One of the highlights of our roadtrip was snorkelling Silfra in Iceland with Dive.Is, where you float between two continents . My only previous snorkelling experience was at the Great Barrier Reef so Iceland had a lot to live up to. But live up to it … it did.
Disclosure: This is a long post, but read on for our highly entertaining account of an epic experience.
It was a freezing cold, clear and breezy January morning. Our car’s thermometer read -9 Degrees Centigrade. It was so cold that my eyes were watering and the small tears running down my face almost instantly froze into ice. Perfect when you couldn’t move your arms enough (see below) to be able to wipe them away.
We were dressed in dry suits, every inch of our skin covered in thick neoprene, our faces goggled and our feet flippered, as we slowly walked waddled across the road to the entrance platform to the crystal clear, yet deathly cold water of Silfra.
Iceland’s natural wonders are all thanks to its unique Geological location. Iceland is sat on the join of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The movement of the plates creates the volcanic eruptions, the lava fields and the many unique and amazing natural phenomena that make Iceland so unique.
The plates have been slowly moving apart by approximately 2cm per year for the last 5000 years which has created a fissure reaching down deep into the earth. Glacier melt water from the nearby Lángjökull glacier slowly filters its way down through a lava field created by the Skjáldbreiður volcano, to the fissure which takes between 30 and 100 years. The water is incredibly pure, so pure that in certain light the water looks silver which is where it gets its’ Icelandic name “Silfra” from.
We chose to go with Dive.Is as they came strongly recommended, they use dry suits as opposed to wet suits, all their instructors are fully PADI qualified and groups are small. Our instructor was an Englishman called Tom, who gave us a very entertaining safety briefing in the van before embarking on the unenvious task of squeezing us into our dry suits.
The entire experience lasts approximately 4 hours; of which 40 mins is spent actually snorkelling. The rest of the time is mostly consumed getting vac-packed into you dry suit and making sure it it as airtight as possible to keep you from dying of hypothermia warm. You are advised to wear “thermal long underwear” and two pairs of wool socks. Rachel went slightly overboard with 3 layers of each, where as I forgot thought I would man up with only normal socks and a short under armour. Once the thermal onesie, thick neoprene dry suit, neck belt (yes that’s a real thing), gloves and balaclava had been sucked and stretched over our bodies leaving no joint fully mobile and no bodily curve unhidden, we and the rest of the group shot the cold breeze about how we felt about our current predicament.
A quick round robin with the group revealed that people felt like they were:
- Iron Man: due to the circulate scuba diving plate on our chests
- Batman: because we couldn’t move out necks
- 1970s Doctor Who aliens: Because there’s no way that 1970s Doctor Who producers didn’t put some poor extras into dry suits and pass them off as Aliens.
- A Big man in a small sheath: more to do with how I felt rather than how I looked.
We shivered waiting for another tour, a huge group of snorkelers, to move far enough along that it wouldn’t interfere with our experience, passing the time jumping and dancing to imaginary music trying to build up heat. We must all have looked hilarious. A quick tip to help keep your hands warm; since the gloves separate your thumb and index finger from your last three fingers, your index finger gets so cold and lonely that it hurts. Put all your fingers in the same compartment.
Finally it was time to descend into the water. Note: it is hard to manoeuvre down stairs in flippers, but highly entertaining.
To our lovely surprise the suits kicked into action and the various frozen upset body parts rejoiced as the water was relatively warmer (a lofty 3 degrees centigrade) than the biting cold on the land. Although your head and hands still get wet the suits are incredibly buoyant. This buoyancy coupled with the flippers, makes it difficult to get vertical in the water so we all spent a couple of minutes uncontrollably barrel rolling in an attempt to get vertical whilst another instructor kept shouting “roll like a dog”! I imagine to any on looking spectators it would have looked a lot like a real life re-enactment of 80s classic video game Frogger.
