Denizens of Lake Baikal
The world's largest lake sits in frozen isolation in Siberia, visited by so few that stories have grown about the fearsome monsters inhabiting it. Today we're going to look at some of the most famous of these legends and see how and why they came to be popularly believed.
There is only one world record that Russia's Lake Baikal doesn't hold: that of the largest lake by surface area — that's the Caspian Sea. But Lake Baikal is the world's largest lake by volume. It is the world's deepest lake and the world's oldest lake. It holds over a fifth of all the fresh water on Earth, more than all five of North America's Great Lakes combined. Its water could blanket the entire continent of Australia three meters deep. It is located in the remote south of Siberia, just above Mongolia, in a region best known for its harsh winters and sparse population. With such a forbidding description, it's little wonder that Lake Baikal has drawn all kinds of stories about mysterious creatures that lurk beneath its wind and snow swept icy surface. Today we're going to review as many as I could squeeze into a Skeptoid podcast.
We'll begin with the one that I found to be the most popular. It's been told and re-told on every paranormal website and by most of today's TV programs that promote alien visitation as real, so hopefully you may have heard it before. The way the story is usually told, a group of seven Soviet navy divers was conducting an exercise under the ice in the lake in 1982. While some 50m underwater, they encountered a group of three-meter-tall extraterrestrial alien divers wearing helmets and silvery wetsuits, but no oxygen tanks. (How it was established that these silvery swimmers were extraterrestrial is not persuasively argued.) The divers were ordered to capture one alien with a net, and they tried, but somehow the aliens caused some great upsurge that expelled the Soviet divers back up to the surface and out of the lake. Only four could fit into the compression chamber that was on hand, it having been designed to accommodate only two; leaving the other three to die from the bends. The surviving four are said to have always refused to discuss the incident, but since the story is always given in very good detail, it's not clear what it is they're said not to have told. The story is often reported as having come from a famous 2009 release of declassified Soviet documents disclosing various UFO reports.
It being such an incredible story, one is tempted to seek out its origins and read the alleged declassified report. Turns out that much of the reporting is wrong; this is an old story and has been part of the UFO literature since long before any 2009 document release. And when we follow its thread as far back as we can, we find it is no more than at best a fourth-hand anecdote of a story bellowed by a Soviet officer to frighten and motivate a group of actual divers. The story has appeared a number of times in the Russian language UFO books of Prof. Vladimir Azhazha, a former mathematics professor and impassioned advocate of alien visitation — often inaccurately described as a government physicist — who apparently accepted the story as a factual account. A brief English language version of the story can be found in Stonehill and Mantle's 2016 book Russia's USO Secrets. In his UFO books, Azhazha reported that, through his contacts in the UFO community, he heard about a story told by two Soviet diving trainers, Mark Shteynberg and Gennady Zverev. One day their training exercise at Issyk Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan was visited by a senior officer, Major General Demyanenko. In a lecture to warn the men about the dangers of decompression, he told this story as having happened to another of his units that had been training at Lake Baikal at some unspecified date and place. To us, the element of the alien divers seems out of place for a safety lecture, but we're hearing the story so many times removed from an origin that was apocryphal in the first place, that we can't really guess what this Demyanenko may have been driving at.
The takeaway is that the story of the alien divers in Lake Baikal has no reliable provenance, no original source, certainly no corroboration, and was absolutely not part of any official government disclosure.
It has all the elements of a mysterious story that's likely to go viral. First, it has a provenance attached to it that sounds beyond reproach, the Soviet UFO disclosure; it's false, but it's still part of the story. Second, there's no easy way to verify it, because all the original sources are in Russian, and Russian books are hard to find on the English language Internet, which makes it difficult to do a literature search. And, most importantly, the story is cloaked in the mystique of a place so desperately remote and barren as Lake Baikal.
This important misconception is one that we need to dispense with. Most online portrayals of the lake describe it as being thousands of kilometers out into the wilderness; reaching it would require an epic trek across ice and snow that would, in itself, be a mystical and otherworldly experience. If this were the reality, then it would indeed seem compelling that the lake might well host all kinds of monstrous residents hidden beneath its bleak surface. But the fact is that Lake Baikal is ringed with perfectly modern cities, some of which have been there for centuries. The largest, Irkutsk, is a city of 600,000 people and is home to a dozen universities. Instagram is packed with photos tagged Lake Baikal year round, whether people are posing on the ice in the winter or waterskiing in the summer. There are resort hotels catering to international tourists, and factories dumped their waste into the lake for half a century until only recently being closed to preserve the clear water. Any number of research vessels, commercial fishing boats, and pleasure boats ply its waters every day (that it's not frozen). The more you learn about life at Lake Baikal, the less plausible it seems that the people most knowledgeable about it would be western YouTubers — who, having never even seen it, still claim to know more about it than the people who live and work and play and fish there — and make TikTok videos — every day.
