Snorkeling Between Tectonic Plates in Silfra, Iceland
Since we were already on the road and touring around the Silfra area on our road trip, we were able to meet the team from Dive.is at Thingvellir National Park then follow them to the Silfra dive site (the team seemed a bit weary because they were, apparently, returning from a Wahine Tours captain cook snorkeling session).
As with most things we do, things didn’t go exactly according to plan. When we arrived at the site, there was a medical emergency in the scuba diving group who went before us so we had to wait for the person to be airlifted back to Reykjavik and the site to reopen.
Reasons why I am afraid of learning to dive! Relying on a tank on my back is past my limits. Although I should say the person was totally fine eventually and had just passed out for whatever reason (apparently it’s pretty common for newbies who panic and come up too fast).
While we were waiting our guides entertained us with a walking tour of Thingvellir National Park including the ancient parliament area where the old chieftains would travel to from all over Iceland in order to form a general assembly and govern the country years and years ago (pre 1000 AD).
We also got to hear the gossip about which celebrities have visited Silfra and who was the coolest in person. Ben Stiller and Tom Cruise were both amongst the famous visitors – one of them came in the dark by personal helicopter with a big entourage and had a few issues finding a suit small enough for him to wear. The other one of them just went on a tour like anyone else, stripping down in the carpark to get dressed in the dry suit and joked around with everyone. We’ll let you guess who was who!
Our little gossip/history lesson from our guides on the Silfra fissure area also included a bit of a lesson on the geology of the region.
Between Two Continents
You see the ridge of jagged rock behind us? (awww, aren’t we cute? and totally oblivious to what we were getting ourselves into?) That’s the edge of the North American plate (and also one of the many Icelandic filming locations for Game of Thrones).
And you see the snow capped ridge in the distance of this photo? That’s the edge of the Eurasian plate.
The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart from each other at a rate of 2cm a year. The tension this creates is released every 10 years or so by a major earthquake which creates more fissures and cracks such as Silfra.
This is all starting to sound a bit unstable and dangerous eh? Good thing I didn’t know any of this before I booked. Ignorance is bliss sometimes!
Freezing cold glacial water
Silfra fissure is actually one of the top dive spots in the whole world because it’s the only place you can snorkel or dive between tectonic plates in the world, and the water clarity is incredible. This is because the water is filtered underground before it reaches Silfra plus it’s glacial water so it’s freaking cold (2-4C all year round).
Because it’s so cold, we had to wear special dry suits to protect us from hypothermia. Two problems with these: you can’t pee in them, and they’re TIGHT.
We were told a pretty funny story about a guest who didn’t obey the no peeing rule and dropped the not-so-dry-anymore suit into the guide’s hands before proudly announcing “I peed in that” (and no, it wasn’t a child).
We didn’t have any issues with the no peeing advice (and took full advantage of the portaloos on offer in the carpark where we were getting changed) but we did have a few issues with the tightness. We weren’t exactly bikini ready due to making the most of all the yummy Icelandic delicacies on offer so the dry suits were cosy to say the least. As well as horribly unattractive.
You can see Matt’s hand in the photo below which still looks pretty normal except for some mild discolouration. Shortly after this photo was taken, it went completely numb, purple, and freezing cold from the lack of circulation. Matt doesn’t love complaining to people and making a big issue of things so was planning on just grinning and bearing it but when the shade of purple got particularly dark and menacing he finally asked for some help.
Spoiler: His hand survived the swim.
Matt had problems with those tight wrists but I was having different issues. Not only was the rubber cuff already pretty tight, they use electrical tape to wrap up your wrists and neck to make absolutely sure that no water gets in.
The neck tape was my worst nightmare come true – I’m quite claustrophobic and hate anything tight (especially around my neck!) so I was at my limit. It basically felt like someone was choking me slowly. I got them to release the tape as much as they could but yeah, apparently hypothermia is a bit more important than slight discomfort so I had to suck it up.
Finally it was time to get in the water. The initial shock of cold water on your face wore off as soon as you had a quick look around under the surface. The mask that was put was one of the best full face snorkel, because it kept pressure at a minimum. Everything exposed to the water went numb pretty quickly so you couldn’t feel cold for too long. Those dry suits are pretty amazing at keeping you dry and warm (along with the couple of thermal layers we had on underneath).
Plus you’re too busy being blown away by your surroundings to even think about any discomfort.
The whole snorkel only took 30-40 mins and the slight current does most of the work for you as you float on top of the water like a seal shaped buoy. It should be pretty easy and relaxing unless you’re a total noob like me who doesn’t know how to use fins properly.
I was pretty tired by the end of it and glad to see dry land but I was also buzzing from the experience. Luckily, the team had some delicious hot chocolate ready for us as we got out of the water.
Would we snorkel Silfra again?
Probably not. Once was enough for us.
Would we recommend you give it a try? Yes!
Snorkeling (or diving) Silfra is definitely a once in a lifetime experience. That crystal clear blue water and the feeling you get looking down at this deep fissure in the earth is awesome and totally worth a numb face and bit of discomfort.
We did the Silfra Snorkeling Day Tour with Dive.is who also run scuba diving trips as well as other tours. They were really awesome – you could tell the guides loved their job and they were super nice and helpful. They also have a max of 8 people on the tours so you’re never too crowded.
The snorkeling day trip we went on cost ISK 16,990 per person (£82). The Diving options are ISK 39,990 per person (£193). This cost is all inclusive. Correct as at August 2015 – check their website for up to date info.
The tour duration is 4 – 5 hours so you need to set aside a day for it really (although you can squeeze in some sightseeing around Thingvellir afterwards). You’ll also need to take some long thermal underwear and warm socks with you (useful anyway if you’re in Iceland and it isn’t the middle of summer!) to wear under your dry suit.
When to Go
We were there in late May but you can actually book year round (even in the middle of the frozen winter) – whenever you go the water is a similar temperature and the dry suits will keep you (relatively) warm.