“Open your mouth.”
Umm, my mouth?
“Just open your mouth, I’ve got something for you.”
It was an odd demand from a man I’d only met about an hour prior. Even odder is that we were currently drifting down the waters of a melted glacier between two continental plates.
Welcome to the Silfra fissure, Iceland.
Water temperature = 3ºC. Personal blood circulation levels = slow.
I looked at my guide, Weston, took the snorkel out of my mouth and did what he asked.
Something sharp landed on my taste buds. A little berry, plucked from the side of the rocks of this body of water. How does a berry grow on the rocky walls of this giant crack in the earth, in such harsh temperatures?
I didn’t have too much time to ponder the answer or ask too many questions. Only a few minutes into my Silfra snorkelling adventure and my lips were numb and no longer nimble enough to hold a clear conversation.
Snorkel back in my mouth, I rolled back over onto my tummy to stare deep down into the abyss below.
SNORKELLING THE SILFRA FISSURE OF ICELAND
The Silfra is a fissure of the earth; a giant crack between the North American and Eurasian continental plates in the Þingvellir National Park of Iceland.
It’s filled with glacier water, crystal clear with 100m visibility.
This lake has become one of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions, giving visitors the chance to snorkel, free dive or scuba dive between the plates. The temperature remains between 2ºC and 4ºC year-round.
“In another 40 years, you’ll be able to snorkel in another glacier lake,” Weston suggests to us before our journey into the icy waters.
Weston is from Maine, in the US, and moved to Iceland as a scuba diving instructor. Now he takes groups scuba diving, freediving, and snorkelling through the Silfra each day.
“About 20% of people each day don’t finish,” he explains. Twenty percent – that’s a fifth of each day’s tourists who sign up, pay for the experience and bail.
“Some of them are from big cities and they don’t know how to swim.”
Weston says some people lie on their waiver forms, stating they are comfortable swimmers, when in fact, they’ve never entered a pool, lake or ocean in their lives. They think the drysuit will somehow magically keep them buoyant and safe.
Why a person who doesn’t know how to swim would pay hundreds of dollars to snorkel in 3ºC glacier water is beyond me. But that’s travel influencing for you – forgo all risks to do what is popular.
The other reason for people not completing is a little more interesting – fear of heights.
The water of the Silfra is crystal clear, over 100-metre visibility. Which means, as soon as you put your face into the water, you can see metres and metres below you, as if you’re at the top of a skyscraper, peering over the edge.
That’s what happened to Frenchie.
One of the men in our group, a Frenchman in his 50s, was attempting the snorkel with his daughters.
“My English, not so good,” he told me.
“That’s okay,” I replied. “Je parle un peu de francais, monsieur. Il fait froid!”
My limited French put me on good terms with Monsieur. But I could not help him when I heard him freaking out as he entered the water.
“Papa! Papa!” one of his daughters yelled.
I rolled onto my back and noticed there was a bit of a commotion, as Monsieur was trying to clamber up the side of the rocks and out of the water.
Weston told us more confident snorkelers to drift a little further along, then wait for him. He helped the poor man out of the water before telling him to walk around and meet us at the lagoon, our exit point.
Frenchie then became a statistic – one of the 20% who signed up and bailed.
He later told me he suffered vertigo. Suddenly he could see deep down through the crack in the earth through the crystal clear waters, and vertigo overpowered him. And that was it – he refused to go back into the water, recognising his limits, albeit a little late in the game.
WHAT DOES THE SILFRA LOOK LIKE?
Entering the Silfra is like a magic vortex between time and space where you can be in two places at one time.
From the surface, the water of the lake looks dark, if not a little murky. In Iceland, weather is fairly drizzly and cloudy – so there was no bright sunlight shining into the water.
But as soon as your face breaks the surface, the scene below is much lighter and the clarity intensifies. Suddenly, you can peer down into a new world below you. It’s a deep chasm, with water so clear it’s like you’re floating or flying in mid-air.
I can understand that if you were afraid of heights, this would be right up there among terrifying experiences.
For me, it was a marvel.
DIVE, FREEDIVE OR SNORKEL THE SILFRA?
I really wanted to scuba dive the Silfra.
But, unfortunately for me, there’s a requirement these days that all scuba divers must be drysuit certified or have at least 10 logged drysuit dives.
I’m a confident and qualified Advanced scuba diver but have never been in a drysuit. Heck, at the start of the year I was living in Fiji and barely even needed a wetsuit. While all the snorkellers wear a drysuit, scuba divers need to know how to control their suits at depth.
