The last thing I ever thought I’d do on a trip to Iceland is go snorkeling. I mean, seriously – when you think diving or snorkeling destinations, it’s hardly the first place that comes to mind, especially during the winter months.
The Bahamas? Sure. Florida Keys? You bet. The Caymans? Sign me up. But Iceland in the winter? Turns out, definitely.
Thanks to some serious geologic activity around 150 million years ago, the small European country offers what is possibly the most unique underwater opportunity in the world — it’s the only place you can dive or snorkel between two continents.
That same geologic activity is also responsible for the numerous natural and manmade thermal pools in the country, including the famed “Blue Lagoon,” a massive geothermal spa that is one of Iceland’s most visited attractions.
Frankly, when my traveling partner in crime Julie and I learned the lagoon can accommodate hundreds of people at a time, we opted to take the icy path less followed to Thingvellir National Park and the Silfra Fissure, about 45-minutes outside of Reykjavik.
Because the glacial water flowing through the fissure is a constant 35-degrees, snorkeling there is possible year round.
For our trip, we booked Reykjavik-based Arctic Adventures’ “Into the Blue” package which, for $150, included transportation, certified dive master guides and the latest in cold water snorkeling apparel. [www.adventures.is]
Let’s just say it right now. No one looks — or feels — particularly sexy in arctic dive gear. Warm and dry, certainly. But ready for a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit photo shoot? Hardly.
We had been told to wear fleece or wool base layers under our clothes and warm socks. At the staging area we stripped down to those base layers and, for the first time since I was around 4-years-old, someone helped me get dressed.
That’s because getting into our arctic dive gear is a team effort.
First came the insulated, full body “teddy bear” suit that went on with little trouble. The next layer, however, required instructions and assistance.
According to our guides, there is only one correct way to enter — and exit — a cold water dry suit. They talked us step-by-step through the process, walking through the group to give a tug here, a tuck there to make sure our bodies, extremities and hair were all covered by the thick neoprene.
For the final touch areas that could leak and allow water in — wrists and neck — were secured by thick rubber bands. We were then handed the latest in diving accessories — fins, mask and snorkel — and sent off on a short hike to the metal stairs leading down into the fissure.
There was a line those stairs while we waited for groups with other guiding companies to get into the water and on their way. As we waited, our guides had us spit into our masks and immerse them in water in the time-honored diving method for preventing the glass from fogging up. It’s also where one of the very patient guide helped me struggle into my flippers, saying as she tugged them over my booties, “It’s no problem, this is literally my job.” Lucky her.
And before we knew it, Julie and I were carefully climbing down the stairs and into some of the clearest water we had ever seen. Where we immediately bobbed around like corks, thanks to the extreme bouyancy of the dry suits.
An in-the-water bear hug each from one of the guides, expelled much of the air that had built up in those suits and we were able to begin the leisurely half mile float through the fissure with the North American Tectonic Plate to one side, and the Eurasian Tectonic Plate to the other, each moving away from each other at the rate of an inch or so a year.
To be that immersed in that kind of geologic activity was awe-inspiring. Thanks to the clarity of the water, we could see more than 100 feet in any direction, including straight down.
Along the way, the fissure narrows to the point you could actually touch the two plates — or continents — at the same time. This is strongly forbidden, however, as it could dislodge loose rocks which could drop and injure SCUBA divers in the depths below.
Our trip between the continents ended at the Silfra Lagoon, the one place the current does pick up a bit and you do want to make sure to take the left turn into the lagoon, lest you end up out to sea somewhere.
A swim across the lagoon brought us to the stairs leading up and out of the water and on the path back to the staging area and our waiting warm clothes.
Peeling off the dive wear — again, there is a right and a wrong way to do it and our guides were there to help — Julie and I were very happy to discover our dry suits had, in fact, kept us dry. The only parts of us that even felt water was the area just around our mouths and our hands as the specialized gloves are designed to allow water in. That water remains trapped between skin and neoprene, creating a warm thermal layer. My hair wasn’t even wet.
We never did make it to a geothermal pool while in Iceland. But somehow the cool factor of drifting between two moving continents more than made up for it.
My only regret? Unlike Julie I did not follow the guide’s advice and take a sip of Silfra water which she deemed some of the most refreshing she had ever tasted.
But that’s okay. The cold, frosty Icelandic beer when we got back to Reykjavik was refreshing enough for me.
If you go:
Do wear good base layers and warm socks
Bring a camera that is capable of taking photos underwater – but keep in mind the frigid temperatures are going to deplete batteries quickly.
Even though the “Into the Blue” package is advertised as a four-hour trip, plan on devoting nearly a full day to this particular adventure.
Do not argue with the guides and insist you don’t need or want to wear socks under the dry suit. This only holds things up and irritates your fellow Silfra adventurers.