In a month we managed to do 11 dives along the western coast of Baikal before reaching the northern capital Severobaykalsk. We were doing both exploratory dives in completely unknown sites, to add a bit of that pioneering adventurists feeling, as well as diving in described sites. We collected water samples for our scientific project and took some footage to help assess the health of the ecosystem. Resources about dive sites are very sparse as not many people dive here apart from some scientific diving done by the local university. Even when there is a description, there are no precise GPS coordinates, so finding the spot based on descriptions and some pictures (which usually don't match the area described) can sometimes be challenging. We also had to find a way to dive off the catamaran, when the shores are either too shallow or too steep for comfortable entry. Surprisingly it turned out to be easier than expected, storage boxes at the stern are a good kitting up platform and close to our stride entry point. Giulia also tried face planting into the water from the side platform that normally has tanks attached to it while sailing, but I found it less elegant and appealing. The most time consuming thing in preparing our diving is taking all the kit out of the catamaran. There is little space on board, different pieces of our equipment are tied to different parts, or jenga-ed inside the catamaran tent. By the time we get everything out I am usually so tired that I don't feel like going diving and the whole process of preparation is more faffy than our usual acceptance levels, but there is not much we can do about that.
Diving itself has been very interesting. There is not much variety in underwater life, apart from maybe different species of green algae in different areas. Usually we see the two different types of sponges (a flat one which covers rocks and a tall, branching kind), some molluscs (usually snails) and Baikal shrimpies and occasionally little sculpins hiding between the rocks. What makes the diving more exciting is the changing landscape. I was expecting the scenery to be mostly rocky walls similar to our first dive in Listvyanka, but its much more varied than that, from shallow flat plateaus, sandy slopes, to big boulders.
Absence of tides and currents or swell allow us to dive and video/take pictures more comfortably than in the sea and the slowly rising temperature of the water with the progressing summer is also less numbing on our fingers. On the other hand with warmer conditions the visibility is also becoming worse with more plankton particles in the water.
The most unique diving for us was in the area called Coast of Bears, in the northern part of the western coast deep in the strictly protected area of Baikalo-lensky national park, where tourists are usually not allowed at all. Our scientific project of the expedition however gave us a good excuse to get special permits (special indeed, as it later turned out we did not have them after all, but I will rant about Russian bureaucracy in another post later). This area has very clean coasts and an abundance of really big Baikal sponges. Sadly we have found that in many places the majority of the sponges showed signs of necrosis and of the disease that has been slowly killing them in the past few years. The causes of this problem are not well known and even among scientists, a matter of speculations. Nevertheless they are an important indicator of some changes in the ecosystem of the lake.
Last week before reaching civilization again, we had multiple technical issues as mentioned in the previous post here, so we had to limit our diving to a minimum. That was a great shame because we passed multiple capes and places that looked amazing and we were pretty sure that they would be really cool underwater as well. Oh well, without air in tanks there was not much we could do. Now that the problems are fixed we are looking forward to exploring the eastern coast of the lake Baikal in the second half of our expedition.