Long known for Björk, putrid shark meat, and its petulant volcanoes wreaking havoc with trans-Atlantic flights, Iceland, with its outlandish and ice-cold dive sites, has become a bucket list destination for underwater travelers in need of exoticism. The out-of-the-way island bordering the Arctic Circle sits astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is part of the longest mountain range in the world separating the Americas from Europe and Africa. Most of this gigantic formation lies at abysmal depths, out of reach and out of sight save for a handful of islands including this small Nordic country whose total population of 325,671 (2013) is surpassed by the City of Victoria.
On the move
The landmasses that surround the Atlantic were once part of a supercontinent that began to break apart around 200 million years ago in a phenomenon known as continental drift. Since the gap continues to widen to this day, this growth manifests itself in the form of a rift valley that slices through the centre of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge over most of its length. The valley expands when tectonic plates slide in opposite directions as they float over the earth’s mantle, thus tearing open the earth’s crust. The bleeding wound is sutured with layer upon layer of lava upwellings that slowly build the mountain range. The upper half of the ridge that crosses the northern hemisphere marks the continental divide between the North American and Eurasian Tectonic Plates. A sub-section known as the Reykjanes Ridge cuts through Iceland, which was formed when localised volcanic eruptions eventually breached the surface of the Greenland Sea.
Go to Heck!
Ironically, Iceland was born out of fire, and signs of this cataclysmic upheaval are apparent all over the island. Even today, Iceland’s surface area continues to expand as the ridge widens by more than two centimetres every year. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits on the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Active and dormant volcanoes, geysers, basalt fields and hot springs dot the landscape in which Orcs from Middle Earth would feel much at home. Þingvellir is also the site of the Alþing – Assembly Fields – the oldest extant parliamentary institution in the world founded in 930. A rocky outcrop known as the Lögberg – Law Rock – which served as the centre of the gathering, is nearly a stone’s throw from a new meeting place where world travelers have replaced the Vikings, politicians and trolls that are at the centre of Icelandic history and folklore. For the rare and remote geological features of a submerged fissure named Silfra – Silver Lady – have become a much sought out destination drawing thousands of scuba divers from all parts of the world to take a peek at the entrails of the Earth.
Active and dormant volcanoes, geysers, basalt fields and hot springs dot the landscape in which Orcs from Middle Earth would feel much at home.
ABOVE: On the lookout for Orcs. Scene from Middle-Earth or basalt field by the road to the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum? Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
Outlandish diving in Middle Earth
The drifting of the North American and Eurasian plates is conspicuously evident in the Þingvellir valley. Multiple stress rifts, including Silfra, are visible from above a hilltop where busloads of tourists marvel at the unusual landscape. What makes Silfra stand out is that it extends into Lake Þingvallavatn, and is therefore flooded. As the plates continued to separate and Silfra grew, the fissure eventually broke through underground springs so it is now connected to a series of caves and wells that feed the lake with runoff from Iceland’s second largest glacier, Lángjökull. Much of this glacial water used to reach the lake by way of a river, but the eruption of another volcano, Skjáldbreiður, dammed the tributary that now flows beneath the solidified lava. Unlike the scalding water that blasts out of the namesake Geysir at Haukadalur, the water at Silfra remains icy cold as it seeps through gruyere-like basaltic fields that compose much of the terrain between the fissure and the glacier. And unlike Lángjökull’s surface glacial runoff that carves its way across the barren land in a torrential rush at Gullfoss – Golden Falls – the water trickling underground to Silfra is slowly filtered to its absolute purest form over a distance of 50 kilometres. When it is finally released into Silfra after a period of 30 to 100 years, it is among the clearest water in the world and it has become a boon for scuba diving and sightseeing entrepreneurs.
ABOVE: Surface glacial runoff at Gullfoss (Golden Falls) in the canyon of Hvítá, Iceland. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
Diving at Silfra requires a permit from the national park so law-abiding travelers usually sign up for outings organised by operators based in the capital city of Reykjavík, which is a 45-minute drive west of Þingvellir. Participants typically meet their guides at the dive shops that supply all of the required equipment as well as the scenic bus ride to the valley. On my visit, I was guided by Teddy Wignall of DIVE.IS. Upon arriving at Silfra, Teddy told me how the parking lot is located right over a large flooded cave – off-limits to divers – that flows into the head of the fissure. The cave acts as a reservoir that feeds Silfra year round with water at a constant temperature of approximately 4°C, thus preventing the formation of ice in winter. Suiting up in the open air of the parking lot is relatively comfortable with dressing platforms and WC’s readily available. At 2-4°C, the water temperature is near glacial year-round so a drysuit is highly recommended. Participants are given a briefing during which they are reminded of all of the rules before departing on foot for the fissure.
Park officials have installed a unique diver crossing with yellow street markings and a sign depicting a full-clad scuba diver.
Environmental conservation and diver fatalities have led park officials to forbid divers from diving alone, entering caves or even swimming through tunnels or under ledges. The rules are strictly enforced by dive operators for fear of degrading the site and losing their park license. It is also prohibited to dive to depths greater than 18 metres. There’s no need for a dive flag since boats do not enter Silfra. However, divers have to traverse a road much traveled by tour buses and campers during the short hike to the entry point. In order to prevent collisions between vehicles and hooded divers that may be hard-of-hearing, park officials have installed a unique diver crossing with yellow street markings and a sign depicting a full-clad scuba diver. The signage apparently works well since road kill of large terrestrial mammals in the area is mostly limited to the odd stray sheep.
