Lake Baikal (in central Siberia, not far from Mongolia) is the world's oldest, deepest and largest lake in terms of volume. Sometimes called the "Pearl of Siberia" or the "Sacred Sea," this crescent-shaped lake is 636 kilometers (395 miles) long, three to 9 kilometers (two to 46 miles) wide, 5,371 feet deep at its deepest point and occupies 5,500 cubic miles, more than Lake Superior, which has the largest surface area of any lake (31,800 square miles, 80,290 square kilometers). [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, June 1992]

Lake Baikal contains one fifth of the world fresh water (more than all the Great Lakes combined). The water is so clear, pure and mineral-free, waters samples taken from the middle of the lake become tainted by the glass beakers in the laboratory. In some places the visibility in the water is over 600 feet. With binoculars from cliffs it is possible to watch fish swimming at floor of the lake. Chekhov wrote: "You can see through the waters of Lake Baikal as you can see through the air." In the winter ice up to 10 meters thick is so transparent you can see fish swimming below. The deepest parts of the lake are near the western shore.

A total of 336 rivers empty into Lake Baikal. Only one flows out: the Upper Angara, which flows into the Lena River and eventually into the Arctic Ocean. Lake Baikal is so large that if its tributaries dried up tomorrow its volume— 23,000 cubic meters—could keep the Angara River flowing for 400 years.

Lake Baikal is one of the most beautiful places in all of Russia. Gazing across it has been compared to viewing the Grand Canyon. Picturesque cliffs line the western shore, muskrat marches are found in the north and mountains surround nearly the entire lake. The southwestern corner of the lake around the city of Irkutsk and the River Angara is inhabited mostly by Russians.

Lake Baikal, was selected in 1990 as one of the Seven Underwater Wonders of the World by the conservation group CEDAM along with the Galápagos Islands, the Republic of Belau (Palau) in Micronesia, the Ras Muhammad reef in the northern Red Sea, the Belize Barrier Reef, the northern Great Barrier Reef, and the deep ocean vents found in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Lake Baikal Climate

Many people say that Lake Baikal is at is most beautiful in the winter. The first snows begin in November when the marshes in the north begin freezing. Between February and April the entire lake is frozen to a thickness of between one and six meters, thick enough to support fully loaded truck convoys to remote villages that can't be reached any other way. During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, railroad tracks were laid down on the ice. There are warm currents that create thin patches of ice. The first rain to cross the lake disappeared under the ice as have many cars and trucks.

During the summer temperatures vary from warm to brisk and mosquitos may be a problem. You will often see Russians going for a swim even though the water temperature rarely rises above 15 degrees C (59 degrees F) even in the middle of the summer.

Lake Baikal is known for its strong winds and unpredictable weather. Fisherman on the lake speak of going out to sea in the spring when winds of up to 100 miles per hour sweep down from the west and build waves large enough to capsize boats.

The area around Lake Baikal is warmer than other parts of Siberia. Warmth absorbed by the lake in the summer is slowly released through the ice in winter and the spring. Spring comes early to areas within 300 kilometers of Lake Baikal than in places outside this zone. The number of days in which Lake Baikal freezes has shrunk from 128 days in 1873 to 105 in 1992. Global warming has been blamed.

Lake Baikal Geology

The Lake Baikal area is one of the most complicated and least understood geological regions on earth. The lake is situated on the world deepest land depression, a five-mile deep rift produced by the interaction of three tectonic plates.

Nearly all the world's lakes were formed less than a million years ago by volcanos, ice age glaciation or the damming of valleys, and last only a few hundred thousand years before they fill with sediment. Lake Baikal, however, was formed at least 20 million years ago in a rift zone where the earth is being pulled apart by tectonic forces. In the mud sedimenst of Lake Baikal there are traces of magnolia pollen that were deposited when the area around the lake had a subtropical climate.

Lake Baikal is nearly a mile deep but the sediment-filled rift it lies in is over five miles deep. The lake continues to grow. The rifts widens every year and the water level rises by about a millimeter. The region is still very geologically active. In 1861 a huge earthquake sank 310 square kilometers of the Selenga Delta into Lake Baikal.

