North America and Europe are splitting apart, and the crack has filled with water; you can scuba dive between the continents. After several hundred retellings, this became the abbreviated geography lesson — and justification — supplied whenever I was asked why.
Why, when you could choose from a stellar roster of world-class diving locales for an annual scuba vacation, would you want to plunge into a narrow crevice filled with freezing-cold water and no fish — on a frigid, out-of-the-way island in the North Atlantic?
The more fanatical among my dive buddies understood why, even without the geology tie-in. For everyone else, it helped that the island in question has become the new darling of the travel and adventure media.
Iceland isn’t just cold anymore; it’s cool. Playboy and E!, the entertainment channel, have documented the legendary party scene in Reykjavik; images of the island’s fire-and-ice backcountry crop up regularly in print and on screen.
But topside attractions aside, there was a valid question still to be answered: Would Iceland’s icy waters really be worth a dedicated dive trip?
Fields of White
It’s my first day in the country, and I’m having second thoughts. With the windshield wipers pushing slush to reveal a white horizon and tires struggling for traction on an icy gray road, the vibe is more ski trip than dive vacation.
Iceland grazes the Arctic Circle, but remnants of the Gulf Stream encircle the coastline to create a moderate but volatile marine climate. This can result in mild sunshine and blue skies in February or a wicked snowstorm in April — like the one raging when my Icelandair flight from JFK touched down at Keflavik International Airport just before sunrise.
Hedinn Olafsson easily culled me from the lineup of deplaning locals and off-season tour groups; I was the only guy carrying a dive bag. The must-be-a-diver scene repeated a half-hour later when photographer Stuart Westmorland came off the Milwaukee flight toting an underwater camera housing, and then again in the parking lot, where our ride was obviously the diesel panel truck emblazoned with a life-size mural of a diver suspended in sparkling-clear water.
Right after “hello,” the conversation turned to diving, and it stayed there as we crossed the stark volcanic plains of the Reykjanes Peninsula. Hedinn had come to diving recently, earning a PADI certification in 1999. In short order, though, he rose through the sparse local diving ranks to earn Divemaster and Instructor credentials. He became quite active in the country’s only dive club, opened his own dive shop on the Hafnarf waterfront, only six miles from central Reykjavik, and now divides his time between hosting dive tours for an international clientele and spreading the diving gospel to locals.
Today he will do a little of both. The plan is to stash our bags at the Hotel Vik, swing by his shop to pick up tanks and weights, then drop some demo gear by a local indoor swimming pool where the dive club is hosting an annual Discover Scuba event, which is expected to attract more than 200 curious neophytes. Based on the number of divers per capita in neighboring Norway, with socioeconomic and water conditions similar to those of Iceland, Hedinn figures his country should have 10 times as many divers as are currently certified — fertile ground for his planned expansions, which include a dive boat and the country’s first nitrox station.
Three hours later, we’re headed for the high country on a route that overlaps Iceland’s signature day trip. In season, the Golden Loop is a user-friendly circuit that delivers craters, waterfalls, glaciers, historical sites and hot springs, all located within easy walking distance of the parking lot, with full souvenir and snack-shop support.
It’s too early in the year for the big tour buses, but we do cross paths with some off-season adventurers negotiating the icy roads and snowdrifts in lifted four-wheel-drives sporting balloon tires and snorkels. The adventure-travel business is booming in Iceland, and there’s a lot of hard-core outdoor activity among both locals and vacationers.
If our trip weren’t all about the diving, adventure alternatives could range from ice climbing and mountaineering to skiing and sea kayaking — and that’s just the cold stuff. Come summer, the 80 percent of the island that remains wild and unsettled becomes Europe’s favorite backcountry playground.
After cursory look-sees at the big draws — Gullfoss and Geysir — we detour toward the expansive rift valley of Thingvellir National Park and its aquamarine centerpiece, Lake Thingvallavatn. It was here on the shores of Iceland’s largest natural lake that the country’s first parliament convened in A.D. 930.
