Deep in the heart of Siberia lies one of the world’s largest lakes and one of its seven underwater wonders.
The sudden fall of the Berlin Wall changed the idea of an expedition to Lake Baikal from just wishful thinking to a project that was actually realisable. It would take time, but now here I am at last, and it is with a feeling of the surreal that I now sink down through the cold, clear water.
Beneath me the bottom slowly begins to appear. I can hardly believe my eyes. It is like landing on a strange new planet. It is like nothing that I have ever seen before - not even a slight resemblance is to be seen. The large green sponges growing everywhere are reminiscent of the tall cactuses seen in cowboy movies only smaller.
Between them, the bottom seems to be covered by different soft mosses and lichens. These are also colored a vibrant green with odd patterns.
Strange small fish hide among their branches. I land softly on my knees before a large sponge. Its whole surface is covered by small, psychedelically colored anthropods with far too many legs.
I look around me and observe the landscape with all my senses on full throttle. It could be a stage set from a science fiction film. The fresh water is sparkling clear. The visibility is more than 30 meters, and everywhere I see these green sponges. Above me, I can just make out the outline of our dive boat from which my fellow travellers now also begin to drift downward to land beside me on the bottom of the lake.
The bottom is hard, being rock with loose stones and gravel, and it slopes slightly downwards. Even though it is the middle of July, the water is not more than 4°C, so we all appear and feel like awkward astronauts in our thick dry suits as we move off together down the slope.
We first have to get ourselves a bit organised as we have not tried diving together before.
The expedition consists, in addition to myself, of two Russians and five Dutchmen plus the Russian crew of four. My Dutch colleague, Steven Weinberg, is also a fresh-water biologist, so there is a tendency for us to stop and wonder together over the same strange things to be seen.
Keeping together in that manner, we move off along the bottom when suddenly a vertical drop-off appears beneath us. We stare straight out into black emptiness. It is a little bit spooky. I get the feeling again that I'm in a sci-fi movie with aliens. Da-da-da-dummm – what mysterious creatures are hiding out there in the unknown?
Lake Baikal is the deepest lake on the planet, and you can sense it already close in to the coast.
We glide out into empty space. The whole wall is covered with strange, unknown bizarre creatures that we have never seen before. Sometimes we are underneath an overhang. We pass the 25 meter level on the way down through the ice-cold water. In the distance, we can see the bubbles from Andrey and Gennadij, the Russians who are the other pair in the water.
The wall is exciting. Dramatic. Mystical. But, like in the tropical coral reefs, it is more interesting further up. So, we return to the forest of sponges at 10-15 meters,...