Snorkelling. Not exactly the first activity that comes to mind when you think of Iceland, a place imagined by most to be a snow-covered and sub-freezing destination. But surprisingly Iceland offers some of the best diving conditions in the world – if you don’t mind the icy chill of the water, you’ll be treated to stunningly clear conditions, unique geological formations and the rare opportunity to literally swim in-between two tectonic plates.
We have journeyed to Þingvellir National Park, about an hour’s drive east of Reykjavik. It is a geologically, historically and culturally significant area where the first Icelandic parliament was founded in 930 AD. The park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural importance in the formation of the nation of Iceland. While it is steeped in hundreds of years of human history, its thousands of years of geological history is just as stunningly impressive.
The Þingvellir area of Iceland lies at the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a 12,000 kilometre long tectonic mountain range that separates the Eurasian and North American continental plates. The plates are slowly drifting apart at a rate of 2.5 centimetres a year, causing major earthquakes every few years which open up the valley and cause new cracks, fissures and valleys to form. The area literally spans a chasm between two continents.
Glacial melt water from Langjökull (Iceland’s second largest glacier) in the north, on a 50 kilometre journey that takes between 30 and 100 years, fills Þingvallavatn Lake with stunningly clean freshwater, filtered by the porous volcanic rocks of the rift valley. It is this veritable jackpot of geological confluence of glacial, tectonic and volcanic activity that has led to the formation of the Silfra fissure, the breathtakingly scenic location for today’s swim.
Like most adventure activities in Iceland, there are a range of tour operators to choose from. For our snorkelling adventure we went with the guys at Arctic Adventures (http://www.adventures.is/iceland/snorkeling/intotheblue/). They were friendly, helpful and even let us stay in the water a tiny bit longer then we were meant to. They have a tour office in the heart of Reykjavik on Laugavegur, making it easy to get picked up or book spontaneous tours.
We had our own 4WD, so we opted to meet the tour group at the location, on Road 36 near the visitors centre – just down one of the nearby roads is the car park area next to the fissure. The morning is clear and brisk, a slight breeze in the valley. On arrival we were greeted by our guides and given our snorkelling gear – the usual snorkel and fins, as well as our ‘teddy bear’ suits, the dry suits we were to wear under our wet suits. We are told the water in Silfra is a constantly brisk 2°C year round, so making sure our suits were watertight is of special importance – exposure to icy water that cold could be unpleasant and potentially dangerous.
We are warned that the temperature of the water, in contact with our warm bodies, will case our masks to fog up and reduce our ability to see. The guides have a tried and tested solution however – saliva. Spitting in your mask covers the surface with a thin film of enzyme which prevents moisture and condensation from forming. While a little disgusting, you’ll be thankful later when you can still see!
After we are geared up, we gather around the edge of the fissure. Our fins slapping as we waddle to the ladder to the water, the beauty of the surrounding area hits me. You can feel the power of the earth in the landscape; the earth has been torn asunder, a jagged collection of ridges and canyons dominate the view. This violence of the earth is somewhat softened by the calmness of the deep blue water of the fissure and the distant soft whites of the snow covered mountains.
The guides ‘hug’ the remaining air out of our suits, and it’s into the water we go! Immediately I feel the cold water on my face and hands – its in stark contrast to the rest of me, which remains warm and relatively dry. I gradually find my water-legs, the buoyant suit impossible to force below the waterline. I roll onto to my back and float, staring out into the bright, clear sky. I cannot believe I’m here.
Our swim through the fissure begins in the area known as Silfra Hall – a long section of the fissure that is dotted with rockfalls and caves. At it’s deepest it drops 45 metres to the bottom; even with our clear visibility the depths are a dark black abyss. But in the shallows is a swirl of turquoise blues and greens, dotted by volcanic stones and boulders. The serene underwater world is only punctuated by the sounds of fins slapping the surface of the water. I cannot keep thinking how lucky I am to be swimming in a Icelandic fissure, surrounded by snow, ice and volcanic stone.
We continue into the next section of the system, named the Silfra Cathedral. This imposingly large area is aptly named; the majesty of the wide fissure at this point is breathtaking. Stretching just over 100 metres, the Cathedral offers sweeping views in excess of 50 meters of the entire rift – a variety of oddly shaped rocks are arranged into haphazard piles and chaotic jumbles, hiding holes and cave entrances. The visibility in the clear water is so good, it’s almost possible to see the entire section of the fissure. The depth at this point is only 20 metres, and the bottom of the fissure is littered with volcanic debris and lava rocks dislodged during the many seismic events. The current here is stronger – the mouth to the lake is nearby – but it is still easy to fight against, following the fissure to the left and its final section. I spend the time here gazing into the blue, marvelling at the geology, while trying to perfect an underwater selfie.
The final section of the fissure is the shallower Silfra Lagoon, a large open pool in which the fantastically clear water and high visibility is the most apparent. Here the rays of the sun easily penetrate the shallows, reflecting beams of color and shine off the scattered lava rock.We spend a good ten minutes here, exploring the rocky outcrops and gazing at the cave openings that cover the sides of the fissure. The random sparkle of the rocks, the greens and blues of the water, are particularly impressive at this point. In sections the Lagoon is very shallow – navigating around the area is sometimes aided by pushing yourself off the shallow rocks.
After about an hour in the water, we reach the exit point and the end of our swim. My friend and I linger in the water a little longer, enjoy the feeling of floating in such icy clear water – one of the guide jokes that of course the Aussies are the last out of the water! It doesn’t feel like it’s been an hour – but I suppose time does fly, etc. I can barely even feel the cold anymore, except for my frozen hands, which have been exposed the entire time as I handled the underwater camera. We rise out of the water, removing our fins and masks, trailing water as we walk the path back to the car park. We thank the guides, jump back into our car and head back to the visitors centre, grabbing the most delicious ham and cheese rolls we’ve ever had. The perfect ending to a great morning of snorkelling!
I have to say this was one of the highlights of my trip. Swimming between two continents is a rare opportunity not possible anywhere else on the planet – the added beauty of the Þingvellir National Park area means that this is a definite must-do activity when visiting Iceland.
Check out the full Icelandic road trip adventure itinerary here!