Substantial underwater research has been done in the lake using submarines. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin has descended to the lake's deepest point — 1.6 kilometers down, at 160 atmospheres of pressure, survivable only to the hardiest of research submersibles.
Particularly hard for aquatic monsters to escape would be the Baikal Deep Underwater Neutrino Telescope, one of the world's three largest. Its primary instrument, the Baikal-GVD (for Gigaton Volume Detector) occupies 1 cubic kilometer of water at the south end of the lake. Sensitive detectors are positioned on strings floating upward from anchors on the lake's floor throughout that cubic kilometer, detecting relic dark matter, high energy muons, and neutrinos. So far, none of the collaborating scientists representing nine institutions from four countries have reported detection of any alien divers or giant monsters weaving their way through the instrument.
But to be fair to the legends, the vast majority of Lake Baikal is very, very far from any population centers and online influencers. And its great volume lends itself to great biodiversity; it has thousands of species of plants and animals, about half of which are found nowhere else on Earth. This includes an entire population of freshwater seals, the Nerpa seal. And so cryptozoologists reason that it's the right place to find an undiscovered species of aquatic megafauna. Let's charitably grant this whatever plausibility it is due, and explore the relevant claim.
The star of the legends of Lake Baikal monsters is the Water Dragon Master, as translated from the Buryat dialect of Mongolian, Lusud-Khan or Usan-Lobson Khan. Every online article about the mysteries of Lake Baikal mentions it, says that it looks something like a giant sturgeon, and claims that sightings go back centuries, but that's the extent of what's easy to find. You can do an image search and you'll find that there don't seem to be any photos of some elusive lake monster, as we'd expect with Loch Ness, etc. You have to do deeper literature searches, and you'll find that it comes from an old Mongolian legend about a hero, Bogatyr Horidoy (Bogatyr is a Slavic version of a Mongolian word for hero or hunter). In the story, Horidoy pursued a dragon to the island of Olkhon in Lake Baikal, where he encountered a master. There the master transformed into a beautiful swan maiden, they had eleven children, and this is the traditional genesis story of the Buryat people. The popular translations of Lusud-Khan or Usan-Lobson Khan aren't very accurate, either. They really just mean master, or possibly master on the water. Nothing dragon or monster about it. So, in point of fact, no legendary lake monster is said to live in Lake Baikal; instead there's just a badly distorted version of an ancient Buryat tradition copy-and-pasted to the mystery and paranormal websites for a credulous English-speaking audience.
So far our exploration of the terrifying denizens of Lake Baikal is coming up pretty slim, and for that I apologize.
The lake does boast one good minor mysterious event. In 1977, two research submersibles embarked on a variety of biological and geological scientific missions that represented the first time such equipment was used in a lake. The Canadian-built subs Pisces II and Pisces VII made 42 dives over six weeks for the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The deepest went to 1400m (nearly a mile down). In his book I See the Bottom of Baikal!, Soviet scientist Aleksandr Podrazhansky told how they once shut off the external lights of Pisces VII when they were finished working at the bottom of the lake, only to find their immediate area still illuminated by some unseen light source. After a few seconds, it too winked off, leaving them in the expected total blackness. What could it have been? It wasn't Pisces II, as it had a much shallower diving depth. Perhaps one of their own sub's lights still held a few seconds of charge in its ballast. We'll never know for sure, but that doesn't force us to insist it could only have been an extraterrestrial submarine spying on them — perhaps the hardest to justify of all possible explanations.
We may not have found any monstrous denizens in Lake Baikal, but hopefully we've moved the lake a little bit away from the realm of the mysterious and into the realm of the amazing. It's a beautiful place with a rich history, a complex culture, and by all accounts some really good beer and food in Irkutsk. It becomes yet another lesson in why, whenever you hear an incredible story that sounds incredible only because it would be so hard to verify, you should always be skeptical.
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