“So, this is where we’re going to be snorkeling.”
We stared at our tour guide, waiting for the punch line. He was standing in front of a vast inland lake called Þingvallavatn, his boots planted firmly in the snow. Beside him on either side, basalt rock rose up, creating a fissure known as Silfra.
It did not look like an ideal spot to be taking a swim.
Feeling vaguely as though we were starring in a live-action version of Skyrim, we were huddled in jackets and scarves, shivering against icy blasts of wind. The idea of walking down that ladder, of actually getting into that water was absurd.
And yet, here we were.
The continental divide
It was the fissure that brought us to what appeared to be no more than an icy tundra.
Silfra is one of several places around the world where the massive plates that make up our planet’s crust meet. In places like Silfra the plates are pulling apart, becoming more and more distant from one another (these are called divergent plates).
The fissure is being created by the separating plates of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian plates cut diagonally across the country of Iceland. This is what causes so many volcanoes to erupt in Iceland, and the constant expansion causes the country to actually grow by about 2cm per year, ever pushing outward.
Part of this line cuts through Þingvellir National Park, and the lake of Þingvallavatn (that strange “Þ” is pronounced like a “th”, by the way), providing crazy, science-loving tourists with a frigid spot to dive into its depths.
Only about an hour’s drive away from Reykjavik, our home base, it wasn’t an opportunity we could pass up. We would be snorkeling between two continents, in one of the most geologically active areas of the world. Um, yes please.
In the picture below, we are standing between the two tectonic plates: Europe on the left, North America on the right.
Getting ready to snorkel in freezing temperatures
Our guide led us back to the vans, where we began the long, somewhat comical process of putting a dry suit on. I’d snorkeled before, and I’ve worn wet suits occasionally, but this was a whole new beast.
The nice thing about a dry suit is that you get to keep your clothes on.We stripped down only as far as our long underwear before slipping into a soft, sleeping-bag-with-legs onesie that was meant to keep us warm.
Then, over that, we pulled on the dry suit, an absurd apparatus that somehow magically would keep a layer of air between us and the frigid waters. This suit was also a onesie, and included booties to ensure that our toes remained dry.
We had been warned in advance that the only parts of our body that would suffer from the cold were our hands, which were encased in gloves that worked similar to a wetsuit, letting water in and then warming the water to body temperature; and, naturally, our faces. Over our heads went a sort of helmet, made entirely of rubber, which immediately made me feel a little lightheaded as it squeezed around my neck.
Before we could take our fins and mask and head back to the water, there was one more step. Our guides checked the barrier between our rubber helmets and our dry suit meticulously, and if it was too loose, they brandished what can only be described as a dog collar, cinching it tightly around our necks to ensure that no water found its way in.
It was uncomfortable, but manageable. I figured that if it was going to keep me from becoming an extra in Titanic I would survive.
Feeling thoroughly ridiculous, fins and goggles in hand, I waddled off toward the ladder, trying to ignore the feeling that I was wearing a turtleneck five sizes too small.
Swimming in Silfra
Let me begin by saying that despite the frigid temperatures, the awkward gear, and the nagging feeling that I was doing something incredibly dumb, the actual act of snorkeling between tectonic plates is completely epic.
The water here is completely clear, some of the most pristine in the world, granting visitors up to 100 meters of visibility. This is due to the way the water is filtered through Iceland’s volcanic basalt rock. I was lucky enough to remember the GoPro, and we caught some fantastic footage of the trip:
One of the best things about snorkeling is that, despite people considering it an “adventure” activity, it is actually quite calming. With your ears and eyes beneath the water you are left to drift weightlessly, made buoyant by the dry suits.
It’s also a completely solitary activity, even when surrounded by others. With the snorkel firmly between my teeth and my eyes trained on the fissure beneath me there was no opportunity to chat with others. It was me and the water.
Due to the freezing temperatures, we were only given about 35-40 minutes in the water, paddling along in a single file line and then exploring a lagoon on our own. This was plenty of time, though, and I was more than ready to stand on dry land by the end of it. Our instructor helped us remove our fins and we walked back to the vans.
An unexpected hiccup
Remember those crazy suits we were wearing?
When I first slipped into the water, I had noticed a slightly alarming tendril of cold snaking its way up my arm, and then down my spine. At first I assumed that this was just my body adjusting to the water, but as time ticked forward I began to wonder.
Sure enough, when I was back at the vans and being assisted out of my now-frozen dry suit, I discovered that mine had sprung a leak. Frigid water had made its way up the sleeve of my long underwear, soaking it.
The tour guides helped me shed the suit, instructing me to get it off as quickly as possible. Tara and I were standing in freezing wind at this point.
Unable to tell whether the rest of me was damp or just cold, I pulled my jeans back on, as well as my sweater. Quickly I realized that the answer was “wet”, and I had just soaked my only pair of jeans. Shivering and unable to do much about it, I took the offered hot chocolate and huddled up in the van, trying to find a way to warm myself.
On the return trip to Reykjavik, we asked the guide if, rather than taking us to the second part of our tour, they could drop us off at the apartment. I had not stopped shivering the entire drive, and I knew that without changing clothes there was no chance of drying off and warming up.
With visions of hypothermia dancing in my head I was forever grateful when the guide arranged to not only drop us off, but to keep the second portion of our tour intact by having us picked back up again after I had a chance to reassess the situation.
This tour is not difficult, but it also is not necessarily for everyone. The dry suits are awkward at best, and a bit claustrophobic at worst. And, of course, there is the off-chance that they will leak. I spoke with one or two of the guides and they assured me that this isn’t typical, and it didn’t hamper my experience while in the water much.
It did, however, give me a bit of a scare once I was on dry land, where the temperature was below freezing. Tara emerged from the experience completely dry and happy, though, as did everyone else in our group, so I’m willing to chalk my leaky suit up to a freak accident.
That said, this is a science nerd’s dream. The snorkeling itself is easy, and even those who have never done it before will get the hang of it almost immediately. This was Tara’s first time experiencing snorkeling. Floating between tectonic plates, between continents, is an experience I never thought I would have, and a little part of me was jumping up and down in geeky joy throughout the entire trip.
Outbound Adventurer is grateful to DIVE.IS and Iceland Expeditions for providing us with the opportunity to review their tour. As always, our opinions are completely honest and our own. If you are interested in booking a snorkeling or scuba diving tour, here is the relevant contact information:
Stay tuned for part two of our tour, where we explored lava tubes!