Tucked away in a wooded area just outside the Siberian city of Novosibirsk is an amoeba-shaped lake. Accessible via a haphazard network of dirt roads, its grassy shores are lined with clusters of dark green trees. But unlike other nearby bodies of water, this one stands out — its water is a beguiling shade of bright turquoise.
In recent weeks, the lake’s enchanting hue has sparked a social-media craze, luring scores of camera-toting visitors to its banks. Photos show what appear to be scenes from paradise: a kissing couple on paddle boards. People frolicking in swimsuits. Enormous colorful beach floaties.
“The color of the lake is amazing … This is our Siberian Maldives,” one person wrote in Russian on Instagram last month, likening the unusual body of water to the picturesque island nation in the Indian Ocean.
But there’s a major difference between the two scenic locales. The Siberian lake isn’t a natural wonder. It’s a man-made dumping area for waste from a nearby power plant — and its striking color is due to dissolved calcium salts and other metal oxides, which can be harmful if they come into contact with people.
“WE ESPECIALLY REQUEST THAT IN THE PURSUIT OF SELFIES YOU DON’T FALL IN THE ASH DUMP,” the power plant’s operator, Siberian Generating Company, said in an all-caps warning shared to the Russian social networking site VK in June. “THAT IS THE PRIMARY DANGER.”
The statement, which noted that the artificial lake had become a “star of social media,” cautioned people against touching the water and stressed that swimming is prohibited. The liquid “has a high alkaline environment” with an elevated pH level, the company said, adding that the bottom of the lake is also “slimy,” making it “probably impossible to get out of the reservoir on one’s own.”
“Walking in the ash dump is like walking on a military training ground: dangerous and undesired,” the company told local media in June.
The lengthy advisory, however, appears to have done little to quell the flow of visitors, marking the latest example of the lengths to which people will go for the perfect Instagram photo. In March, a small city in California was overrun by flower-crazed tourists rushing to see swaths of poppies that blanketed nearby hillsides, forcing officials to close access to the fields and declare a “public safety crisis.” Many people have also been hurt or killed in their quest for selfies. A 2018 study found that over a recent six-year period, more than 250 people worldwide died while snapping photos of themselves.
Photos of the Siberian lake have continued to pop up on social media, resulting in at least one Instagram account dedicated to compiling shots taken of or near the vibrant water. As of early Thursday, the account featured about 200 posts and had more than 3,400 followers.
“We know that the lake is toxic and didn’t enter the water,” Marina Zheleznova, a Siberian woman who took photos by the lake with her partner, told CNN.
Like Zheleznova, most people respected the warnings, choosing to take their pictures on shore. But there were others who seemed willing to take greater risks. Zheleznova said she saw people setting up “whole picnics by the lake” and “one man even bathed there.”
In one picture, two women pose on what appears to be a makeshift platform with their feet dangling in the water. Another shot shows a shirtless man floating on the lake in a giant inflatable unicorn.
“The next morning, my legs turned slightly red and itched for two days,” the man wrote. “The water tastes a bit sour, looks like chalk.”
One couple even elected to have wedding pictures taken at the lake, embracing near the water’s edge and posing in front of a picnic spread.
In an Instagram post, the photographer explained that the photos were a “creative idea and no one really organized a picnic on the ash dump and did not splash in the water.” Still, she wrote that she thought the danger was “slightly exaggerated.”
“Naturally, you should not swim there, but because of a photo shoot lasting an hour you will not grow a third hand,” she wrote.
In its June statement, the power plant company said that two independent laboratories confirmed the ash dump isn’t poisonous and the “radiation hue there is fine.”
“Blue gulls do not fly there, and plants to not die,” the statement said.
But the company added that the water’s contents could “lead to an allergic reaction.”
The ash is the product of a thermal power station that was built in the 1970s and supplies energy to Novosibirsk, a city of about 1.5 million people, the Guardian reported. It is the largest of its kind in Siberia, according to the Guardian.
In an aerial photo of the lake uploaded to Russian social media by the company, the power plant’s towering red-and-white-striped smokestacks can be seen in the distance spewing dark smoke into the sky.
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The Washington Post’s Paul Sonne contributed to this report.