Sitting up on the thick clear slab of ice, with nothing but stretches of white in sight, she inhaled the stillness and the cool air of a Siberian lake in the dead of winter. Embracing the warm beams of sunlight hitting her back one last time, Laila plopped into the water and thus, her journey into the Baikal had truly finally begun.
She watched the purest water on earth sparkle while descending into the depths of the deepest lake on earth; 1642 meters deep at its deepest point. She knew that this would be the last sliver of light before the next thirty minutes underwater had passed, and she had no idea what to expect underneath.
Whereas local Buryat shamanic legends claim that Baikal is a living creature that can sense good and evil, displaying kindness to those who come with respect, while it seeks revenge upon those who do not respect Laila’s decision to dive into Lake Baikal was an ode to her love for nature, adventure and baikal water she drank when she was a student in Russia. As a geologist, witnessing and diving into the miracle that is Lake Baikal was nothing short of a dream.
Lake Baikal, located in southern Siberia, is the largest source of freshwater on Earth, containing 23% of the world’s fresh water. It is also considered the clearest and geologically the oldest lake on the planet, its age estimated at 25-30 million years.
It is also the deepest lake on Earth, and is estimated to grow even deeper in the future, as Lake Baikal is located in an active continental rift zone that is widening at a rate of 2.5 cm per year.
It is home to over two thousand various plant and animal species, many of which are endemic to the region and evolved over millions of years.. Baikal is of unequivocal significance to its inhabitants, which is evident in the numerous legends surrounding the origin of the lake.
The most common one describes a great earthquake that split the earth and caused a raging fire, when the people prayed and cried out in their native tongue: “Bay gal!” meaning “fire, stop!” This lake is ancient and sacred heritage not only to the Buryats, but was even declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.
Laila hopped on a flight to Irkutsk, a large city west of the lake, from which it was a two-hour car ride to the small diving center that nature lovers from all over the world travel to, to experience diving in the world’s clearest lake.
There, she received the necessary psychological and physical preps for the upcoming one-of-a-kind adventure. The team of divers helped dress her into the special dry suit designed to insulate heat and prevent water penetration.
The dry suit, among other diving equipment, was an essential element to Laila’s upcoming diving experience, as the average temperature in the region during January is as low as -20 degrees Celsius, and the water temperature is freezing near the surface, getting warmer deeper into the lake.
Laila was instructed to remain calm, regulate her breath and relax her muscles, so as not to cramp up. Meditation, too, comprised a big part of her experience to help her economize oxygen usage.
Although the suit felt incredibly thick and heavy for Laila, that feeling gradually faded when she got into the water, as it hugged and squeezed her, creating a balance of pressure. Plunging down into the body of water, sunrays filtering through the square hole drilled in the thick ice, the clarity of the water preceded all of Laila’s expectations.
She never expected the water of the most ancient lake to be this forgiving, where she could vividly watch various types of crustaceans, fish and other residents of the lake float by. This was Laila’s reminder that Baikal was not merely a body of water, but an ancient living creature with a soul, containing endless life. The oxygen bubbles were imprinted and carved in the frozen sheets of ice above her head.
Coming up toward the surface, she said goodbye to the body that witnessed and nurtured thousands and millions of years of history, and longed to feel the warmth fill her cheeks and palms again.
Having been engulfed deep down within a 30 million-year old lake, surrounded by nothing but absolute stillness and quiet, in freezing cold water, Laila came out the other side a different person. The sheer vastness of it all was humbling, and swimming alongside miniscule creatures served as a reminder that all life is connected.
Laila felt gratitude for having the opportunity to face something as grave as Lake Baikal, and for mustering the strength to emerge a stronger woman. Most importantly, she felt indescribable joy for knowing that her story would impact generations of young girls and women to come, perhaps inspiring them to pursue their own dreams and aspirations.