The record dive in Lake Baikal
...It has a smooth surface of 31471km, spreading out between 106 and 109 longitude and 52 and 56 latitude. 2100m of shore line, which are moving apart from each other 2cm a year. It is 25 million years old chalice containing 23 000 cubic kilometers of fresh water and having the maximum depth of 1637m...All this is the greatest lake on the planet - Lake Baikal.
Yet despite its access and openness, Baikal remains "terra incognita" for most of the diving society. Diving in Lake Baikal...There are only a few divers these days who can proudly demonstrate their log-book with such a note. And only several people (may be ten of them) who did some research diving beyond the recreational dives. The subject of our story is deep diving in lake Baikal.
...Sunny summer morning. It is a bit chilly. The sky is absolutely clear and the day is going to be hot. A boat named after a legendary explorer "Jacque Ives Cousteau" clears the pier in the Listvyanka village which is 70km from Irkutsk and makes way for a dive site with a mysterious name Baranchiki. It is mysterious because nobody remembers where the name came from and the place itself is not marked on any map. Only real Baikal "wolves" who know the waters as well as their own five fingers can find it. Our crew is one of them. It takes us about an hour to go in the Southern direction and we are there. The boat docks at a small pier. The view on the shore is picturesque - rocks with a ten meter precipice are overgrown with pine trees. A refreshing sound of a mountain river is heard in the distance. Also there is a famous Baikal Circum Railroad built more than a century ago in the times of Zarist Russia. Going up to the shore and walking a bit more than a kilometer to the left or right you can find majestic tunnels cut out of a rock with their arches up to six meters. When you enter the tunnel it seems like nothing is easier than to walk through it. But it is a deceptive impression. 100m inside the rock, the sun light on the edges of the arches disappears with every step. After several meters and you find yourself in absolute darkness. Both the unexplained feeling of fear and a wish to find life-saving light overcomes a diver. Several more meters and you see a glimpse of the sun light in the distance.
Walking through the tunnel is like a forerunner of diving into the dark yet surprisingly clear water of the lake. We come back to the boat where a substantial breakfast is waiting for us, it is necessary before diving in cold water. After this we need about two hours to get ready and check the equipment. By the way, the boat is equiped with all the necessary gear for deep water diving. There is a decompression chamber there and also a considerable supply of high nitrox and clear oxygen. All the members of the crew have special knowledge and can efficiently help in emergency cases. Experienced Baikal divers are getting ready with deliberate and planned actions. Their levels are from Advanced Nitrox to Advanced Trimix Diver. Everyone has an assigned task. No bustle and no crush on the deck. Everyone knows that quiet and detailed preparation is a guarantee of successful diving.
The equipment: there are 15 liter steel tanks with dual valves and 24 liter double tanks, stages for 8, 10 and 12 liters. Nitrox is prepared right on the boat. So it is possible to select the equipment and prepare a mix depending on the specific tasks of a dive. The pressure in the tanks and the contents of the mix are thoroughly checked and signed by everybody. The presence of a technical instructor does not reduce the individuals responsibility for his own dive. The next step is fastening compensators. Everyone has double chamber wings. Despite the fact that everybody has his own equipment, a local dive-center has all the necessary stuff both for recreational and technical diving. Having two regulators is an obligatory condition for technical as well as standard dives. It is one of Baikal necessities. In summer months (June, July), the air temperature rises to +35°C in the day time and it drops to +18°C at night. The water temperature in the bays and coves warms up to +18°C ... +23°C and it warms up to +8°C and sometimes +10°C in surface