Lake Baikal


The Pearl of Siberia



Many peoples have marveled at this great inland lake, among them the Buryat-ethnic Mongols who had settled its shores long before the 13th -century conquests of Genghis Khan.  Russian fur traders arrived in the 1640s.



Lake Baikal is characterized by low annual average temperatures of the surface water, 40 degrees F in the south, 37 degrees F in central Baikal. Maximum temperatures occur in September and only in rare years pass 50 degrees F. Below 700 ft. the water temperature remains constant at about 39degrees F.

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Why go to Baikal?  Listvyanka and Big-Kats
For the Russian people Lake Baikal is a natural treasure. Located in Siberia near the Mongolian border, and surrounded by mountains, forests and wild rivers, Baikal is an immense and breathtaking area of physical beauty. Baikal holds twenty percent of the earth's fresh water and harbors more endemic species of plants and animals than any other lake in the world. Fed by 336 rivers and streams including the Angara, Barguzin, Selenga, Turka and Snezhnaya, the lake holds fifty species of fish including bullhead, sturgeon and omul. A glimpse into the lake's clear water is enough to convince anyone that nature not only exists in Siberia, it flourishes. The lake's surrounding wild mountains and rivers make the Lake Baikal region an ideal area for engaging in an array of outdoor pursuits including hiking, climbing, whitewater sports, skiing and nature photography. There are also many regional cultural attractions. Today, as in the past, Baikal remains a crossroads of cultures where native Sayats still herd reindeer and Buryat people maintain many of their old traditions. The wilds of Siberia also offer a gateway to Mongolia and its ancient and amazing culture. It is hard to imagine that these wilderness areas and exotic cultures are only a five to seven hour jet ride from Moscow or Khabarovsk.
Baikal Sunset. Photo by Andrey Suknev.


The following quote by Erdeni Ulanov, the Director of the Buryat National Section of the UNESCO-sponsored, Along the Routes of Great Migrations of Mankind International Association, is an except from the Russian magazine, International Affairs, May, 1993 issue.
Baikal is not just a lake, but something greater and deeper. It is bottomless and majestic, but not an ocean or sea in which man loses all his visible bearings. There we sense the greatness of nature, feeling at one with it, not alienated from it, which is a rare phenomenon in developed countries. Baikal is a bridge to space. You must see Baikal to be able to say what it is like.
What is Siberia?
Siberia makes up more than 75 percent of Russia's land mass. Siberia's 12,488,400 km2 domain reaches from the Ural mountains on the west across to the Pacific ocean, stretching from Kazakhstan, Mongolia through China and up to the Arctic Ocean. It is larger than Canada, the second largest continent. More than 34.8 million people (23 percent of the Russian population) live in Siberia. Three out of four Siberians live in urban areas, the remainder practice nomadic herding (in the northern regions) or live as farmers and hunters in the region's isolated areas. While more than thirty recognized nationalities live in Siberia, among them Buryat and Mongolian, Siberia is a vastly underpopulated region. Siberia is so immense that a person standing on the beach in Maine is closer to Moscow than a person standing on the eastern coast of Siberia.
The name Siberia comes from sibir, a Mongolian word for "sleeping land." In the early 1700's, Siberia became a place of exile. It continued to be "the last stop" for criminals and political extremists until this century. In more recent times, from the beginning of the twentieth century, most Siberians find that their ancestry stems from free migration into the area when many Russians settled along the main transportation line, the Trans-Siberian Railway. These new pioneers contributed to the growth of industry in the cities throughout the region, including Irkutsk, Chita and Ulan Ude.
While almost everyone thinks of Siberia as desolate and cold because Siberia covers a massive amount of space, the weather varies according to location and altitude. While the temperature plunges to -35C near Lake Baikal in January, in Omyakon, in eastern Siberia, the temperature can reach a bitter -71C. Eastern Siberia and the Far East experience some of the coldest winter temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere. Permafrost covers almost two-thirds of Siberia and is 1.6 km deep in some places.


Baikal Facts.