I toyed with the idea of getting drysuit certified before I left for Iceland, but I felt it was an expensive exercise if I didn’t plan on doing many further drysuit dives in future.
Then I read about freediving the Silfra. I would be in a wetsuit – brrr – but would be able to have the freedom and buoyancy control to dive down rather than simply float at the top of the surface, like those in a drysuit.
I turned up at Adventure Vikings, slightly hesitant about the prospect of freediving in a wetsuit. I’d come down with a bit of a cold and was suffering the sniffles.
I explained my situation to Weston and he pretty quickly advised me against freediving, especially if I was congested.
“If you can’t equalise on the ground, you won’t be able to equalise underwater as you go down,” he explained. The pressure in my sinuses would be too much. Add the icy waters and I probably wouldn’t have a great time.
Disappointed, I understood and prepared to get into the drysuit instead. At least that way, I could keep all my thermals on underneath, with the waterproof suit and tight seals around my neck and wrists keeping me dry and my body warm.
Just my face and hands were exposed to the elements. I snorkelled with my gloved hands behind my back, above the water, to help keep them from freezing.
HOW TO PREPARE TO SNORKEL THE SILFRA
I had a rental car with SADCars which allowed me to self-drive around Iceland – and head to the Silfra fissure by myself.
But, most of the Silfra tour companies offer a pickup from Reykjavik if required, usually for a fee.
If you do have a rental vehicle – which I highly recommend for Iceland – getting to the Silfra site is easy.
The Thingvellir National Park is about 45 minutes from Reykjavik, but allow for a longer trip as you may want to stop along the way ( like anywhere in Iceland!), or you might get stuck behind a tourist coach.
You’ll need to arrive early to get ready for your adventure – including suiting up and safety briefings.
There may also be another wait before entering the water. For us, it was only about 20 minutes, but in peak times, expect to wait much longer.
Make sure you’ve had something to eat and drink prior to your adventure – and be sure to go the toilet before getting your drysuit on!
Here’s what I wore underneath my drysuit:
-2 x thermal tops
Bring a hat and wool gloves to wear while waiting for your adventure to start.
The drysuit has boots attached to the bottom of the legs, so your feet stay dry – which is why you need warm socks. You’ll be given rubber seals for around your wrist and neck to keep water out of the suit. It will be uncomfortable and tight – but not so tight to cut off circulation – so be prepared for that feeling. It’s a lot more comfortable once you’re in the water and floating on the surface.
Finally – don’t lie on your form when you sign up for the experience. If you can’t swim, don’t do it.
The other big question – should you snorkel the Silfra if you’re afraid of heights?
Yes, you can, but be aware it’s possible you can get vertigo due to the clear water and deep fissure, so be smart about your ability. There are parts of the Silfra that are shallow, so you can drift over those rocks if you prefer not to look too far down.
Diving or snorkelling the Silfra fissure is a beautiful experience – but just because every other tourist is doing it, doesn’t mean you should, if you aren’t comfortable in the water.
And for those of you who do complete it – welcome to the club! A memory of a lifetime.
IS SNORKELLING THE SILFRA FISSURE WORTH IT?
Diving or snorkelling the Silfra fissure had been the number one item at the top of my bucket list for a number of years now. I’m delighted to be able to cross it off the list.
Like anything in Iceland, it’s not cheap; expect to pay around $230NZD for the experience. That’s definitely the most expensive snorkel trip I’ve ever done.
So, is it worth it?
For me, personally, YES, it was absolutely worth it.
It was a dream experience and something so unique to have achieved. I still would love to go scuba diving, but I’ll save that trip for when John can come with me.
I loved the feeling of drifting between this deep crack in the earth. But I am a water baby. Hand me a snorkel, scuba diving regulator, kayak or paddleboard and I’m a happy lass.
If you’re not comfortable in the water, then you might want to rethink it. And it is bloody freezing – another thing to weigh up if you’re a bit averse to the cold.
But if you have a sense of adventure, love the water and keen to try something you’ll never experience anywhere else in the world – then go for your life. I mean, how many other places can you snorkel between continental plates?
DISCUSS: Have you been diving or snorkelling in the Silfra fissure in Iceland? How did it make you feel? Would you do it again?
I completed this experience with Adventure Vikings. I paid for the excursion myself and receive no compensation for writing this – so it’s 100% my personal opinion.Tweet