Something A Little Fishy

If ever the Moscow suburbs reminded anyone of Egypt or any other popular diving spot, it was earlier this month, when 67 people dove into the Spas-Kamenka quarry to mark the 12th anniversary of the Diving Club & School of Moscow State University, one of the most famous diving clubs in Russia.

Despite the fact that Moscow is nowhere near the sea, the number of people eager to submerge themselves is impressive. The MGU club alone boasts some 5,000 members. In addition to classic diving, many participants also go free diving and spear fishing.

"You can get the same feeling of soaring and weightlessness here as in any coral sea, despite the cold and low visibility" says Dmitry Orlov, the club president, who has been diving for 23 years.

At Spas-Kamenka, which is located about 25 kilometers outside of Moscow, the view beneath the surface is very much like the scenery out of an old Russian fairytale about the

underwater tsar Chudo-Yudo. Submerged wood overgrown with waterweeds gives the scene a mysterious character, while trout, carp and pike float through the underwater forest. Crabs and other invertebrates crawl on the bottom.

"It's not the Red Sea, of course," says Orlov, "but you cannot drive to Egypt every weekend."

In addition to Spas-Kamenka, which is 16 meters deep, there are several other lakes and quarries around Moscow. Not far from Zvenigorod, 30-meter-deep Glubokoye Lake is a good place to dive. Lake Beloye, not far from Shatura, is 8 meters deeper. Although the water there is fairly clean, it is never warmer than 6 degrees celsius. While you won't find any sunken pirate ships in Moscow's lakes and quarries, beautiful Lake Seliger, about a three-hour drive from Moscow, features a sunken plane on the bottom.

Simon Saradzhyan / MT
Spearfishing champion Anatoly Karasyov shows off a catch from a local river.
Some local divers, however, are not looking for any beautiful underwater scenery. Those Muscovites who take up diving as a hobby have visited many world-famous dive spots, and they dive at home to get a completely different experience, says Viktor Droganich, the head of the diving club of the Central Club of the Russian Navy.

Diving under the ice in darkness, for example, is something you can't do in Egypt.

"The very first moment the water touches your face is like fire," Droganich says. "The only thing reminding you of the world above is the ice hole. Only your flashlight shows you your way. Its not an experience for those with weak nerves."

Droganich says the most experienced divers can last about an hour in this kind of water. Those interested in taking up diving must first undergo special training. Additional training is available for those who want to advance and certifications range from beginner to master to instructor.

About one-third of dive club participants are women. According to Orlov, women frequently start diving in order to share a hobby with a husband or boyfriend, but people with this level of interest are difficult to train.

But there are some good Russian role models for those women interested in taking up the sport. There are only four women in the world who can dive deeper than 70 meters without equipment, and Natalia Molchanova is one of them. Her record is 86 meters.

Molchanova, the world champion in free diving, told Sport Express newspaper that she does not dive to set records, but rather to experience the feeling of complete dissolution in the water space. She said at times, she has even felt the temptation not to emerge -- like in Luc Besson's famous movie, The Big Blue.

Oxana Onipko / MT
The Moscow State University diving club recently celebrated its 12th anniversary with a dive at the Spas-Kamenka quarry.
While many Moscow clubs train divers, only a few of them also offer instruction in spearfishing. Like free divers, spearfishers are not allowed to use breathing equipment. The hunter dives under water and holds his breath while trying to shoot a fish with a crossbow. Several regional rivers, including the Moscow , the Pakhra, the Yakhroma and the Sherna, offer good opportunities for spear fishing. Pike perch, European roach, pike, sheat fish and ide are all prevalent in the rivers around Moscow. The best time for this kind of hunting is in the fall and winter since the visibility is better in these seasons. Spearfishing, like regular fishing, is banned during spawning time -- from April 30 until June 15.

"It's much easier to buy fish in the store. But every normal man has a hunter's instinct," says Anatoly Karasyov, the champion of a spearfishing contest organized by the diving club of the Central Club of the Russian Navy last year. "Besides," he adds, "hunting in these extreme conditions in cold water gives a lot of satisfaction."

Although no certification is needed for spearfishing, the hobby does have its risks. Occasionally, hunters become distracted by their search and emerge too late. When immersed, water pressure causes the volume of the lungs to become smaller. This results in the need to take fewer breaths and can mislead hunters as to the amount of air they have left. Lack of oxygen can lead to loss of consciousness while underwater, which can result in death.

"For all underwater activities, training and thinking are the most important things," Orlov says. Courage is not an important characteristic for those with passion for the underwater world. In fact, divers say there are brave divers and there are old divers, but you never meet a diver who is bold and old at the same time.