In addition to its historic significance, the Thingvellir Valley is unique in that it sits between old and new worlds. The mid-Atlantic ridge, the split between the continental plates of Europe and North America, runs right though the valley; on the southern shores of the lake it forms a narrow cleft that releases meltwater flowing downhill from the surrounding mountains.
This place is Silfra, and though the name is not well known to North Americans, it is considered by the scuba cognoscenti to be among the world’s top freshwater dives. There is a poster found in dive shops across Norway and Sweden that depicts a diver suspended in a pool of air-clear water. It’s Silfra, and each year Hedinn hosts dozens of scuba pilgrims intent on living the daydream that captivated them throughout classroom lectures.
We are about to enter these much-touted waters. Huddled on the lee side of the van in a vain attempt to escape the swirling snow flurries, we gear up in slush and foot-deep snow. The realization that we are about to plunge into 34°F water prompts extra attention to drysuit seals, and we are grateful for the body heat generated by wrestling tanks and 40-pound weight belts while encased in thick undergarments and waterproof suits.
A short hike across the tundra brings us to the gash in the rock that is Silfra’s headspring. An aluminum ladder installed by the park service facilitates entry, but there remains that moment of truth when exposed faces first make full contact with near-freezing water.
The underwater landscape diverts attention from the inevitable ice-cream headache that is the price of immersion. From the glassy surface, parallel ramparts of jagged rock fade to darkness far below; the flat light of the snowstorm above paints the scene in a patina of purple light. We hang weightless in the clearest of liquid mediums.
During our pre-dive briefing, Hedinn had told of divers reaching depths of 160 feet and beyond in Silfra’s caverns and boulder-filled labyrinths. Our dive plan calls for much shallower depths, as we must repeatedly ascend to transit a series of shallow gaps that connect the system’s deep pools.
Nearly an hour later, we end our dive at the clear-water pool that is the source of the site’s signature photo ops. The sun peeks through a break in the clouds, casting our shadows against the silt bottom and furthering the illusion of weightlessness.
The flight, the drive, the snow and the cold all suddenly seem a very small price to pay for this memory in the making.
The Big Chill
Silfra is definitely Iceland’s premier diving attraction, but it’s far from the only reason to get wet. Day three finds us road-tripping our way east in a Peugeot tour van ripe with the distinctive odor of drying seaweed, damp dive gear and fast food, which in Iceland can mean not only Big Macs, but also pickled herring and smoked lamb on flatbread.
Highway 1 bisects a coastal plain sandwiched between sea and mountains. Sheep farms occupy the rolling valleys; majestic waterfalls plunge from snow-clad cliffs. After the first 10 cataracts, we stop taking pictures.
The locals will tell you that Peter Jackson filmed Lord of the Rings on the wrong island, that Iceland is the true Middle Earth. Just past the pastoral village of Vik, we leave any semblance of the Shire behind and enter Mordor’s plains of Gorgoroth. Lava boulders and dunes of black volcanic ash stretch inland to a dark rampart of rock, behind which sits the Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier.
At a remote beach on the island’s southeast corner, the glacier escapes the coastal escarpment and inches toward the Atlantic. A half-mile shy of the surf line, the icy advance is halted at Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon. Chunks of ice ranging in size from dinner plates to restaurants float in the slightly brackish water of the lagoon.
For no reason other than the pure hell of it, we’re planning to dive into this natural slushy, the temperature of which hovers somewhere around 31°F. And though that doesn’t sound much colder than Silfra’s 34°F depths, or the comparatively balmy 37°F coastal waters, we soon learn that in the sub-40 range, every fraction of a degree matters.
Though overheated from scrambling down a frozen scree field in full gear, I still can’t muster much enthusiasm for ducking under. A seal surfaces nearby, stares in seeming bemusement, then disappears under an ice floe. This provides the necessary incentive to submerge.
I scream and suck half the air from my tank in 45 seconds, but manage to keep my head under long enough to acclimate. The seal never does reappear, but I’m able to spend a memorable half-hour playing among the scalloped and sculpted ice formations.
