a striking green colour.
Besides this filtering organism, Baikal is home to more than 250 amphipods. The Acantho gammaridae is the most extraordinary crustacean. Looking like an armoured weapon, with vicious spikes running across its body, this 10cm creature is not afraid to come up close and check you out.
Omul salmon are Baikal’s trademark delicacy, and the main fish of the lake is golomyanka, a kind of scalpin, which accounts for 80% of the fish population.
But best known to Baikal is the nerpa, the sole mammalian representative, and one of only two freshwater seals in the world. Though it is too early for them at this time of year, each spring their pups come out on the ice to catch their first glimpse of sunlight.
Every winter the lake freezes entirely. Water temperatures reach just below 0°C, and we encounter weather ranging from -25° to 5°.
As we exit the maines, our suits literally freeze over, which make them difficult to take off.
We use two first stages as a safety measure, in case a regulator free-flows.
A topside tender monitors us during the entire dive via ropes.
Tatiana and Gennady share many years of experience, and employ comfortable and safe practices.

HUMMOCKS
Rays of bright sun shatter off the steep cliff that makes up Khoboy Cape, bathing Baikal’s frozen plain with a heavenly silvery-white colour.
It is our second diving day, and it takes a good two-hour drive across the ice to get here. Lines of fractured ice, called hummocks, run across the icy platform. They reflect the light like a room full of broken mirrors.
Parked near one of the ice pinnacles, a white Lada makes this idyllic world somewhat more tangible. The maine has frozen, and it takes a good three hours to open it again.
Gennady assures us that the reward is worth the effort: “Wait until you get down there!”
He’s right. Because of the full transparency of the ice, you can see the cars and people from below. I absolutely love that.
Gennady leads us to one of the hummocks, where big boulders of ice are frozen into the ceiling. Their unruly and violent formation reflects nature’s dynamic forces.
In between them, we find little ice-caves and niches, some only just big enough to squeeze through.
The ice feels somewhat rubbery, though rock-hard and not slippery at all.
Closing in on the island shore, the ice forms a roof for tiny creatures that live on the rocky slope. Overthrown by the shadow of the wall, it is darker here; a bit spookier, but amazing.
It makes me feel alive. I am, after all, diving in a hidden world.

SJAMANKA
At 1637m, Baikal is the world’s deepest known lake. It contains roughly 20% of the world’s surface fresh water, and its geological history counts back to an estimated 20-30 million years. A geological heaven!
Lake Baikal was researched a lot during the Soviet Union years, though not much was translated until recently.
The Limnological Institute started underwater research in 1953, and in the ’80s deepwater research was conducted.
This proved that most of Lake Baikal’s sediments do not originate from the rivers flowing into the lake, but from the remains of diatom seaweed, which is in turn a silica-based unicellular organism, rather than calcareous-based.
Lake Baikal is a sedimentary basin created by the movement of two tectonic plates that form a rift and “strike slip margin”, literally moving past and away from each other.
The shores of the lake still move apart by several centimetres each year.
Close to Khuzhir, the main village on the island, the coast dips gently into the water. A huge rock pierces the ice, playing with the setting sun in the background. Shaman Rock is one of Asia’s most sacred places. The story of the god of Lake Baikal, named Burkhan, tells of a father and his 330 daughters, a metaphor for all the mountain streams flowing into the lake from the Barguzin Mountains.
When one of Burkhan’s daughters decided to break free to join her beloved, a “warrior river” in the west, her father threw a large rock to stop her.
But his actions were in vain, because the Angara river sprouts at the southernmost point of Baikal.
A maine gives us access to the rock under water. It is believed that old Burkhan resides in a hidden cave here. Huge ice sculptures form a layered dress around the weathered rock, and it is easy to lose sight of each other.
But when the visibility decreases and my regulator decides to malfunction, Gennady is right next to me to help me out. I feel safe and comfortable.
On our ascent, I notice a hut placed on the ice, quite close to the maine itself. On top, Tatiana smiles. It’s time for banya! The hot steam is welcoming after a cold dive, but when we get too hot, there is really only one way out.
Without much thinking, I take a giant stride and enter the blackness. Crushed by the freezing water and stabbed by what I am sure is a thousand knives, I break the surface again to breathe.
Within no time I am back on the ice, shaking from my own insanity. But I can only feel empowered by this pure contact with Siberia’s nature.

SPRINGTIME
An historic locomotive provides shelter from the cold as we change into our drysuits. The 3400-mile railroad that connects the lake to Moscow ends here.
The picture of what was once a vibrant destination on the Trans-Siberia Express now gives a desolate and nostalgic impression.
We are five days into our ice-diving adventure, and after a long drive from Olkhon we arrive 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, the same green sponges form a dense, temperate forest. Nothing remains of the static appearance we saw on our first dive – now I can feel the energy and movement.
Competing for any space available, these creatures are clearly alive.
And so are the prehistoric gamaruses, gastropoda, sculpin fish and much more.
Moving back to shallower waters the white, almost tropical, sandy bottom gets overlaid by a roofless water column and blue sky. Everything breathes. Diving here, you feel spring is at the front door.

PEARL OF SIBERIA
Listvyanka is a popular tourist destination, the result of its local fish market, colourful houses and spectacular hiking routes.
Since a dam was built in Irkutsk, the water level has risen slightly, causing minor flooding. An old pier serves as a beautiful dive site, called Krestovka.
Its wooden logs have drifted off, and fill up narrow canyons in the rugged shelf.
The pier itself is enclosed between the ice and shore, its parts covered in a thick bed of green algae. Beneath it lies an old cannon, bright red as a result of iron oxidation. It forms a sharp contrast with the endless blue ice.
It’s weird, but it almost seems as if the colours get deeper after a while.
The air sharpens, and roughens us, into a heightened state of observation.
It is not for nothing that people visit this magical place from all over the world. Most will say that they find spirituality here. I feel fortunate to see this place as a diver.
Entering this hidden underwater world, in such an extreme environment, confronts you with this place in its own kind of way; you are in and on top of it.
Our ice dive safari has proved to be one of the best dive destinations so far. We have only begun to grasp why Lake Baikal is named the Pearl of Siberia.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly to Moscow and connect to Irkutsk. A visa should be obtained in advance through the Russian embassy in London.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: 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, www.baikaldiving.ru/en. Accommodation is primitive but comfortable. The Russian cuisine is something to experience, says Eline. On the one hand it is mild and solid, but you also find a lot of raw fish, eaten in combination with vodka!
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: 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, www.baikaldiving.ru/en. Accommodation is primitive but comfortable. The Russian cuisine is something to experience, says Eline. On the one hand it is mild and solid, but you also find a lot of raw fish, eaten in combination with vodka!
WHEN TO GO: There is ice from January to May, but the best months for ice-diving are March and April.
MONEY: Russian ruble
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visitrussia.org.uk