After gaining control of ourselves (it turns out you can just relax and stop moving and you will naturally end up standing upright) we started the tour by first entering “Big Crack”. Our guide Tom had pointed out that Icelanders are very literal but judging from the big crack I believe that their language may also be prone to understatement. “Big Crack” should really be renamed “Really Big Crack” as whilst only a few meters wide, the fissure was a sharp crevice that stretched deep underneath us. However, the water is so clear that you can see to an incredible depth.
Next we swam into the 2nd section known as “Silfra Hall”. I felt this was an underrated part of the tour, although “The Hall” was much shallower than “Big Crack” and the grand finale of “The Cathedral”, it’s banks were scattered with leaves and other fauna that under the reflection of the sun and the refraction of the water, glowed a beautiful bright silver against the blue and red of the rocks and the yellow of the sand banks.
Finally we turned the corner and entered “The Cathedral” a deep, circulate chasm that like “Big Crack” goes deep down into the light beyond. “The Cathedral” is definitely the part that makes you pine for a PADI diving certificate to allow you to explore what lies beneath. At this point you need to be listening to your guide and make sure that you take that left turn, otherwise you will be carried to Thingvallavatn lake over 150 meter away “never to be seen again” (Just to clarify, this has never happened! Just make sure you are listening).
One nice part of the tour with Dive.is is that they allow you to spend as much time in the water of the “Silfra Lagoon” as you like. By the time we entered the Lagoon, most of our group were ready for their previously promised hot chocolate waiting back at base but Rachel and I continued to explore Silfra and the ocean bed whilst also posing for a number of souvenir photos since our guide Tom had let us use the underwater camera (this was hard to operate when all your fingers are crammed into one area of your gloves).
We finally emerged from our tectonic odyssey and were instantly reacquainted with the cold January morning: Our gloves stuck to the railings when climbing out of the water and there was a cold crackling in our ears as the water on our headgear began to freeze immediately into ice.
A couple passing by asked to take our photo as their friends “didn’t believe them that people would go snorkelling in these conditions”.
Once back at base it was like a car pit stop, we were quickly and methodically un-sucked out of our suits and into our normal clothes before the complementary warm hot chocolate started to warm us from the inside. The restroom also has a heater in which Rachel took full advantage of.
Silfra is in Thingvellir National Park, a double UNESCO World Heritage site, declared for its’ natural and cultural significance. It is the site of the original Icelandic Viking Parliament, Althing, founded in 930AD which is said to be the first parliament in the world. However, the UNESCO status also forbids any building in the park so, with the exception of a small toilet and visitor centre, there are no indoor buildings for you to warm up in.
- You absolutely should drink the water, it is so pure and refreshing (although you will be feeling pretty “refreshed” throughout).
- If you’re plan on going in winter, wrap up warm and make sure to bring even more clothes for when you get out.
- It’s disgusting but you’ll be asked to spit into your masks, a lot! Do. It. This is a natural mask defogger. It freezes in there until they add some hot water to swill it around with. If you don’t do it enough, someone else will have to.
- Dive.is also offers the option of picking you up from your hotel but, if possible, we’d recommend driving to the site yourself to allow you the chance to enjoy Thingvellir afterwards (once you’ve thawed out in the car).
- Snorkelling and diving tours are available all year round but are increasing in popularity. During the winter Dive.is will take approximately 20 snorkellers per day but these numbers go to over 100 people per day during the summer. So if you are planning on visiting during the peak season then we’d advise booking in advance online first.
- Bring some single use hand warmers or similar to pop into your socks (you can’t hold them in your hands otherwise they’ll get wet) but your toes will certainly thank you.
As mentioned before, Dive.is guides take a camera on the tour to photo document your experience snorkelling Silfra in Iceland. The photos taken, plus their selection of the “Best of Silfra” photos are available for 2,000 Icelandic Krona afterwards (just over £10.50 at the time of writing).
We had hoped to video and take our own photos on the tour but sadly our Go Pro stopped working due to it being too cold and stayed in the car. Sadly for it, it missed out on a highly entertaining and incredible experience.
Many thanks to Dive.Is for sponsoring our Silfra Snorkelling Tour, however we thoroughly enjoyed our experience and all opinions in this article are my own.
Last modified: 1st February 2016