That night, we watch the northern lights while soaking in a backcountry hot tub.
For the past two summers, Hedinn has hosted a weeklong, around-Iceland dive safari. He’s not repeating it this summer, because he wants to wait until he has enough interest to plan a two-week campaign. “There’s no way you can do it all in just seven days,” he explains.
There’s a geothermal pinnacle at Eyjafjorour, rising from the depths to within 40 feet of the surface, spewing warm, fresh water into the ocean to create a halocline that draws huge schools of cod. It will have to wait. Ditto for the diving puffins that will soon take up residence on a small island off Reykjavik, the wreck of El Grillo, the seal rookery and the subsurface volcanic activity of the Vestmanna Islands. Knowing this, we don’t even try to do it all; instead we focus on maxing out the underwater opportunities afforded by the season.
For a taste of ice-free coastal diving, we make our way to the fishing village of Keflavik, just down the road from the much-touted Blue Lagoon thermal baths. We drive past a fish house to the end of a long stone quay. This site provides some of the best near-shore conditions within an easy drive of town, Hedinn tells us.
Rather than endure a long slog through slippery, rock-bound shallows, the preferred way to enter the water is with a giant stride off the jetty. Today the tide is way out, and the drop looks to be every bit of 15 feet.
After several false starts and a case of the jitters, I finally commit to the fall, which provides just enough hang time to renew doubts. Incredibly, the various seams and straps of my rig survive the impact as 300-plus pounds of diver, steel tanks and lead weights impact the ocean.
The scene below is not as dramatic as the entry, but it’s a lush landscape alive with all the expected cold-water critters, plus a couple of garish fish that send us searching for the ID books on our surface interval.
Back for a second helping — and a second freefall in full gear — we extend our bottom time and hang out in the shallows for so long that we can barely work the zippers and buckles on exit. It will require an extended soak in the misty waters of the Blue Lagoon to restore core temperatures and our resolve to attempt a run on Reykjavik’s no-holds-barred nightlife.
Later, while submerged to neck level in 104°F mineral water, I revisit the question posed before this adventure began. Was underwater Iceland worth the trip?
For me, absolutely. For others? That depends. If fish-watching on balmy coral reefs represents the totality of your diving interests, forget about it. But if you are up for some cold-water discoveries mixed with cool topside adventures, pack the dive gear — and take the two-week Iceland adventure. Diving puffins, seal rookeries and underwater volcanoes don’t get scribbled into logbooks that often. Just imagine sitting in the geothermal pool at Blue Lagoon at the end of the week, conjuring up the kind of memories that used to be the sole experience of Vikings and only the most intrepid adventurer. This is why we dive. The planet is big and blue, and the frontiers are ours to see.
Take a dip in one of the towns’ or villages’ many pools and natural hot tubs (called hot pots). Hot springs keep the temperature up from the mid-80s to low-100s year-round. Visit www.spacity.is for more information.
1. The Vestmanna Islands
2. El Grillo
Deco Stops: Iceland
The good news is that divers don’t need to hop a tour bus to see the sights. A trip to Silfra takes you past A-list attractions such as Gullfoss (the golden waterfall) and Geysir (think Yellowstone and Old Faithful, only bigger), while a shore dive on the Reykjanes Peninsula ties in to a volcano safari and a soak in the Blue Lagoon. If you want to kick it up a notch, there are a number of outfitters that can set you up for more adventurous pursuits, ranging from exploring lava caves and challenging whitewater rapids to fly fishing and touring the backcountry on Viking horses. Come sunset, Reykjavik’s Old Town is the place to be, though you’ll need staying power and some high-limit plastic to hang at the hot spots, where the action runs late and the drinks pour at prices that make Manhattan’s club scene look downmarket.
AVERAGE WATER TEMP: 30-36°F, depending on site and season
WHAT TO WEAR: Drysuit with hood and gloves
AVERAGE VIZ: Silfra: 100+ feet; Ocean: 20-50 feet
WHEN TO GO: Silfra year-round; summer is best for ocean diving
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