Looking for Beljok (Baby nerpa)
There is a wonderful animal at Baikal – nerpa. Nepra’s babies, beljoks, are extremely cute, and don’t leave anybody indifferent. The babies stay as beljoks for a very short time. And there is an even shorter time frame one can see them and dive with them, only 10-12 days in the first half of April.
Beljoks are born in February in a special ice-house, built by their parents in the middle of the ice. Nepra’s houses have a room, a pool, which are connected by a small under-ice tunnel. The house is usually well hidden under the snow banks; it is warm, safe and comfortable. When the snow starts to melt in April, the house becomes exposed. Nerpas and their babies lie on the ice and “sunbathe” under hot spring sun. Earlier, this time was used to hunt on nerpas, and particularly beljoks, for their “valuable” fur. However, currently hunting is forbidden and this time is golden for those who are interested in wild life. You can come up quite close to nerpa and watch their behavior. It is allowed to dive near nerpa’s habitat, which look very beautiful under water. And if you use the service of local jaegers, then you can dive with beljoks as well.
The group stays in village Suhaja in Buryat Republic, at eastern shore of Baikal. This area is called Podlemorje. Even though Suhaja is a remote Siberian village, it has large wooden hotel with good rooms for two people, and a great restaurant, where you can try delicious fish dishes, pozy (local ravioli) and lamb buhler. It also has Wi-Fi internet, mobile high speed internet and a small zoo with friendly bears. We choose Suhaja not only because of the hotel, but mostly because Baikal’s best nerpa-jaegers-hunters live around here. Since the hunting on nerpa became forbidden, these jaegers fish and act as guides for various trips to see the animal (for filming, scientific or diving purposes).
Nerpa is concentrated further away from the shores, in the middle of the lake. So the search and the watch of nerpa take up a whole day. There might be one dive in 2-3 days. If luck is on our side then this program, Looking for Beljok, takes up two days, otherwise it can take up to 5 days. It is better to plan an 8 day trip, where 2 days are necessary for transfer on an interesting road that connects Irkutsk, Suhaja and then Listvyanka.
Then 2-3 remaining days are spent in Listvyanka. In April it becomes too dangerous to travel on Baikal ice to Listvyanka (south of the lake is warmer). So the dives in Listvyanka are done near the shore, or it is possible to spend 1-2 days on ship “Hius” making trips to Bolshie Koty or to Circum Railroad. Both sites are great and have interesting ice build-ups.
Approximate schedule for ice jeep diving safari “Looking for Beljok”
Day 1: Meeting in Irkutsk; preparation of equipment. Transfer to village Suhaja (Buryat Republic). Several on-route stops for photo and video-filming, and of course for meals. Buryat cuisine in village Bajandaj. Accommodations in the hotel. Supper.
Day 2: Breakfast. Trip on ice to the middle of Baikal (depending on the ice, transportation is done on jeeps or motorcycles). When entering ice there will be a stop to bring gifts to Baikal’s god Burkhan in order for him to grant the group a successful trip. Search and watching of nerpa and beljoks, photo- and/or video-filming. Lunch on ice. Return back to the village, supper and banya.
Day 3: Breakfast. Trip to the middle of Baikal on ice. A dive near nerpa’s habitat with beljoks. Depth under ice is in between 1000 and 1400 meters. Lunch on ice. Return to hotel, supper and banya.
Day 4: Breakfast. Trip to middle of Baikal on ice. A dive near nerpa habitat with beljoks. Lunch on ice. Return to hotel, supper and banya
Day 5: Breakfast. Transfer through Irkutsk to Listvyanka; lunch on the way. Accommodations in hotel, supper.
Day 6: Breakfast. Under ice diving near the shore os Listvyanka. Lunch on ice or in the restaurant. Supper and Banya.
Day 7: Trip on “Hius” to Bolshie Koty; 1-2 dives at cape Sobolev or Kadilnyi, or at Skripper. Ice build-ups with a great under-water landscape (canyon, wall, sponge, local fishes)
Day 8: Breakfast. Transfer from Listvyanka to the airport. Departure.
Dates: From April 2nd to 15th
Safety: Ice is no longer perfectly suitable for travel. So the guides travel ahead the rest of the group on motorcycles, their task is to study the ice. Sometimes entire group travels on motorcycles. Diving is supervised by two instructors. Minimal qualifications required are dry suit and ice diver. It is possible to have training, but only in the second part of safari, when located in Listvyanka.
Diving: One dive when looking for nerpa. 1-2 dives a day in Listvyanka.
Transportation: Jeeps or full-drive minivans (2 people per jeep, 3 people per minivan)
Accommodations: village Suhaja: a hotel done in the traditional Russian style, two people per room, suppers in the hotel’s café, lunch on ice. Traditional Siberian and fish cuisine. Village Listvyanka: lots of hotel choices with various price ranges; lunches on ice, suppers at any of the various restaurants.
Additional attractions: nothing particular in Suhaja. In Listvyanka: bars, disco, pool tables, bowling, banya, downhill skiing, dog sledding, and etc.
Almost 6,000 kilometers and four different kinds of transport were left behind. I had to change transport for three times and, finally, I got to Siberia, Lake Baikal. Gennady Misan, the director of the dive-center “BaikalTek” met our group at the Irkutsk airport, and took us to the island of Ol’hon. A wooden estate situated in Khuzhir, the main village of the island, was our place of residence for the next week. Before the trip I had thoroughly looked through the Internet pages concerning Lake Baikal and without any hints could indicate that Ol’hon Island was the largest island of the lake, located in its middle part, near its western shore. Its maximum length is 71 km, width is 12 km. The western side of the island is washed by the Small sea which is a huge shallow bay (or more precisely it is a strait). Its width is 20 km. But the bottom on the other side of the island is literally an abyss. The deepest point of Lake Baikal (1642 m) is only in 5 – 6 kilometers from the bank. But as a saying goes, seeing is believing so it’s better to go there than reread the published data a hundred times. After all, I came here with a specific purpose which is a detailed (in the literal sense of the word) exploration of ice in Baikal.