Irkutsk: Pulling Worms From the World's Deepest Lake

The G. Titov got underway under a brilliant blue mid-day sky. Sunlight glinted off the water as we pulled away from Listvyanka, and across the lake we could see the soaring peaks of snow-capped mountains in Buryatia. The air was perfectly clear, though the smell of oil from the Titov's engine room wafted across the deck.

It was exciting to be on the lake, and a little surreal to be on the same exact research ship that Gary and I had been on in 1995. The Titov, a 22-meter-long cutter, didn't seem to have changed at all, except perhaps for having a few more coats of paint. It had a small laboratory below deck, along with cramped sleeping compartments for 16. The toilet, shower and galley were all topside, and the ship was also equipped with a motorboat.

Photo Gallery: Expedition leader Dima Sherbakov, a biochemist at the Limnological Institute, enjoys a quiet moment on the Titov's deck.(David Hillegas)

The goal of the expedition was to collect worms and amphipods -- small shrimp-like creatures -- for research. First, a crew member would attach a specially-designed dredging bag to a winch, then lower it to the lake bottom. After 10 minutes or so, he'd pull it back up, and dump the contents -- usually a mixture of sand, silt and rocks -- into buckets. The grad students would then leap into action with Judith, the professor from Leeds, hunching over to sort through the muck with tweezers, plastic spoons and sieves.

Judith loved her amphipods. A good dredge produced great delight, as she gently tweezed dozens of little creatures into tubes of ethanol. This was her first trip to Baikal, and she was clearly energized by being out on the lake, collecting her specimens. In fact, the mood among just about everyone on the boat that first day was one of excitement.

The next day, after breakfast, the research team once again gathered on deck with spoons and tweezers in hand. The crew sent the dredge back down, but when it came time to pull it up, something was wrong. The winch line was taut, but the dredge wouldn't budge. It seemed to be stuck on the bottom.

For 15 minutes, the crew struggled to bring the dredge up. The captain turned the boat to and fro, and a crew member pulled on the line, but nothing seemed to work. At last, the winch began turning freely. What came up, however, was an empty hook -- the dredge bag was gone, 80 meters below the lake's surface.

This was not a catastrophe, but it was a serious setback. There was another dredge bag on board, but it was about a third of the size of the one that had been lost. The researchers could still gather samples with it, but now they'd have to dredge three times as often in order to get the same amount of material. Dima's face betrayed his disappointment, though he said little about the loss.

The oldest and deepest lake in the world, Baikal is considered one of the earth's great natural wonders.(David Hillegas)

Earlier, I'd asked Dima what had changed at the Institute over the last ten years. He said, "In 1995, it was impossible to work. There was just no money. I took photos of the lake and made them into postcards to make money on the side. I also sold aquarium fish." Now, he told me, "we're getting more money from the government." though less from the international organizations that helped the institute through the leanest years.

"We survived in the end due to foreign money," Dima said, "but nothing is free in this world and we still suffer the results of that." Still, he said, "we don't have the wild immigration anymore of everyone moving abroad. Things have gotten back to normal."


As the day progressed, multiple dredgings with the smaller bag pulled up scores of worms and amphipods, and the earlier good mood was mostly restored. While the researchers worked, a sharp wind whipped off the water, and the sky changed from blue to cloudy to blue again in minutes. October brings unpredictable weather to the lake, and squalls dart across the water, creating dark patches of ripples on the surface.

In mid-afternoon, one of the divers suited up and went underwater, eventually lugging up bucketsful of stones and sand. And as the researchers continued their labors, hunching once again over the buckets, the Titov glided toward the dock of a small village called MRS.

Ten years ago, the Titov crew deposited Gary and me here before continuing on to points northward. Then, MRS, which stands for "Malomorskoye Fishing Station," felt like a village at the end of the earth. Pigs wandered the dusty streets, there was no hotel, and the bus to Irkutsk ran only twice a week. We were stranded -- though to our great relief, we managed to catch a ride in a car going to Irkutsk later that day.

As the ship neared MRS, I strained to see whether the village had changed significantly since 1995. I could tell even before we left the ship to walk around.

Tomorrow: MRS, Olkhon Island, and the wacky hotel.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 5, 2005; 7:30 AM ET
Previous: Irkutsk: Launching the Baikal Expedition | Next: Irkutsk: The Wacky Hotel in the 'Middle of Nowhere'


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I am wondering if the research ship had a different name in 1955.

I am guessing it may have, because Titov made his trip into space in 1961 or so, so perhaps they did not name the ship after him until the 1960s.

Just another crazy question.

Posted by: Miata | October 6, 2005 10:30 AM

My eyes are going, it says 1995.

Posted by: Miata | October 6, 2005 10:31 AM

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