A fisherman’s boat in Lake Baikal
The deep, frigid waters of Lake Baikal look calm enough, but if locals are to be believed, mysteries abound in this ancient body of water. Aliens, supernatural powers, ancient curses, dragons, even a visit from Jesus – there seems to be no end to the bizarre stories linked to this freshwater lake in southern Siberia.
Yet even without the strange tales, this would be a fascinating place – one of incredible beauty and with enough ecological value to make it a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is the largest and oldest lake on Earth, not to mention one of the most biologically unique.
Image: Serge Bystro
Port Baikal, the source of the Angara River
Before we dive into the weirder myths and mysteries surrounding the lake, let’s take a look at some of the interesting facts about it. For starters, Lake Baikal is the deepest freshwater lake on Earth, reaching as far down as 5,387 feet (1,642 meters). With a surface area of 12,248 square miles (31,722 square kilometers) it is also, by volume, the world’s biggest freshwater lake.
It has been estimated that 20 percent of the planet’s unfrozen fresh water – and a whopping 90 percent of Russia’s – is to be found in Lake Baikal. It’s also been said that if all the other water on Earth dried up, there would still be enough in Baikal for all of us to drink for half a century. However, sheer size is not the only remarkable thing about it: at 25 million years old, it is also the world’s most ancient lake.
Lightning flashes in the sky above the lake.
Lake Baikal sits within a rift valley formed where the Earth’s crust drags itself asunder. The rift in which the lake is situated is the deepest in the world – yet another record associated with this amazing lake – and one that is still growing, at a rate of 0.8 inches (2 cm) every year.
In excess of 330 rivers and other tributaries flow into the lake, although it is drained by only one, the Angara River. The waters in the lake are crystal-clear, and it is possible to see up to 130 feet (40 meters) below the surface – perfect for gazing at the abundant aquatic life that makes the lake its home.
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Mossy rocks along the shore of Lake Baikal
It’s not surprising that such an old and deep lake should have so many legends and mysteries attached to it, starting with its own creation story. According to folklore, Lake Baikal came into existence when a giant meteor hit the Earth and created a huge crack. It was that giant crack in the ground which became the lake. Some of the magical properties attributed to the lake include its ability to extend life – for those who are willing to risk a dip in its 23 °F (-5 °C) waters.
Trees stand silhouetted against the sunrise on the lake.
The capes and islands within the lake have their own mythology. The largest of these, Olkhon Island, is the world’s third-biggest lake island – and interestingly it is supposed to be the birthplace of Genghis Khan. Jesus is also said to have visited the area, blessing the land to the north of Baikal but dismissing the terrain south of the lake as “nothing” – which locals say explains the apparent inability to grow corn in that region. Cape Ryty on the shore to the west of the lake is believed to be cursed, and locals hold that going there can result in a sudden and early death for trespassers.
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Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal’s largest island
More recently, Lake Baikal has come to wider attention for a particularly odd phenomenon. In 2009 strange circles began materializing on the frozen lake during the colder months. The circles were seen by astronauts in the International Space Station, and at first they were a source of intrigue and puzzlement. Evidence of aliens, perhaps? As it turns out, no – but they could be a symptom of something more troubling.
Experts now believe the circles – with diameters of up to 2.7 miles (4.4 km) – are the work of methane gas bubbling up from the lake floor and causing swirling currents of warmer water. Unfortunately, this gas, along with global warming, could mean Lake Baikal’s spring ice vanishing at a faster rate; ice which is so vital to the local ecology.
The surface of Lake Baikal frozen over in winter
Ufologists shouldn’t be too disappointed by the scientific explanation for the ice circles, though, as Lake Baikal holds yet more alien intrigue. This time, the source is the Russian Navy, no less. Declassified Russian naval documents supposedly detail various possible UFO events, including an encounter at Lake Baikal. In the account, which dates back to 1982, navy divers are said to have come across a group of “humanoid creatures dressed in silvery suits” 164 feet (50 meters) underwater. Three of the divers involved in the incident reportedly died as they gave chase, and another four suffered serious injuries.
A red sunset over Lake Baikal
Fishermen also have UFO-related stories about the lake. They claim to have seen bright lights emanating from beneath the lake’s surface as well as objects shooting up from the depths. “I think about underwater bases and say: why not? Nothing should be discarded,” ex-Russian naval officer and UFO researcher Vladimir Azhazha has said. Officially, however, the Russian Navy has denied the existence of the reports, saying that such accounts are likely to have stemmed from sightings of “objects of unclear but Earthly origin.”
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A cave in the lake during winter
Another of Lake Baikal’s mysteries is the disappearance of small vessels from its surface, never to be seen again. One such incident in 2011 involved a boat called the Yamaha, which had four experienced crew on board. Near where the Yamaha vanished there is an area of the lake called “the Devil’s crater.” According to Pravda.ru, unfortunate boats that go there are occasionally sucked into a large whirlpool – which locals claim is a gateway to hell.
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Sunbeams break through the dark clouds over the lake.
The weirdness doesn’t end there, however. Those who live around Lake Baikal say they have seen ships, trains and even castles mysteriously appear on the water’s surface. Scientists would likely suggest that these odd sightings are mirages, an effect of the differing temperatures of the lake’s surface and the air above it, respectively.
Some even say that the mirages may hold the key to the disappearance of boats like the Yamaha, which could have been led astray by convincing illusions.
Image: Sergey Vladimirov
Grey skies merge with the lake in this image.
Investigation into mysteries of a different kind is also in full swing at the Baikal Deep Underwater Neutrino Telescope. Here, optical module arrays have been placed at depths of up to 3,608 feet (1.1 km) beneath the lake’s surface, where they detect many neutrinos generated by the interaction between solar winds and the atmosphere.
Apart from it measuring neutrinos, the telescope has also become a way for researchers to monitor the local lake environment.
The stark beauty of Lake Baikal at wintertime
Strange happenings and telescopes aside, the water of Lake Baikal is famed for its unparalleled cleanliness. It has lots of oxygen and not many impurities, plus the perfect salination level for human consumption. Its unique composition means that Lake Baikal is of great use to scientific research. Sadly, however, this pristine environment now has many threats.
White clouds reflected in the calm, mirror-like surface of the lake
On the shores of the lake, there is now a thriving tourism industry. That said, there is also a controversial pulp and paper mill operating that releases waste into the Lake Baikal waters. Although President Putin himself vouches for the mill’s ecological soundness, environmentalists and locals disagree.
Elsewhere, there are plans to construct an international uranium enrichment plant near the lake, although many are pushing to stop it on environmental grounds.
A lone tree overlooks the mysterious lake.
Beauty, mystery, history and more than a little oddness – Lake Baikal has it all. It has been nicknamed the “Galápagos of Russia,” such is its ecological importance, while there’s also the possibility of glimpsing UFOs or maybe the sturgeon-like Lake Baikal Monster on its shores.
Whether your interests are in the natural or the supernatural, Lake Baikal has to be one of the most captivating places on the planet.