The Chechen Project: Diving Uncharted Caucasus Mountain Lakes
Diving in a body of water never-before-touched by other divers is, for some, the holy grail of scuba diving. Not only to be the first to descend beneath the surface, but to further scientific discovery in the process – a quest that drove five divers from the flatlands of Belgium to the high mountain lakes of Chechnya
Leaving the well-known waters of Belgium’s coast and travelling over 3,600km (2,237 miles) to the Chechen mountains was an idea first brought to technical dive instructor trainer Jérémy Ransy, of Divemonkey Ecole de plongée à Liège, by one of his dive students, Chechen native Hasanov Aslanbek. With more than 5,000 dives and successful expeditions to Antarctica, Micronesia, Fiji and the Marshall Islands under his weight belt, Ransy assembled a crew of divers, including Adrien Moray, Michèle-Cerise Soors and Julian Carbajo Antelo, and the 'Chechen Project' was begun.
The objective of the Chechen Project would be to explore Lake Kezenoyam and Lake Galanchozh, two pristine bodies of water located in the Caucasus mountains south of the capital city of Grozny. Ransy and his team planned not only to dive the lakes, but also map the locations and collect as much scientific data as possible. Lake Kezenoyam had been dived before, but the team would be the first to ever explore Lake Galanchozh.
Putting the goals down on paper was one thing, but the logistics of travelling to, and diving in, an untouched, mountainous territory, would be something else entirely. Preparation and training took the team six months. 'This trip was a technical diving expedition that required not only advanced skills, but meticulous organisation,' said Ransy. 'In order to prepare for the challenging environment, we had to learn and repeat technical procedures in case we encountered any problems while underwater.'
Ensuring that appropriate equipment could be dispatched from around Russia to the city of Grozny required a great deal of coordination, substantial administrative work, and communication with local authorities. The team secured sponsorship from several dive companies which supplied most of the more costly items and equipment.
When the team finally made it to Grozny, each diver was equipped with nearly 60 kg of diving gear, and more than 1.5 tonnes of equipment in total. 'When we recovered our materials, which had been delivered on pallets,' said Ransy, 'we had a compressor from Moscow, bottles and technical equipment from St Petersburg, SOLO Analyzers from Divesoft in the Czech Republic and gas from a supplier in the Far East.'
With assistance from the Chechen Tourism Minister, Ransy and his team made the four-hour drive to Lake Kezenoyam, 187m above sea level and the deepest lake in the Caucasus Mountains, where the water temperature is rarely higher than 5°C (41°F), even in the summer months. Camping for the next few days on the lake’s shore, Ransy and his Divemonkey team completed multiple dives in preparation for the trip to Lake Galanchozh, recording a new maximum depth for diving in the lake of 75m, one metre deeper than had previously been established.
Lake Kezenoyam is home to the Salmo ezenami, a trout-like species endemic only to Kezenoyam, which cames as something as a surprise to the team, after finding themselves surrounded by thousands of the fish. The lake was also filled with plankton and dozens of other fish species, including the European chub, a non-native fish that is now slowly eradicating the population of rare salmo. 'The flora and fauna we saw in Kezenoyam was more incredible than 99 per cent of any other lakes I know,' said Ransy.
The Divemonkey team spent 24 hours decompressing before leaving altitude, providing them with the opportunity to get to know the local Chechen people who had come to assist their historic dives, and lay to rest local legends that claimed the lake was 'full of monsters and had no bottom'. Once they were able to travel again, the crew set off to their second destination, the never-before-dived Lake Galanchozh, driving along a trail only recently dynamite-blasted into the mountainside, through a landscape that Ransy describes as 'wilder than he could have possibly imagined.'
Transporting their gas mixtures to altitude across such rough terrain generated a raft of safety issues, not least the fact that they were carrying industrial-sized gas cylinders through the mountains, and using a 'ridiculously small' compressor dispatched from Russia to fill their tanks. 'The compressor was so slow we had to take shifts watching over it all night to make sure it filled our twinsets,' said Ransy. 'It took a long, long time!'
The crew was greeted upon their arrival at Lake Galanchozh by Chechen Special Forces, who had been (allegedly) tasked with protecting the group from bear attacks – of which there were none – and began work mapping the entire lake the next day. They recorded the lake's maximum depth as being 35m and made a note of the underwater life, which was similar to Lake Kezenoyam with large blooms of plankton and a variety of different fish species – an incredible amount of biodiversity for such a remote and inhospitable location.
Unfortunately, heavy rains during the second day – which forced the divers to dig trenches around their tents to prevent them flooding – followed by the approach of a bad weather front, meant that the divers had to abandon the site in the hope of returning for a future visit.
Although the Divemonky crew spent only a few days at the site, the groundwork has been firmly laid for further exploration, and the team 'has taken great satisfaction' in being the first-ever divers to survey, map and collect depth and wildlife data in such a remote and uninhabited location.
Having achieved almost every one of their goals, the expedition has been hailed as a great success, and, after achieving their historic first, plans are already afoot for another trip to Chechnya to continue exploring the mountain lakes. Ransy, for one, having sparked a new interest in Chechen scuba diving, is keen to return.
'It was hard to leave,' he said. 'I loved the Chechen people, their culture and their country. They are proud and brave people and I am blessed to call them my friends'
For more on Divesoft's Solo analyser and other technical gear, visit www.divesoft.com. For more about Jérémy Ransy and Divemonkey's adventures, head to www.divemonkey.be, or follow the team's Facebook Page.