Siberia’s Seals: Lake Baikal Nerpa

Siberia’s Seals: Lake Baikal Nerpa

On the shores of Lake Baikal, the Listvyanka Limnological Museum includes a small seal aquarium, where two of the fat, torpedo-shaped Baikal freshwater seals, called nerpa, entertain visitors. Unique to Lake Baikal, nerpa are the only entirely landlocked freshwater seals in the world, and their appearance in the middle of Siberia is still somewhat of a mystery.

This nerpa was photographed through a tank at the Listvyanka Limnological Museum

This nerpa was photographed through a tank at the Listvyanka Limnological Museum
Photo credit: Meaghan Samuels

Utterly Unique NerpaUNESCO calls Lake Baikal “the Galapagos of Russia,” because its great age and isolation have produced one of the richest and most unusual ecosystems on earth. One of its endemic species, found nowhere else, is the earless silver-grey nerpa, the smallest of the true seals, which weighs up to 150 pounds and measures some four and a half feet. DNA analysis of their blood shows that they are related to the Arctic fur seal, with some differences. The Baikal nerpa have two more liters of blood than the Arctic seal, allowing them to remain underwater for longer. Scientists at the Limnological Institute have observed them diving for fish at 900 feet.

The best guess at their origin is that at one time salt-water Arctic fur seals swam up one of the rivers flowing into the Arctic, rivers that are now cut off from Baikal. It’s estimated that the nerpa have been isolated in the freshwater lake for at least 500,000 years.

Where to Find NerpaLake Baikal, especially its northern half, offers a friendly ecosystem for the nerpa, with its abundance of fish, its cold waters and its winter ice cover. The seals spend the winter under the ice, scratching air holes and coming out in late winter to give birth in snowy dens. Another Baikal endemic species, the oily golomyanka, provides a large proportion of the nerpa’s diet.

Multi-Purpose NerpaHumans have considered the nerpa a totem animal – and a resource – for thousands of years. Its warm fur, thick layer of fat and rich meat have sustained indigenous Baikal peoples and helped to foster their reverent attitude toward Baikal, the “Holy Sea.”

Travel to Lake Baikal with MIRTo observe them in their natural habitat, travelers can take a boat to one of the four Ushkaniye Islands in the middle of the lake. One of them, Tonky, is regarded as the best place to find the nerpa sunning themselves on the rocks.

You can see nerpa seals on MIR’s scheduled tours to Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, with many stopping at Lake Baikal, or book a custom private journey.

(Top photo credit: Michel Behar)

PUBLISHED: August 13, 2014

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