lays of open spaces. But it is just an illusion. At a depth of 10 meters you will find a sudden thermoclin - the water temperature drops down to +1°C ... +2°C. Even if you are going to dive no deeper than 10-12 meters, you can find yourself in icy-cold water. Now it is worth mentioning one phenomenon connected with internal Baikal winds. There are several winds which differ in their strength, direction, periods and places of flowing. One of them is the North-West. The strength of this wind is enough to start the movement of deep water layers (down to 1000 meters) and to lift them to the surface. It is quite possible that after having the first dive in the comfort of warm water and 2-3 hours rest on the boat, the second dive will have to be done in a completely different place. Temperature fluctuation caused by mixing of deep and surface waters can be up to +12°C during only several hours. Really stable warm water comes only from September to December when the whole mass of water from the depth to the surface of the lake warms up to +3°C ... +4°C. The North-West wind brings arctic icy water which is met with gladness by the local divers because diving in warm water is not considered " good". In summer plankton starts to bloom and the visibility can drop down to zero. The water becomes deep yellow-greenish. Sometimes it is impossible to see your own hand (especially in sandy shallow water). And we cannot even talk about group diving unless you swim shoulder to shoulder. Cold water conceals the danger of freezing to the diver and the gear as well. Despite all the equipment being marked as "stable to freezing", it happens that the first stage freezes on free-flow. The second stage, an inflator or a valve on your suit can also freeze. We do not use the classical combination - regulator plus octopus on Lake Baikal. We use two independent regulators instead, and one of them is on a two meter hose which is a lot safer, especially when using dry suits. The main breathing is through the "long hose" and it guarantees meticulous work of the breezing gear for a partner in emergency cases. So, all the equipment is prepared and checked. It is time to dress. In dry suits, of course. Though there are some bold spirits who risk to dive in "sevens" or even "fives" (!) yet I do not know anybody who managed to stay in the water for more than half an hour. And it is good to have dry gloves or three fingers gloves with double obturation at least. Hands are the first parts which starts to freeze, approximately in 20-25 minutes after the start of a dive. Your gloves must be correctly selected if you are able to make long decompression dives. Light is also a necessary condition for deep diving on Baikal. Despite crystal transparency of the water and visibility up to 50-60 meters on gloomy days, weak sunlight cannot breach the dark mass of water and diving deeply becomes like a "night" dive. The optimal situation is to use light systems with a powerful battery light that is enough for diving at 60-70 meters.
... Now everybody is dressed and ready. Copies of dive plans are left on the boat. Insure that divers are prepared and ready to be in the water at any time. This is the last check of you and your partners equipment such as computers, compasses, lights, buoys, reels and That the stages are fastened conveniently and solidly. The side is opened. Just a long step and we are in the water. We put our faces in the water to check the visibility. That is right! The computer displays +8°C. There are not more than 2,5-3 meters under the boat but the bottom is invisible. We are moving on the surface towards a drop-off. The western part of Baikal (where we are now) differs from the eastern one by the relief of the bottom and suitability for diving. The eastern shore is sandy and gently slopping but the western one is like a flat shelf with the depth of 3-6 meters in 50-100 meters from the shore line ending with a steep walls and ledges going to nowhere. Just a few minutes free relaxed moving of the fins and we are at the edge of a drop-off. Having put our faces without masks in the water we start "water breathing". The mask is on and the second stage is in our mouth. We exchange OK once again and go down.
