After six hours of driving northeast from Irkutsk, the Cousteau vehicles finally crossed the last pass that hung over Lake Baikal. An immense white desert stretched to the horizon where the beige mountains of Olkhon Island separate the lake into two parts: on the eastern side, the "little sea" and on the western, the "great sea" that extends 650 kilometers from north to south.
This deepest and oldest lake in the world lies on the border of Russian Siberia and Outer Mongolia. Known as the "Pearl of Siberia", the lake fills a tectonic trough that is widening at the rate of 2.5 cm a year, swallowing up sediment and leaving crystalline water above. In 1997, the Cousteau team travelled the lake to film the rich, diverse life in it: 1,800 species of which 80 percent are endemic (the omul salmon, the oily golomyanka fish and the freshwater seals called nerpas).
The expedition to Lake Baikal was an uncommon adventure. The team dove under 80 centimeters of ice and brought back amazing images and sounds of the lake's ice cover in constant motion. At winter's end, the cameramen had the good luck to film fishing nets stretched under to ice to catch the schools of omuls.
Thanks to their drysuits, the divers were warmer in the water than on the surface. In the air, the temperature sometimes dropped below -40°C. When they were out of the water, the divers had to take off their equipment immediately because the regulators would freeze almost instantly to their lips!
Visiting a small Siberian village was the occasion for participating in a festival to celebrate the end of winter. In the middle of stands selling local toys and foods, the residents were burning a doll made of scraps of paper and cloth, the Lady of the Snows. Soon the cold season would be nothing but ashes and the songs of spring would rise in the clear air.