Ecology of Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal is also one the planet's most unique ecosystems. About 60 percent of the lake’s life forms—about 1,100 plants and 1,500 animals—are found nowhere else on the planet. Among these are translucent oil fish, the world's only fresh water seal, fresh water sponges and a pinkish, large-eyed, jellyfish-like fish called golomyanka that lives in the deepest parts of the lake and turns in a spot of grease when brought to the surface. This greases is prized as a fuel for lamps and rheumatism cure.

Lake Baikal is also the only one lake with geothermal vents that supports creatures such as sponges, worms that generally only associated with similar vents in the sea. The vents, found at depths of 1,350 feet, also provide evidence that the lake is slowly spreading apart.

Among the 250 species of freshwater shrimp is the Epischura baicalenis, a tiny crustacean that helps to purify the water by filtering out algae and bacteria. This creature amass by the millions in summer. When they are through the cleaning the water, the water is clear that when it is placed in a laboratory beaker it becomes tainted by the glass.

Among the 52 species of fish are grayling, pike, perch and omul. The latter, an arctic whitefish related to salmon and trout. It accounts for two thirds of the lake’s annual commercial catch. Lake Baikal sturgeon reach seven feet in length, weigh 200 kilograms and produce 10 kilos of caviar.

Wildlife in Lake Baikal

Wildlife seen on the shores of Lake Baikal include wolves, bears, deer, beavers, imperial eagles and red-breasted mergansers. The concentrations of these animals is low and many travelers never see them. Moreover the places you are mostly likely to find them are in reserves that no people except researchers are allowed into.

Lake Baikal’s most famous creature is a freshwater seal known as the nerpa. It grows to a length of almost six feet, weighs up to 286 pounds and changes from yellow-green to white to grey in the first months of its life. Nerpas live to an average age of 52. Baby nerpas weigh 22 pounds when they are born. Scientists estimate that there are 60,000 of these seals in the lake, a number they arrived at by counting air holes in the winter ice. No one is sure how the nerpa originally found its way to Lake Baikal (the nearest sea is 2000 miles away).

Commercial hunters are permitted to take 6,000 seals a year. Poachers take seals to supply the Chinese medicine trade. Their penises are highly prized. The seal hunters drive across the melting April ice. Before they set out an offering of vodka is given to the ancient shamanist god of the lake. One mother lost her eldest son when a truck plunged through the ice. To cure colic residents around Lake Baikal pick the "grass of God" from meadows near the lake.

Nerpa hang out around Ushkani Islands, an archipelago of four white marble outcrops near the center of the lake. The best seal watching spot is a cliff on the north side of Tonkiy Island where dozens of the silver-furred animals gather to sun themselves.

People of Lake Baikal

Living among the rugged mountains on the eastern side of the lake are the Buryat, a Mongolian people that have occupied the land around the lake before Genghis Khan swept across the Central Asia in the 13th century.

The first Russians to arrive were fur traders who came in the 1640s. Many of them live around Irkutsk, Mant those who don’t live in the north where they or family members worked on the Baikal-Amur Railroad, a 2000 mile railroad which skirts the northern shore of he lake and parallels the Trans-Siberian railway to the Pacific. Many of these workers live in abandoned railroad cars and shacks near the town of Severobaikalsk.

Many of the residents of the 40 towns, scattered along the lake's 1,300 mile shoreline, are fisherman. Logging used to be a major industry but the there is now a logging ban in the forests that surround the lake. Many of the towns and village are charming places made up mostly of wooden buildings.

Since food has traditionally been hard to come by in the stores it is almost a necessity for residents around Lake Baikal to fish for food. Commercial fishermen carry their nets on horse-drawn sleighs and recreational fisherman often engage in ice fishing. They drive onto the lake with their cars, cut holes in the ice and fish inside tents or shacks they erect around the hole.

