Iceland is a magical land of fire and ice. You can see things in Iceland that you can’t find anywhere else in the world, from glaciers and waterfalls to volcanoes and lava fields. Much of the country looks like a foreign planet. Now, with cheap flights from America and Europe or free layovers en route to another destination, tourists are discovering this remarkable destination. In fact, there are about 330,000 people who live in Iceland; there are about 2,000,000 tourists who visit Iceland each year. There’s so much to see and do that one trip will never be enough. However, one of the things you must do while visiting Iceland is scuba dive or snorkel in the freezing glacial waters of Silfra at Thingvellir National Park.
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir is a historic site in Iceland and one of the three stops on the Golden Circle. It was the site of Iceland’s first parliament and the oldest site of a parliament in all of Europe. It’s therefore a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the only one in Iceland). At Law Rock, leaders used to recite the law to followers by memory. The biggest natural lake, Thingvallavatn, is also inside Thingvellir National Park. Diving is permitted in Silfra, one of the underwater continental rifts inside Thingvellir National Park. Silfra is one of the best places to dive or snorkel because of the crystal clear, drinkable melted glacier water. You can see clearly as far as the rifts will let you!
Getting Started in Silfra
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to dive between two continents? In Iceland, you can do it. The North American and European plates separate in the middle of Iceland, and you can dive between the rifts. Silfra is one of the few places diving is permitted. There are plenty of tours that offer diving or scuba diving as an additional option to the Golden Circle. I chose Adventure Vikings because they specialize in snorkeling or scuba diving and, while I ended up opting for a dry suit, they are the only company to offer the adventure in a wetsuit or a dry suit. But you can decide that when you arrive.
The water in Silfra is a chilly 2-4°C (34-39°F) year round, so snorkeling in winter is the same temperature as snorkeling in summer; only the air temperature changes. The water is runoff glacier water that fills up the deep chasms. It’s fresh, clear, clean, cold, and very drinkable. In fact, when you get water in your snorkel, instead of blowing it out, DRINK IT! It’s amazingly fresh with no hint of the sulfur smell you get from faucet water in Reykjavik.
A dry suit is exactly what it sounds like: it keeps you dry. Whereas a wetsuit lets water in so your body temperature can warm it and adjust to a colder surrounding, the dry suit uses rubber bands around your wrists and neck to completely seal the water out. Your body will stay completely dry – and buoyant because of the air that gets trapped in. It’s impossible to drown or sink in a dry suit.
The advantages of a dry suit are that your body (minus your face and hands) stays warm in the freezing temperatures. It’s not overly bulky, but it is slightly restricting. The disadvantage is that you won’t be able to dive below the surface unless you’re an experienced diver or swimmer with a lot of power to overcome the suit’s buoyancy. You can let some of the air out to help with this, but I found it difficult to event get fully underwater for the cool picture above.
Snorkeling the Rift
You can book a tour with snorkeling, a tour only for snorkeling where they pick you up at your hotel, or you can meet your guide at Silfra. It takes a while to put on the suits and you will definitely need help putting on the dry suit. Remember to bring legging-type pants, a long sleeve shirt, and warm sock! Putting on the dry suit is quite comical, actually. Once you have it on, it’s hard to tell whether you look funnier or feel funnier. Think Randy from A Christmas Story, all bundled up…
Once you get in the water, your face and hands will go numb: just embrace it. The longer you keep them in the water, the sooner they’ll go numb. Make sure if you have a camera, you have a wrist loop so you don’t drop it. If you have a GoPro or waterproof camera, definitely bring it. The water is crystal clear and the colors are so vibrant and bright underwater that you will want to remember the experience! Also, ask the guide to take your camera and get some pictures of you and your group. It’s worth it!
You won’t see any fish or sea life in the Silfra rift, but there is some green moss that lives on the upper rocks. The green moss and the blue water make for some incredibly scenic views drifting along the rift. You can also find some sea caves that you can explore if you free dive. The drift isn’t long – it takes about 30 minutes to get through it by only drifting along the top. It is difficult to swim back the way you came because of the current, so you will just keep going in one direction until you reach the end. After about 30 minutes, you’re pretty much ready to get out of the frigid water anyway.
Location: Silfra, Thingvellir National Park
Company: Adventure Vikings
Cost: $147 USD (126€)
Tips: Remember to bring warm, tight clothes whether you’re male or female! You need to wear clothes under the dry suit or a bathing suit under the wetsuit. The dry suit has boots attached so also remember warm, thick socks.
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Have you snorkeled in Silfra? Have you heard about this incredible phenomenon of swimming between tectonic plates? Would you be brave enough to spend 30 minutes in water that’s just a degree or two above freezing? Tell me what you think in the comments below!
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