Nature Field Note: Scuba-diving with Ancient Fish

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to try scuba diving for the very first time. Early Saturday morning I arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Skopje to meet our group. It turned out that I would be traveling with three United States marines for this new adventure. We weren’t going to scuba dive just anywhere either. We were on our way to Lake Ohrid –the pearl of Macedonia. If you look at a map you’ll see that Lake Ohrid is located between Macedonia and Albania. When driving, it’s about three hours away from Skopje. Check it out!

Lake Ohrid is a very special place here in the Balkans. In order to learn a little more about it, I talked with my friend Marija at the American Corner here in Štip. She loaned me a copy of The Bradt Travel Guide of Macedonia. The book is filled with many interesting facts about Macedonia. For example, I learned that in 1979 Lake Ohrid was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO. I also found out, through a link provided by the Bradt Travel Guide, that Lake Ohrid is also very deep, reaching a depth of 948 feet! During the Ice Age, the depth of the lake provided a special climate that prevented the water from completely freezing (Brown). This made it possible for ancient fish to survive into the present day. One such fish is the Ohrid trout or salma trutto letnica, but we’ll come back to that a little later.

Another reason that makes Lake Ohrid very special is its clarity. The water is so clear that it has a visibility of up to 72 feet below the surface (Brown).  Near the shoreline you can clearly see schools of fish and even the rocks at the bottom of the lake. It’s very beautiful! Lake Ohrid is so clear, because the water is filtered through underground limestone from Lake Prespa, a nearby lake that belongs to three different countries: Macedonia, Greece and Albania. Because of its purity and clarity, Lake Ohrid is the perfect place to try scuba diving for the first time!

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When driving with the guys towards Lake Ohrid, I had time to think. Three years ago, I visited Macedonia for a month to practice teaching. On this first trip, I also had a chance to visit Lake Ohrid.  As the guys slept, I intently gazed out the window to soak up all of the surrounding countryside. Getting closer, I started to recognize the familiar twists and turns of the mountain road, and pictures of my first trip to Lake Ohrid flashed through my mind. This was going to be an exciting weekend!

On reaching the city of Ohrid, we dropped our things off at our hotel and drove to the city’s Water Museum. This was the site where we would be diving. Unfortunately, I forgot my bathing suit back at the hotel so the driver and one of the guys drove me back to get it. Thankfully our group was patient with my forgetfulness, and even though it was a pain to have to return to the hotel for my swimming suit, driving by the lake made it worth it. The green blue hues of the water complemented the blue sky and the darker blue mountain peaks covered with snow. It was truly a beautiful picture.

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After retrieving my bathing suit, we had a short meeting with our scuba diving instructors. We learned a few important signals for when we were in the water and what the plan would be once below the surface. Next, we geared up for our adventure. Even though spring comes early in Macedonia, the water was still pretty chilly. We had several layers to put on to protect us from the cold. We wore two layers of wet suits as well as gloves and boots. The guys and I had a hard time getting into our suits, but wetsuits have to be tight to keep as much of the cold off the skin as possible. Each of us also had our own breathing machine to carry. All of the equipment together was very heavy, and we looked a lot like penguins trying to waddle around under all of the layers. Once we got into the water, though, it was much easier to move.

 

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The thirty minutes we spent underwater felt short like five minutes. Have you ever had so much fun that you lose track of time? While underwater, we swam through beams holding up the water museum. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced before, except for maybe in a dream once. It was like we traveled to a new and very different world. The eerie, green light, hundreds of small, curious fish and the wooden beams all made it seem like we were swimming through an enchanted underwater forest. Traveling through this strange world, I held my breath more than once, almost forgetting to breath through my mouth in order to get the oxygen I needed to stay underwater. When we returned to the water’s surface, I felt like I was coming out of a dream. What happened? What was that world? It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

Now, back to the Ohrid trout. Remember I said earlier that Lake Ohrid did not freeze during the Ice Age, because it is so deep? Well, because the lake didn’t freeze, a very ancient species of fish was able to survive, the salma trutto letnica. Although I didn’t see this fish while I was scuba diving, this is a very interesting part of Lake Ohrid’s ecosystem and worth investigating further. There’s no other fish or trout anywhere in the world quite like the Ohrid trout. In 1924 scientists identified it as a unique species (http://iwpr.net). It can only be found in Lake Ohrid.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem. This particular trout was listed as endangered species in 1996 by the World Conservation Union (http://iwpr.net). There have been many attempts to protect Ohrid trout. However, with the suffering economy in the Balkans and tourist demand, fishermen are too tempted to continue catching the fish to sell, even illegally. Some fishermen even use dynamite! Macedonia has attempted to protect Ohrid trout, and fishing is illegal on the Macedonian side of the lake, but serving the fish (and eating them) in local restaurants is not illegal. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know whether Ohrid trout will be around twenty or thirty years from now.

References

Evans, Thammy. Macedonia: the Bradt Travel Guide. Guilford: The Globe Pequot Press Inc, 2007. Print.

Brown, Paul. “Ohrid fate awaits ancient trout in the Balkans.theguardian. 28 July 2003. Web. 16 Apr. 2013. < http://www.guardian.co.uk/>.

“INVESTIGATION: Poachers Drive Macedonia’s Unique Trout Towards Extinction.” Institute for War & Peace Reporting. 10 Aug. 2005. Web. 16 Apr. 2013. < http://iwpr.net/>.

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