THROUGHOUT the ages, Mongolian tribes in the remote region known today as southern Siberia have viewed this lake with reverence. Although a number of lakes have a larger surface area, it is the deepest freshwater lake in the world and has by far the largest volume of water. One surviving name for the lake is Baikal, believed to mean “Rich Lake” or “Sea.” In fact, because the lake is “so huge and volatile,” sailors along its shores sometimes talk of “going to sea.”
The mention of Lake Baikal strikes a deep chord in the hearts of Russians. One scientist from Moscow called it “a beautiful piece of music that everyone learned as a child.” The “notes” are many
From space, Lake Baikal
The Clash of Continents
Geologists theorize that in earth’s distant past, a subcontinent drifting northward slammed into Asia. The impact crumpled up huge sections of bedrock as if it were aluminum foil and pushed up the earth’s surface to form the Himalayas. Some believe the impact from the colliding continents reactivated a number of deep rifts in Siberia. One such is now known as the Baikal Rift. Over time, the runoff from the surrounding mountains filled this rift with over four miles of silt. Water filled it to the brim, forming Lake Baikal. Now over 300 rivers and streams flow into the lake, but only one, the Angara, runs out of it.
Unlike most of the world’s ancient lakes, Baikal has not filled with sediment or turned into swamps. Scientists believe the reason is that the active tectonic plates beneath the lake are still moving apart and widening the rift. So instead of filling up over time, the lake is actually becoming deeper and deeper every year! These active plates also make possible the spurting of columns of hot water from the lake’s floor.
A Glimpse Inside Lake Baikal
Some find a boat ride across the middle of Lake Baikal unnerving because there one may see down 150 feet through dazzlingly clear water as if looking through air! A community of minuscule crustaceans called epischura serve as the lake’s filter and strain out the algas and bacteria that cloud many lakes. Helping them are numerous crayfish species that roam the lake, eating organic waste that would otherwise decompose. Thus, the water is so pure that less than two decades ago, a sample taken for examination in a laboratory became contaminated by the glass container!
In addition to its famous transparency, the water in Lake Baikal is unusually rich in oxygen. Some deep lakes run out of oxygen at a certain depth, forcing most of their aquatic life to take up residence in relatively shallow waters. In Lake Baikal, however, vertical and horizontal currents carry oxygen to the lake’s lowest depths and mix its waters thoroughly. As a result, the entire lake teems with life.
An underwater forest thrives in the cold, clean water. Green sponges branching like corals provide cover for a multitude of small aquatic creatures. Many warmth-loving organisms cluster around the lake’s hydrothermal vents. Out of the more than 2,000 aquatic species that live in the lake, 1,500 are found only here.
Lake Baikal is famous for the omul, a tasty arctic whitefish prized by fishermen. Other creatures here are unusual, even bizarre. One kind of flatworm grows to over a foot in length and eats fish. There are even one-celled organisms living between sand particles! The lake is also noteworthy for the golomyanka
The tiny golomyanka is translucent, with an iridescent glow. It lives near the bottom of the lake and gives birth to live young. A third of its body consists of fat, rich in vitamin A. It withstands the crushing pressure at depths of 700 to 1,600 feet [200 to 450m]; yet, when it is exposed to sunlight, its body melts away, leaving only its bones and fat. The golomyanka is a delicacy for perhaps the most famous resident of Lake Baikal
The Changing Seasons
For about five months of the year, Lake Baikal is encased in ice. By late January the ice is three or more feet thick [one meter thick and more]. It is patterned with seams like those of a mosaic and sparkles in the sun like windowpanes. The ice also appears deceptively thin
From late April to June, the ice breaks up with thunderous, shattering cracks. The constant noises from the lake create seasonal “ice music” familiar to locals. Naturalist Gerald Durrell wrote that the ice “tinkles like tiny cymbals [and] purrs like a basketful of cats.” Soon, as the weather warms, the wind and waves sweep the ice into glittering heaps and hurl it to the shore.
As the lake’s waters become visible, the birds return. Some of Lake Baikal’s birds, such as the dipper, sit out the whole winter at the head of the Angara River, the only part of the lake that never freezes. Now they mingle with other waterfowl
Visitors to the lake in June may see families of bears lumbering to the water’s edge to eat fly larvas that hatch on the rocks in swarms. The bears blissfully lick up the insects with their tongues, oblivious to the buzzing around them. Many animals and birds make their way to the shore at this time, attracted by the lakeside feeding frenzy.
In the early spring and summer, the lake briefly blooms with algas, which provide food for small crustaceans and give the water a green hue. Usually, however, as seen from the shore, Lake Baikal’s waters are turquoise and the open depths are a deep, dark blue
The shoreline includes both sand dunes and majestic cliffs. Many picturesque bays and capes yield breathtaking views over what one writer called “a soft pearly expanse of shifting distances”
Later in the year, the lake often becomes stormy. Autumn brings winds that sometimes descend on the lake with hurricanelike intensity. They can swiftly churn up the placid surface into furious waves, reaching 15 to 20 feet [4 to 6m] in height. Even at other times of the year, winds have been known to sink large passenger ships and fishing boats.
A Land of Many Landscapes
The harshness of Siberia might make Lake Baikal seem like a cold, solitary giant, but in reality it is surrounded by an abundance of wildlife and a variety of landscapes. The four majestic mountain ranges encircling the lake are home to reindeer as well as the endangered Siberian mountain goat.
At lower altitudes are steppes. Some of these grassy plains might be called Siberia’s flower beds because of the extraordinary variety of wildflowers found here. Among the rare species of birds in the steppes are the elegant demoiselle crane and the bustard, the largest bird in Asia.
Important to Lake Baikal is the taiga, the dense coniferous forest that surrounds it. The taiga is twice the size of Brazil’s Amazon rain forest. Like it, the taiga plays a crucial role in maintaining the world’s ecology and climate. A number of bird species live here, including the capercaillie, a type of grouse, with its magnificent courtship display and song. The elegant Baikal teal, seen on page 17, also frequents the lake.
One noteworthy mammal is the famous Barguzin sable. Once mercilessly overhunted for its lustrous fur, the sable is making a comeback, thanks to conservationists. Efforts to save this beautiful creature led in 1916 to the creation of the Barguzin Nature Reserve on the shores of Lake Baikal. Now three natural reserves border the shores of the lake, along with three national parks open to the public.
Lake Baikal is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular tourist destination. Over 300,000 tourists from around the world visit here every year. “Baikal is today a naturalist’s paradise and an idyllic holiday destination,” reports one travel source. “With fine beaches, excellent hiking, birdwatching, and pleasure boating, Baikal is well-positioned to become one of the most attractive vacation spots in Asia.”
A SEAL THAT LIVES EXCLUSIVELY IN FRESHWATER
Lake Baikal is home to tens of thousands of nerpa, or Baikal seals, that feed year-round on the lake’s deepwater fish. No one is sure how the nerpa ended up in the middle of Siberia and nowhere else. Its nearest relative lives about 2,000 miles [3,220 km] away.
Nerpa have very large eyes, set rather close together in a flat face, and are the world’s smallest seals, measuring up to four feet six inches [1.4 m]. They are often found sunning themselves on boulders in friendly groups, without the usual biting and pushing that are characteristic of most seals. Indeed, the gentle nerpa might be the most amiable seal on earth.
A seal biologist noted that the nerpa “is even gentler than the equable ringed seal, permitting itself to be handled without biting when caught in nets for scientific purposes.” One reference work mentions deepwater divers who swam right up to nerpa sleeping in the water. They reported that the seals failed to wake up when touched or even when turned over.