At 6 meters the visibility is getting better. The temperature is going down: it reads +6°C on the display. It is still possible to observe the friends hanging near by. Now the last mutual check before falling into abyss. The balance is normal, the gear is working perfect and everything is hermetic so we can continue. 20 meters, the visibility is great. The temperature is +2°C. An absolute vertical wall is seen down. Realizing the fact that hundreds or probably thousands meters of water are under you fascinates and attracts you. The feeling of diving to unexplored world appears. It is like flying into the space. At 40 meters it is getting a bit darker and sounds are becoming muffeld. At 55 meters it is an absolute darkness. Like in a tunnel and there is not any sun light. Almost no sounds are heard. We stop for a few seconds to enjoy the darkness and the silence. We wont have this opportunity afterwards. Nothing is seen. No wall which was just in half a meter and now dissolved in the space, no computer reading. It is impossible to know where up or down or left or right is. Only if the brain is working perfectly you avoid getting lost in this void, but if you loose control just for a second you can finish your dive. You loose an orientation instantly. Your breathing is rapid and the whole body is seized with panic. And an age-old fear death occurs. A few seconds seems like an eternity. We need to turn the light on and do down. Mistakes at great depth are inadmissible. Only a few people can afford the luxury of deep diving in such absolute darkness. The strong light cuts through the water mass. The wall finds its outline. A large number of snails going about their own lives do not pay any attention to us creatures swimming around. You feel better and more pleasant because you are not alone. The computer is counting meters. The regulator starts to pass tiny pieces of ice. Just a few seconds separate you from free flow. Control your breathing is so important. You have to do everything to avoid rapid breathing. Meter by meter down. The wall now has a negative slope, creatures per unit of area decreases and the darkness becomes even thicker. At 100 meters it is as though you pass an invisible line. And you keep going further. You are left by yourself for a few minutes. An absolute darkness and silence is around you. No movement. It is very warm though the water temperature is still the same +2°C. Just your heart thump is felt. All the problems are left somewhere up above your mind is working clearly but all your thoughts direct inside you. Complete relaxation. You join a piece of another world during these moments and you understand you place in it better. You discover yourself new and you check your self-possession and personality. Then all good must end and your computer gives you a signal of necessity to start going up. Decompression stops differ from those going down because they give you an opportunity to see the surrounding nature in details and to observe the macrolife which is quite rich in lake Baikal. At 50 meters you soar above the abyss like a space ship in the weightlessness. There is a tremendous mountain scenery under you and in front of you with breaks, small caves and tiny shelves where you can hardly catch hold with a hand. There is a absolutely fantastic underwater canyon somewhere in the front. The aesthetics enjoyment is interrupted by free flow of the regulator of my decotank. Low water temperature makes itself felt. The next meters of decompression have to be spent in "open-close" valve regime. 12 meters. The wall has finished. Underwater amphitheatre appears to the eyes. Huge boulders overgrown with sponges are situated in half circles. Sandy bottom is seen. Probably fish meet here on weekends? Now the divers are gathering here who have started the dive together after deviding according to their plans. Now everybody is "hanging" on decompression. At 6 meters is the longest period. The frozen hands start to warm up in the surface lay of water. A red buoy is thrown out. Support divers on the surface should be sure that everything is good. It takes 70 minutes to wait for the diver who dived to more 100 meters to come out. Now it is possible to relax finally and observe crustacea, bullheads and other small things rooting around in the sand. A huge pike is hiding behind the nearest stone and scrutinizing the people with curiosity. It is not scared at all. Hanging above it for ten minutes in half a meter distance did not cause it move even for a centimeter. You can just stretch out you hand and you lunch is quaranteed. But let us leave Baikal inhabitants alone because disturbance of any harmony working ecosystem always turns against us. 3 meters. The decompression is over. We are coming back to the boat. The visibility is still almost zero. The orientation is only according to gear and you own feelings. The ladder appears at last. All the equipment is taken off and left in the water. Fatigue and imperceptible delight is seen on everybodys face. We all look at each other and smile. Everything is understandable without any words. Discussion will start later when all digress from their own impressions and will be able to express their feelings more or less. Now the support team helps to lift the equipment and to take the suits off. A smell of lunch is in the air. Later there is a sunny day while walking along the shore (or sunbathing on the deck) and admiring Baikal nature.
...The record dive in Lake Baikal to the depth of 130m was done on the 17th of December 2003 by adv. Trx diver TDI Misan Gennadey. Beside the particularities described above winter conditions on the surface were added. The air temperature was about -20°C. Windy. The water temperature was +2°C. The total time of the dive was 103 minutes. Coming out of the water was laborious because of ice covered stairs and gloves freezing to the handrail. Despite all the extreme of the dive another boundary of Baikal depth was passed successfully.
It goes without saying that diving in Lake Baikal is nothing like a picnic somewhere in tropical seas. But it is not necessary at all. If you dived once you will come back here again and again in order to experience the unusual feeling of unity with nature and to discover a new part of yourself. Baikal is for those who want to discover all the facets of our wonderful world.
Autor: Tatiana Oparina. Magazine "DIVETEK" №2 2006