Lake Baikal is between 51 29'N and 55 46'N latitude and 103 41'E and 109 57'E longitude. It is about 636 km long and about 80 km wide. Its broadest point is located between the villages of Onguryon on the Western shore and Ust-Barguzin on the eastern shore, and its narrowest point is between the Selenga River Delta and the opposite Western shore. The length of the coastline is about 2,100 km. There are 30 rocky islands on the lake, the biggest one being Olkhon Island which is more than 130 km2 in area. Legend has it that Olkhon Island is the birthplace of Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan. Compared with the other great lakes of the world, Lake Baikal is enormous. Lake Tanganyika is half of Baikal's size, and Lake Ladoga is 23 times smaller. Baikal's volume, at 23,600 km3, is greater than any other fresh water lake and makes approximately 20 percent of the world's surface fresh water. As a point of comparison, if you were to drain Lake Baikal, it would take the Great Lakes of the United States: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario to refill the empty basin.

At 1,620 meters, nearly a mile deep, it is without doubt the world's deepest lake. The surface area of all the tributaries that feed lake Baikal is about 560,000 km2. Of the 336 rivers and streams flowing into Baikal, only one, the Angara, flows out from it. At different times, researchers have counted varying numbers of tributaries, up to 544 depending on the amount of precipitation during the year.

Photo by Andrey Suknev.
The creation of Lake Baikal began following a geological cataclysm. Thermal energy deep within the Earth produced tectonic movements, shifting the Earth both horizontally and vertically and producing faults and rifts. These movements created the system of mountainous ridges and deep valleys extending from the North to the East and carved the lake's deep stone basin. Over thousands of years, the basin was filled by water from rain, rivers and streams.
The Lake Baikal basin includes three underwater depressions. The first, in the South, extends from Kultuk Bay to the Selenga River Delta (6,890 km2). The Middle Baikal Depression reaches from the Selenga River Delta to the underwater Academic Mountain Ridge (11,295 km2). The Northern Baikal Depression extends from the Ridge to Baikal's northern shore (13,315 km2). These conditions create a large deep-water lake, with a relatively small number of shallow areas.
Three factors, the depth of the lake, its huge volume of water, and its geographical position permit Baikal's somewhat unusual process of self-purification. This process produces unbelievably clear water. In fact, travel guides report that this has caused some problems with tourists susceptible to vertigo; some visitors feel uncomfortable when they peer over the side of a boat and are able to see 50 meters downward. The water clearness of Baikal probably concedes only to Crater Lake in Oregon, USA.
Baikal's water, long famous for its spiritual and medicinal qualities, is called "living water." Unlike all other deep lakes of the world where the lower depths are dead, asphyxiated by hydrogen sulfide and other gases, Lake Baikal's deep waters are blanketed in fresh oxygen. It has only been in the past five years that scientists have discovered thermal springs beating up from the bottom of Baikal. The release of hot, oxygenated water from underwater vents mixed by two horizontal currents and by rising and falling vertical currents may explain why the water is alive with aquatic life.
Besides being exceptionally clear and rich with aquatic life, Baikal's water is cold. Overall, the average temperature of the water is +4 C, but varies like many micro climates depending on location and season. The surface temperature in August in the middle of the lake is about 8 to 10 C and along the coastal line, 14 to 16 C. Below the surface, the water temperature plunges. In August, at a depth of 50 meters, the temperature is about 5 to 6 C, even in summertime. In Kultuk Bay, Chivyrkuysky Bay, Proval Bay, Peschanay Bay and the area called the Small Sea, temperatures climb to between 6 and 18 C, and can reach a balmy 20-24 C.
In the winter, Baikal freezes gradually. By the end of October, shallow bays are covered with ice and after the first few months of winter, the entire surface of the lake freezes. The ice on Baikal's surface is comparatively thin, only one meter thick in most places. The melting process begins in the northwestern part of the lake at the end of April before spreading to other parts of the lake.
Natural Wonders of the Lake Baikal Region. The Mammals of Baikal


Many mammals live in the Taiga including the brown bear, elk, moose and deer. Brown bears, the world's largest flesh-eating land mammal and the "Lords of the Taiga," are found throughout the region, and can be spotted along the shoreline. Elk and deer can be seen more readily, and during the winter, country people set up feeding troughs, almost treating them like domestic pets.
Unfortunately, as in many parts of the world, poaching in Russia and around Baikal is a growing problem. During difficult economic times, this is especially with the local population, who hunt for meat as well as for the illegal trade in pelts and skins. The poaching of brown bear, deer, moose, elk and nerpa seal is common. Worldwide, the numbers of many of these animals, including brown bear, grow smaller each year. Those animals that do survive are faced with the problem of habitat destruction, a constant threat to their ability to live and reproduce in the wild.
Nerpa - Lake Baikal's Freshwater Seal




