I’ll admit, when it comes to scuba diving, like many others, I’ve always tended to favour the sunny climes. Mostly it’s a lack of wanting to (as The Daily Mail might report) ‘pour my curves into’ the restrictions of a dry suit, but also because diving the colder regions of the world doesn’t perhaps always offer the wealth of marine life or visibility it’s tropical counterparts might. But cold water diving definitely has its appeals and whilst there are some fairly famous examples – the wreck of the Borgin in Greenland or Lake Baikal in Russia come to mind – potentially the most well-known of the dry-suit dives is that of Silfra in Iceland.
A land of dancing lights, epic vistas and sprawling, beautiful desolate landscapes that are as alien and other-worldly as they are memorable, Iceland is fast racing to the top of many travelers wish lists. It’s one of those creeping bucket-list gems, an immersive experience that having remained a well-known secret for many years is now blending into the tier of mainstream must see destinations. It is a devastatingly beautiful but – when you consider the rest of the world’s landmasses – also a geologically young country, sitting precariously on the Mid-Atlantic range between two continental plates; the North American and the Eurasian. If this was not fascinating enough, it’s one of the only places in the world where this division of tectonics can be observed above sea level and for the enterprising diver, close-up, in the freshwater of Lake Silfra with the aid of a dry suit, oxygen tank and a couple of quid.
To start off, it’s the most expensive dive I’ve ever done and this is about the only point of my life so far that I’d have been able to afford it. Iceland as an entirety is the wrong side of expensive – and this coming from someone who lives, rents and survives in London. After landing at Keflavik airport, the other half and I purchased two sandwiches, a bottle of water and a bag of nuts. It came to over twenty quid. The Silfra double dive ranges in the three hundred pound range depending on the company you go with, and for the majority of people, that’s a lot of money. The price is definitely something to consider. Unless you take home six figures a year and dollar is dispensable, you’ve got to really want to do this dive. Luckily – or not for my bank balance – I really, really wanted to do it. And even though I haven’t eaten properly for a month since, it was worth it. I’ll remember this dive for many, many years, and so personally it justifies the massive expense as a one-off.
The other thing to consider is what you are going to see. There is no marine life or coral to speak of; the only visible living things are moss on the rocks at the shallower points of the dive so I’m afraid that manta rays and turtles are out. What you go for instead is the experience of floating between two tectonic plates and at points touching North America with one hand and Europe with the other. It’s a sobering thought. The world works in big and mysterious ways beyond normal human understanding, and this is the opportunity to slip briefly between the folds of a massive process that has been developing for quite literally eons and will go on far past human existence. As I said before, sobering.
I chose Scuba Iceland to go with as they were on the cheaper side, and DiveIceland the initial choice were pretty awful with their correspondence. After being picked up at a hotel in Reykjavik by Kuba the Instructor at the hotel, we drove the hour long route to Thingviller, where the plates divide. After a briefing and application of the dry suits – which aren’t the most comfortable of outfits, but completely necessary for their purposes – we headed into the water. Mark my words, the tropical climates this is not. That water is freezing cold, and any exposed skin will instantly feel like it’s just been dipped in liquid nitrogen. My dry suit was a little faulty and let a bit of water in, however it wasn’t particularly uncomfortable. By the end however I felt like Leonardo DiCaprio after the sinking of the Titanic, and I’m not much of gentleman, so I’d have quite happily knocked Winslet off the floating door.
Getting two go’s out of it is pretty important. As I had never completed a dry suit dive before, the first trip around was not a challenge as such, but maybe a touch more difficult. Manouvering in the clunkier suit is different to swimming around in your clothes or a thin wetsuit and it takes a bit of getting used to. It’s like driving a 4×4 jeep for the first time. You know where the brake pedal is, and you know how to use the wheel, but you have to concentrate that bit harder than you would in your faithful Vauxhall Astra and perhaps you see a little less because of it. Ideally you’d already have dry-suit experience before heading into Silfra, but it’s not essential and I fared well. Entering the water for the second time, I was able to appreciate everything that little bit more and take everything in.
But what a sight to take in. The dive goes through several depths, from great caverns of stone and vast cathedrals of rock through to shallow grass puddles where your tank is above water, but for the most part it’s nothing short of spectacular. Silfra’s greatest asset is its visibility, the clarity of a water that reveals panoramas at least a hundred metres into the distance. The purity of Iceland’s water channels allows a sense of perspective that you sometimes find lacking in muddied waters or the blank canvas of open sea. Silfra’s landscape is composed entirely of rock, but consumed in this way, soaring above and between a transcontinental quarry is very different to taking a stroll above the water. It’s ethereal and dream like, particularly whilst emerging from the narrow passageways into the great halls of the plates. Luck was also on our side as the sun was shining; rays of light would catch shimmering against the stone and waltz along the shallower rock face. I’m not a religious man, but I a few times down there I felt like praying, it was so beautiful.
The dives main draw, being able to touch the North American plate with one hand and the Eurasian with the other is quite difficult to take in and comprehend. It’s just too big a concept. Still, a couple of weeks later, it feels a bit like a hallucination. The plates are constantly pulling apart from each other – around two to three centimetres a year – so in a few decades this will not be possible. I feel very lucky to have done it, but within that, the notion was almost too big for me. How ridiculous and grand was it to be sandwiched between two tectonic plates?
I emerged from the dive freezing cold but extremely grateful that I’d had the opportunity to head down and see something that not many people ever get the chance to. Would I rush to do it again? If I was in Iceland and I was a bit more well off than I am now then yes. We had six days in the country and although it was a good amount of time, there is certainly scope to head back and see a lot more. We rented a car and drove further up the Western coast to try and chase the Northern Lights, but our luck ran out on that part so there’s still a real drive to head back. We didn’t manage to touch the wild north of the island, considered by many to be the most beautiful part of the country so that is still there to explore. But I’d probably need to have had obtained a couple of promotions before that happens. It’s not cheap. It’s not cheap at all.
If you are in the country, have yourself an advanced license and a bit of cash then I’d absolutely recommend it, but if not, there’s plenty to do in the land of fire and ice aside from it. But is it one to tick off the diving bucket list? Absolutely. In fact, its one to tick off my 50 Things to Do list. One more down. Several more to go. Hopefully the next one is a bit warmer.
Music of the Moment – Anything by Bjork or Sigur Ros. Just because.