Field notes from the Arctic Circle and Southern Siberia
A nature photographer dives into the frigid ecosystems of the White Sea and Lake Baikal in deep winter to observe the differences in saltwater and sweet-water sub-aquatic life
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I have always been fascinated by the ice-covered areas of the temperate and Arctic regions. Recently, after I turned to documenting sub-aquatic flora and fauna, that fascination became a quest to study ice-covered aquatic ecosystems—frozen seas, lakes and rivers.
There are differences between lakes and seas, including size, currents and levels of salinity. For example, due to the salinity of sea water, the freezing point goes down to around minus 2 degrees Celsius, whereas freshwater lakes freeze at 0 degree Celsius. This has an impact on the way ice forms, the depths at which life is found, even the types of life that flourish here.
When I decided to photograph the ice formations and life in the Arctic underwater, I included both sea and freshwater systems to understand the difference. For this I chose to work in Lake Baikal, in southern Siberia, and the White Sea, on the north-western coast of Russia (the White Sea is part of the Barents Sea, which in turn is part of the Arctic Ocean), in winter. Lake Baikal is the largest (by volume), deepest, oldest lake, one of the cleanest in the world, and has several unique features—it is, for one, a habitat for the endemic Nerpa seal, one of the very few freshwater seal species in the world.
The White Sea has an opaque layer of ice, about a foot thick, whereas Lake Baikal has a much thicker transparent ice cover (80cm). As a result, there is greater penetration of light in Baikal. There was more plankton activity in both places than I had expected. During one dive in Lake Baikal, I found a bottom surface at a depth of 24m (78ft), and was able to observe sponges and amphipods. There were very few fish closer to the ice surface but the water was rich in phytoplankton.
In the White Sea, on the other hand, life was abundant. I observed many sculpins. Shrimp, jellyfish, nudibranchs and hermit crabs could be seen in large numbers. On one deep dive, I found soft corals that are endemic to the Arctic water, as well as gorgonians. There was a good population of anemones. The ice formations, however, were more dramatic in Lake Baikal, with sizes reaching up to 5-6m, even up to 8m.