Lake Baikal is home to the world's only fresh water seal. The mystery of how the Nerpa came to Baikal still baffles scientists. Apart from being a freshwater reservoir, Lake Baikal is hundreds of miles from any other sea or ocean. Most believe that thousands of years ago, the salt water of the Arctic Ocean stretched into the lower reaches of the Yenisey up to the mouth of the Angara. Many scientists agree that the seal belongs to the Tertiary fauna, and most likely migrated to the region during the early stages of the period when the Baikal Depression formed. It is thought that in search for food, the seals gradually migrated deeper into the mainland. There have been years when scientists have counted nearly one hundred thousand nerpa in and around the lake. Valued for their soft, warm pelts and fat, the seals have been hunted for thousands of years. Archeologists have discovered seal hunting weapons in the cave homes of early seal hunters.
Baikal Fish


Baikal omul.

Many kinds of fish make Baikal their home, and about 50 are suitable for eating. A delicacy worldwide, the salmon found in Lake Baikal is excellent. While locals use it in many of their favorite dishes, they also enjoy sturgeon, burbot, groundling, oilfish, and bullhead. Pike and perch are easy to catch and very popular.


In addition, grayling and omul are highly recommended. Grayling contains two subspecies, white and black, and many locals prefer the rare white which is said to be larger and tastier. There are three types of Baikal omul inhabiting Baikal: Severobaikalsky, Posolsky and Selenginsky. Omul is also found in other Siberian waters and even in the northern parts of the Yenisey River.
Lake Baikal is home to some interesting, but inedible fish. One in particular, the golomyanka, is one of only a few viviparous fish in the world. The small, transparent golomyanka and its cousin, the gobi, live in the lake's cold temperate zone. Since more than half of the golomyanka consists of fat, the fish easily drifts through the icy water. Twenty-seven species of gobi are unique to the lake and found nowhere else on Earth.


In recent years, human environmental impacts have affected Baikal's fish population, particularly the omul. Lake Baikal's ecosystem was greatly altered by the construction of the Irkutsk Dam. Higher water levels devastated the population of Baikal bullheads, a small fish that serves as is the main source of nourishment for the omul and other large fish. The omul became even smaller, gradually thinner and increasingly infertile, a result of this environmental imbalance. To help mitigate the problem, from 1969-1975 the fishing of omul was prohibited. As the water level could not be altered, there was little more that could be done, and while the population of omul increased, the fish remains noticeably smaller.
Crayfish - Caretakers of Lake Baikal


There is an enormous number of small crayfish at Lake Baikal, the distant relatives of the oceanic lobster, crab and shrimp. These tiny crayfish, the Baikal epishura, could be considered the "caretakers" of the lake because the devour the tiny waterweeds and bacteria that cloud the water. While the crayfish is only one and one-half millimeters long, in under one square meter of the lake's surface scientists have counted up to three million of these creatures. Over the span of a year, this armada of insatiable crayfish is capable of sweeping clean the top 50 meters of the water three times. Another type of crayfish, the gammarid shrimp (macrohectopus) is twenty times the size of epishura, and destroys practically everything that threatens to pollute the water including dead fish, drowned insects and animals.
From Baigal to Baikal


Several scientists have attempted to locate a definitive origin to the name, Baikal. Siberian scientist S. Gurulev believes that the word Baikal originated from a combination of old Turkic, Buryat, Yakut, Tibetan and Arabian words. The most likely analysis, however, uses data on the origin of the Buryat tribes and shows that the word Baikal is actually Yakut in origin. Scientists have traced the word's derivation from the Yakut language, which was later assimilation by the Buryats. The word Baigal means sea or ocean in Yakut, but in Buryat, there are no other meanings of the word other than the geographical name of the lake. Upon the Russian's arrival in the region, the word baigal was borrowed from the Buryat language, but transformed to Baikal.