ABOVE: Glacial water filtered underground is released into the Silfra fissure after a period of 30 to 100 years. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
After walking down the well-beaten trail for about 150 metres, access to the water, which lies between the steep walls of the fissure, is offered by means of a sturdy metal stairway. If you manage to pay attention as you excitedly make your way down the metal steps, you may notice a slight disturbance at the surface of the water at the head of crack. The current flowing out of the spring that feeds Silfra is barely apparent and yet it is sufficiently strong to clear the fissure of most sediment between visits by throngs of snorkelers and divers. Photographers on assignment need be concerned if the goal of the dive is to capture Silfra’s amazing water purity. Several groups do indeed visit Silfra every day so waterborne traffic is at times heavy and this has no doubt frustrated many visitors believing that the relative remoteness of Iceland would free them of the unpleasantness associated with diving from the colloquial cow boat. Whenever possible, avoid diving when several groups are present. Otherwise, timing is critical and should be discussed with the guide since letting a fast-moving group of snorkelers pass ahead while you pause for a few extra minutes may just save your magazine cover shot. They will otherwise swim overhead during the photo session and quite possibly spoil your day. The Arctic sun sets at midnight in July so you’ve got lots of time to wait. If you get hot at any time during the dive, have a drink of the water that’s purer than anything you’ll ever get from a bottle. Coldwater housing condensation is also a potential showstopper at Silfra. If at all possible, ready your camera system on the eve of your dive and throw in an extra packet of desiccant.
ABOVE: Diving at Silfra in the best underwater visibility that I have ever seen.The fissure at Þingvellir marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, or the continental divide between the European and North American continents. On Teddy’s left, the North American tectonic plate. On his right, the Eurasian tectonic plate. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
What’s the big deal?
Being accustomed to the great visibility of the salmon rivers of Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula, and having just disembarked from a once-in-a-lifetime diving expedition to Greenland, my expectations were somewhat reserved. And yet, why would so many make a fuss over something as banal as clear water in a seemingly lifeless hole in the ground? All of that changed in an instant when my eyes crossed the still surface. My first glance into the crystalline liquid was breathtaking. I literally felt like I was floating in mid-air. The glare of the bright sky gave way to sharp contrasts and it seemed as though my vision was better underwater than at the surface. The dynamic nature of the geologically active fissure was instantly apparent. Plate movements and earthquakes have caused boulders of all sizes to tumble into the widening void in an uncoordinated mess that would confound even the most adept players of Tetris. Tantalising passageways and caves beckon spelunkers that alas, must resist the temptation. As we began to make our way, Teddy soon reminded me of why most people dive Silfra when he demonstrably swam to the narrowest portion of the crack. Once there, his outstretched arms touched both walls at once, thus bridging the divide between two continents. It’s no big feat by Icelandic standards, but it made for an extraordinary entry in this awe-struck Canadian’s dive log. Watching his silhouette fly against the virtually invisible surface was also an awesome sight.
Local divers have divided Silfra into four sections: Silfra Big Crack, Silfra Hall (a.k.a. the Chess Room because of its many lava boulders that resemble chess pieces), Silfra Cathedral and Silfra Lagoon. The deepest section of the fissure is 63 metres, however don’t forget that park rules limit dives to less than a third of that depth. Divers making their way through the passage have to negotiate a few nooks and crannies that separate the four sections totaling nearly 200 metres, so the fissure does not run in a straight line from start to finish. Since the bottom is so uneven and because some of the sections are divided by shoal-like shallows, Silfra is a multilevel dive. Maintaining proper buoyancy therefore requires numerous adjustments throughout the dive in order to avoid touching bottom or swiping algae off the rocks.
ABOVE: Diving at Silfra, the Lagoon. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
Clearest water in the world?
The full extent of the water clarity is debatable but all sections are usually visible in their entirety over distances up to 80 metres – the approximate visibility of distilled water – and it was by far the clearest water that I have ever seen in my 33 years of diving. Claims of visibility surpassing 80 metres are therefore overstated. On a good day, Silfra nonetheless rivals the Weddell Sea and New Zealand’s Blue Lake for the title of the world’s clearest water.
Although the bountiful waters surrounding Iceland led to the two Cod Wars and Lake Þingvallavatn is home to several fish species, Silfra itself is not known for its wildlife. With the exception of colourful algae (a.k.a. troll hair), which is easily disturbed by passing divers, Silfra does not offer much in the way of aquatic life. Arctic char are occasionally encountered, as was the case on my first pass through the crack. Yet the algae makes for interesting photography when it remains attached to the rock. And remember that since you swim with the current, whatever gets kicked up will stay with you for part of the dive so do be careful.
Many divers most enjoy the Cathedral section, which is the last stretch before entering the Lagoon. The visibility is mind-boggling when divers gaze at each other from opposite ends. Visibility in the Lagoon is most fragile because of its shallow depth and silty bottom. However, when water and lighting conditions are just right, the Lagoon makes for dazzling imagery. The exit platform is visible from any point in the Lagoon and it allows divers to exit without disturbing bottom sediment for following groups. The walk back to the parking lot is punctuated by the constant chatter of bewildered and absent-minded divers thus making the previously mentioned crossing sign all the more necessary on the return trip.
On a good day, Silfra rivals the Weddell Sea and New Zealand’s Blue Lake for the title of the world’s clearest water.