National Geographic writer Don Belt traveled around Lake Baikal on a Soviet research vessel in the early 1990s. The crew stopped in every town along the way to try and get staples like eggs, milk and meat with no luck. They finally secured these items in a town but the task took all day. First they had to visit the offices of several bureaucrats to collect the signatures they needed for each thing on the grocery list. Potatoes and eggs were picked from the back door of cafeteria; they bought several sausages and some fatty beef at the loading dock of a warehouse and got the milk inside a "special" food store next to the warehouse.

You walk the 400 mile length of the lake in winter or take a sleigh from Irkutsk to Bahaiyarischka. Newlyweds customarily are driven to the mouth of Angara River, where they are photographed by the river while opening a bottle of champagne.

Pollution, Dams and Lake Baikal

The Baykalsk Paper and Pulp Mills was a major source of pollution of Lake Baikal until it was closed in 2013, putting 3,500 people out of work. Located on the southern shore of Lake Baikal, it was constructed in the 1950s to make "super" cellulose for airplane tires, an idea that was made obsolete when synthetics were developed. Before it was shut down the mill churned out thick clouds of smoke and dumped industrial waste into the lake 24 hours a day.

In 1989 the plant discharged 26,000 tons of minerals, 200 tons of suspended materials and 2,500 tons of organic byproducts into the lakes, which believe it or not is remarkably little for pulp mill it size. Another large paper mill—the Selenginsk Pulp & Cardboard Mill—lies on the Selenga River, which feeds into Lake Baikal. It uses a chlorine treatment to turn wood into cellulose, which is used to make paper, cardboard and other products.

Pollution from the mills has been blamed for reducing fish populations and reducing the clarity of the water and producing dioxin that build up in he bodies of seals and other animals. The Selenga River also carries in pollutants from Ulan Ude and three Mongolian industrial cities. The lake have been overfished. Gold mining and logging and building foreigner hunting trips have been banned.

Most everyone hated the Baykalsk paper mill, except those with jobs that depended on it. A clerk in Moscow called it "our national disgrace" and a conductor on the Trans-Siberian offered to personally level it with a sledgehammer. The Soviet environmental movement began with a protest of the paper mill, which responded by installing a "closed loop" pollution-reduction systems and stopped using bleach.

Lake Baikal area towns such as Baykalsk, Irkutsk and Ulan Ude are heavily industrialized and are blamed with producing acid rain and other pollutants that foul the lake. Laws have been placed on the books to reduce coal burning but these laws are only lightly enforced. There are plans to install more pollution-reducing technology but there isn't enough money for it.

There is a large dam on the Angara River neat Irkutsk. This dam is blamed of reducing the omul population by raising the water to levels that damage the fish's breeding grounds. Where the lake empties into the lake there is a huge rock, called Shaman Rock. Local say it was hurled there by Old Man Baikal after one of his 337 daughter fell in love the Yenisey River. Because of the high water only a small portion of the rock is visible.

Cruises on Lake Baikal

A number of cruises that explore the shores of the lake are available in the 65-foot Professor Morozov, which carries about half dozen people paying around $200 each per day. Meals on the ship include vodka, cucumber salad, raw omul, tomatoes, bread, blini (Russian pancakes) and cheese.

The trip usually begins with the tossing of vodka over one's shoulders to appease the gods and proceeds at a relaxed pace and includes stops at fishing villages, cliffs, excursion to ice flows with nerpas, and hikes on mountains and through forests in Baikalo-Lensky Nature Reserve.

The biggest concern are sarna, dangerous and unpredictable storms that stir up quickly and have powerful winds powerful enough to uproot trees. One a sarna sent a ferryboat crashing into a cliff, killing all 72 people on board.

Every other day from June to late September hydrofoils make the 10-hour trip between Irkutsk and the towns Severobaikalsk and Nizhneangarsk on the lake's north shore (this has been described as a pleasant trip like traveling on a Norwegian fjord.

There is a also a twice-weekly hydrofoil service between Irkutsk and Ust-Barguzin on the eastern shore. Boats go four times a day between Irkutsk and Listvyanka on the western shore. Regular ferry and shipping services is often disrupted by poor maintenance, weather and other reasons.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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