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November, 20, 2016

Ushkany Islands: Home to Baikal Seal

The Ushkany Islands are an uncharted and challenging mystery of Baikal. It is not easy for a tourist to get here: you need to obtain permission in advance. However, in spite of all that, these wild lands are visited by more than 150 tourists each year.

It is the place to go for silence, true romance, and for this thing called “digital detox” that everyone in the modern world is talking about. 

Spending time somewhere surrounded by beauty and tranquility without communications and internet is what today’s city dwellers often find themselves dreaming of.

The Ushkany Islands are a small archipelago located in the territory of the Trans-Baikal National Park, in the middle of the lake and seven kilometers from the Svyatoy Nos peninsula. In fact, these islands are the top of an underwater hill at the bottom of Lake Baikal. The Ushkany Islands consist of four islands, but in spite of the proximity, all four are very different from each other. Large Ushkany island rises out of the water in the form of a mountain to a height of 216 m, stretching from west to east for 5 km and to a width of 3 km. Three small islands: Thin, Round and Long - rise only 17-22 m above the surface of the lake.
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You are probably wondering how the islands got their name. In Siberian, "Ushkan" means “hare”, so linguists believe that a lot of hares once lived on the island. However, scientists say that hares never inhabited the islands, or at least not in such numbers that would justify such a name. Most likely it came from the north. Pomors, who live on the shores of the White Sea, call seals “sea hares”. And there are many of those in the territory of the lake. Russian immigrants from the North, who visited Baikal for the first time, saw the seal - the Baikal seal, and gave it the nickname "Ushkan". And the island where the Baikal seals rest and sunbathe was named “Zayachi” (Hare). That name of the archipelago can be found on the map of 1701 drawn by researcher Semyon Remezov. Subsequently, the name "Hare" was altered by the locals, and the island became known as Ushkany.

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Today the island is mainly visited by photographers and scientists, whereas tourists are drawn to the wildness of the place and some of the natural "highlights" of the island. Firstly, it is the best place to watch the seals. They are hiding here from tourists and people, as wild seals are very timid and dislike attention. The favorite pastime of these lovely but very lazy animals is climbing the rocks and basking in the sun, nudging neighbors with their thick sides. The view is quite touching! And while the seals are lazy, they are decent hunters, able to dive to a depth of 200 m and stay under water for up to 20-25 minutes in search of food.

Another feature of the Ushkany Islands is anthills. Their number is unmatched in Russia: There are 18-20 anthills per hectare. The reason for their rapid reproduction is the absence of birds and animals that would destroy and devour them and their eggs. Where else on Earth can you watch these industrious insects in their natural environment?

If you are not fond of insects, and you have already seen the seals in Listvyanka, then you may enjoy the other attractions of the island - the beaches. People come here to relax on the pristine marble beaches of the shore of Lake Baikal. Due to the fact that getting here is difficult, local beaches are real diamonds among all the beaches of the lake. This is where seagulls nest at Baikal, so if you are lucky, you can even spot their colorful eggs. However, the locals advise you not to get too close – these birds protect their young quite fiercely.

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For lovers of flora, the Ushkany Island will be a real discovery. Clean air and the isolation of the place contributed to the fact that a lot of rare plants can still be found here. In the forests of the Ushkany Island, there are plantations of Dahurian Rhododendron. In spring, this shrub bears lots of bright purple flowers which symbolize the imminent arrival of summer. 
 

The steep shores of the island are covered with unusual sea kale which is rapidly blooms starting from June. Rocks have a wonderful breeding ground for brown lichen that have spread almost throughout the whole archipelago.

Some plant species that grow here have unique features. For example, on the Big Island you can find Dahurian Larch which has bottle-shaped thickening on its bark. Another unique plant which is not found anywhere else in the world is the Ushkany Birch with its black bark. Its leaves with sharp-toothed edges are also unusual, and the crown of some local trees have flag-like shape due to the winds that always blow in the same direction.

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