Imagine being on an island in the North East Atlantic Ocean, less than 300km from the Artic Circle. It’s 8 am, you feel the frosty wind biting the skin of your cheeks and still, you’re putting a dry suit on, hypnotised by the blue transparency of Silfra fissure water. OK? Be ready for 35 minutes of pure underwater magic…
You can also watch my video “Iceland underwater & beyond” to discover amazing images of Icelandic landscapes of ice deserts and hot springs, and of my scuba diving experience in Silfra.
This article is also available in French.
Extreme diving conditions in historical and natural wonder
3 things attracted me to this famous dive spot of the Þingvellir National Park. First, it is a unique historical place: Þingvellir means the “Parliament fields”. The first political assembly was held here in 930. For this reason, the site is classified as UNESCO World Heritage. Þingvellir National Park features a rift valley and the largest natural lake in Iceland. It is such an amazing place that I could understand why people decided to gather there from this very early era. Even the Icelandic government chose it to celebrate the independence of the country in 1944.
Secondly, the opportunity to dive between the American and European tectonic plates sounded like such an adventure that it didn’t take me long to start preparing my trip. Finally, when I saw the first pictures of Silfra with a visibility of more than 100m, I knew I had to book my flight tickets right away. Great visibility is one of my favourite things as this is what makes you feel like you’re flying when you are diving.
Silfra fissure is on the shore of the Þingvellir Lake. It is one of the much-loved places of the people of Reykjavik for a weekend getaway as it is only 45 minutes drive (even Björk has a holiday house on the shores of this beautiful lake). Before flowing to Silfra Fissure, the water coming down from the Lángjökull Glacier is filtered for 30 to 100 years, hence its absolute transparency and incredible visibility underwater. Whenever you are thirsty during your dive, do not hesitate to take a sip – you are simply diving in mineral water! Nevertheless, do not forget the water is 2°C in the winter and 4°C at the most in summer. The advantage is thanks to the continuous flow of water, Silfra never freezes and then can be dived all year-long. Yet, you need to know that during the winter months you will need to pray for good weather, otherwise you won’t be able to do more than one dive if you get a blizzard.
How to survive the cold of a dive in Silfra?
As you can easily understand, wearing a wetsuit is not an option here. The dry suit is the only way to go. You will add it to your usual BCD, mask and fins (which need to be adjustable if you want to dive with them for either a wet or dry suit).
Yet, do not forget that at such a low water temperature you need to be careful with the type of regulator you are using. It has to be specifically designed for such a use to avoid the first stage to freeze and then to get your regulator in free flow mode. Some regulators work for temperate waters but not necessarily for extreme cold waters, so check the specifications of your gear. Regarding your weight, do not forget it is a fresh water dive so do not hesitate to drop 2 to 3 kg off your usual weight with a dry suit.
Finally, the details which made the difference in my ability to stay warm and toasty during my dive were:
– My 3 layer thermal undergarments
– My thermal double-layered socks and hat to put below my hood
– My 5mm dry suit gloves. These made a huge difference from a comfort point of view even compared to my dives in 6°C in Scotland with my previous gloves. No water was circulating inside so my hands stayed at a normal temperature. Besides, although all my buddies were wearing 7mm mitaines, I could keep my full dexterity, which was really useful to shoot pictures and videos. My hands never shook the way they did during my first extreme cold dive in Ushuaia, Argentina.
For all these reasons, I was happy I made the choice one more time to bring all my scuba gear with me. Anyway with only 15 kg of diving equipment, dry suit and bag included, I still had spare kilos in my pre-booked hold luggage of 20 kg. I only needed a small backpack with me on the plane and I was off for a 3-day scuba weekend in Iceland.
Magical contrasts in blue, black and gold
I can tell anyone now: Silfra should be within the top of your scuba bucket list. Water is freezing cold but from now, every time someone asks me the usual question “So where is your favourite place to dive?”, I will now include Iceland in my reply.
The most important moment of the dive was actually the beginning. When you put your head in the water and suddenly your eyes can’t believe what they see! The way the golden light is distributed and reflected on the rocks in such blue transparent water is nothing like I have ever seen before. Everything is emphasized by dark shadows as the sun was very bright that day, giving an even higher contrast to the rocky underwater landscape.
I had the impression during the dive of having a liquid mirror above my head, or if you prefer it was like flying over a lake, a bit like my halocline experience in the Cenotes of Mexico, except here everything was upside down. As a result it is a delightful playground for underwater photographers and videographers. The 100m visibility allowing to shoot from a long distance. Shots of tiny divers lost between the huge rocks of Silfra canyon and especially the part called Cathedral make incredible images.
During the dive, you will alternate between deeper parts, no more than 15m, and very shallow paths just below the surface which link the different parts of the canyon. Scuba divers need to make sure to always control the speed of their ascent and purge their BCD and dry suit each time.
The total dive time in Silfra is approximately 30 to 35 minutes. I thoroughly recommend doing the 2 dives to fully appreciate the wonders of this fantastic scuba diving spot. The dive ends in a lagoon, where silt particles at the bottom are so thin that you should be extra careful not to get too close to it, even by frog kicking carefully with your fins.
After each dive you will have to make your way back, walking 250m to the car park with all your scuba diving equipment on so take it easy! After a dive of 30 minutes in 2°C water, you need to give your body a rest. Another tip: don’t be surprised if you need warm water to remove your gear, the water remaining on your gear such as the buckles of your BCD can instantaneously freeze because of the wind.
At the end of our diving excursion day, our dive guide took us for lunch to taste the speciality of Reykjavik: the hot dog! It’s the mix of fresh, fried onions plus the yummy special mustard sauce that make them so delicious. Anyway, he was kind enough to bring my buddies and I to the best shop in town on the harbour for this well-deserved treat! I loved it so much that after a nap and tour of the city in the afternoon I had another one to finish the day (and another 2 the night after, and a last one at the airport before leaving).
If you want to live the same adventure, I warmly recommend you to contact www.dive.is. The kindness and professionalism of their instructors and divemasters, the quality of the rental gear and the perfect timed organization made my day!
DIVE.IS – Hólmaslóð 2, 101 Reykjavik – Email: email@example.com – Phone: (+354) 578 6200
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