Want an unparalleled and very unusual snorkeling trip? One that is as far as you can get from the common image of tropical sandy beaches, warm waters and exotic underwater creatures? If so, then you have to go snorkeling in Iceland!
Iceland is actually the only place in the world where you can snorkel – or scuba dive – between two continental plates, and essentially even touch both in the same moment!
That can happen in the famous Silfra fissure (crack), rated as one of the top ten dive sites on the entire planet. That’s due to its incredibly unique features, extremely clear water and stunning visibility. On top of its unique and particular geology of course.
The Silfra fissure actually looks quite unassuming at first – almost like a river – but underneath is an incredible underwater world.
Considering all of that, it’s going to come as little surprise that snorkeling in Iceland is one of our favorite things to do when visiting this gorgeous glacier-clad nation.
Here we will share with you why snorkeling in Iceland is so exceptional. We will outline the conditions to expect, what the experience is like, the equipment you will need, the risks involved, and more. So read on to begin your unique underwater adventure!
But First, How Did This Incredible Snorkeling Opportunity Even Come About?
It’s believed an earthquake in 1789 opened several cracks in the area now occupied by the Thingvellir National Park. From that, the Silfra fissure cut into an underground spring filled with water from the close-by glacier of Langjokull.
The water from that glacier flows today into the spring feeding the Silfra fissue, by seeping through porous lava rock that is located underground. That rock constantly filters the water, making it extremely pure and clean, giving you an average visibility of over 100 meters in the water!
Even though the glacial melt water is extremely cold, fresh water joins it keeping the temperature slightly above freezing point, at about 2 to 4 degrees Celsius. That makes it impossible for it to freeze all year round. And makes it possible for you to go snorkeling in Iceland!
The Exceptional Features of Snorking at Silfra
Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Thingvellir Park – where the Silfra fissue is located – is home to the clearest body of water on the entire planet. The water visibility can reach up to 120 meters and is so clear that it can sometimes be overwhelming and create dizziness and confusion. Even for expert scuba divers and snorkelers.
Being a fissure between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates, this crack experiences constant movements and changes. The plates drift apart about 2 centimeters per year, and this clearly shows in the creation of new tunnels, caverns and overhangs. And in the changes in depth profile and topography, as rocks and boulders gradually or suddenly fall into cracks in the underwater terrain.
Simply put, the rift is basically alive!
Its narrow passages are known for instability due to these constant movements, which can make it a pretty dangerous place to dive. Therefore scuba diving in the caves and overhead environments – such as the tunnel commonly known as the ‘Toilet’ due to the strong current that “flushes” divers down – is strictly prohibited. Thankfully it’s far safer for snorkeling as you will remain at or very close to the surface.
Useful Tips Before you go Snorkeling in Silfra
Only here can you can snorkel in the clearest water in the world, floating between two tectonic plates. It’s an intense and unique experience!
It is very important, though, due to often harsh weather conditions and the dangers encountered in some of the spots, to follow an experienced snorkeling guide in your inexperienced. The best scuba diving and snorkeling centers will offer the guidance of experienced PADI certified Divemasters and Instructors. You should have a guide that is nothing less than that, as their professional training, familiarity with the environment and their keen eye will be an enormous asset for the whole experience.
Snorkeling operators will pick you up and drop you off from Reykjavík. The transfer time is approximately 1.5 hours, during which you will receive lots of interesting information about the park, a historical and geological overview, and a thorough snorkeling briefing.
If you prefer to make your way to Silfra on your own and go without a guided tour, don’t worry, you will still be able to receive this information on site.
Wetsuits, even the thickest ones, are not recommended for snorkeling and diving in this specific area of Iceland. Whilst a nice thick 7 mm semi-dry wetsuit, with boots, hood and gloves, may feel like it’s enough, it isn’t.
However a drysuit will keep you warm and dry, and will help you avoid the dangers related to hypothermia. So you must only wear a drysuit when snorkeling in Iceland, never a wetsuit.
It is also possible to snorkel and scuba dive the Silfra fissure on your own. But you should not dive down and venture off the main route (which is very easy to follow), and you must wear a drysuit.
How Does it Feel to Snorkel Between Two Continents in Silfra?
The clear waters of Silfra offer a mesmerizing scene that you will never forget. The organized snorkeling tours normally follow the path of Big Crack, Silfra Hall, Silfra Cathedral, and Silfra Lagoon. But you can always go on your own and chose whether you go that way, or the opposite.
The initial part of the snorkeling excursion is where you can swim in the narrowest part of the fissure, called Big Crack. That’s where the two continental plates are at their closest point.
After this, you will access Silfra Hall, where an unexpectedly colorful bottom is the main protagonist of your trip. There the clarity of the water is so impressive, that you can see all the way to Lake Thingvallavatn – located about 150 meters to your right.
Past this area, you will find the Silfra Cathedral – a 100 meter long fissure where boulders and rocks keep changing the topography of the reef. The water clarity there makes you feel suspended over it, as if you were flying in the sky.
The final part, called Silfra Lagoon, is another area with incredible visibility and extremely pure water, filtered for decades by porous lava rocks. It is so clear and pure, that many enjoy taking a sip of water. Why not try some yourself!
It will seem hard to believe, but due to the crystal clear waters, the maximum depth of the Silfra fissure is 63 meters – a little over 200 feet. It does gets shallower towards the entrance and at its end though.
Many snorkelers and divers report a feeling of dizziness and a general uncertainty about the depth, as the bottom looks much closer than it actually is. That’s why free diving is generally discouraged, and the control of current depth is reiterated several times during scuba dives.
At the end of your day of snorkeling in Iceland, and in the magnificent Silfra fissure, don’t forget to dry up! Take a change of warm dry clothes with you, as well as clean towels and proper footwear. A few privately owned heated cabins are available around the lake, where snorkelers can comfortably change and dry off. Then enjoy a cup of hot cocoa or tea and think back over your once-in-a-lifetime snorkeling in Iceland adventure!
What are the Risks of Snorkeling in Cold Water?
Be prepared so you can prevent any incidents when snorkeling in Iceland due to the cold water.
Hypothermia is a dangerous hazard for divers and snorkelers who venture in cold waters, especially if they don’t wear the right exposure suit or stay in the water for too long.
We recommend exiting the water as soon as the first signs of hypothermia appear. For example, shivering and numbness of the extremities will warn you that your body is getting too cold. You should then turn back and reach for the exit as soon as possible.
If you stay in the water, especially if you are wearing a wetsuit and your skin is in direct contact with the water, you will just keep losing heat. Remember our body loses heat about 25 to 30 times faster in the water than at equivalent air temperature, since water is a much better heat conductor than air.
Should you decide to carry on and continue snorkeling, ignoring the first signs and symptoms of hypothermia, your body will try to produce heat by friction – hence the uncontrollable shivering. At that point, you still have time and should get out of the water fast. If you stay in the water longer, the shivering will soon stop. That’s a clear sign that your body is giving up.
Far from wanting to terrorize you, we just want you to stay safe. Plan snorkeling in Iceland for a maximum of 40 – 45 minutes at a time. Listen to your body, use the right exposure suit, and wear extra layers of undergarments under your drysuit.
Even though they are more expensive and require some additional maintenance, drysuits are the best choice when snorkeling and diving in temperatures like those you will encounter in Iceland.
They are the only wise choice while diving, but do require a minimum of training as they have valves that can receive and disperse air, for better buoyancy and comfort. Since they make you float quite a lot, if you are an experienced snorkeler, you might want to consider adding some weights around your waist just to be able to dive down from time to time, compensating the positive buoyancy.