I’d barely slept a wink. Partially because I was excited, more because I was nervous. Very, very nervous.
Why? Because the next morning I’d be snorkeling Silfra, one of Iceland’s top attractions. In winter. Jumping out of planes in New Zealand, swinging from canyons in Switzerland and hiking an active volcano in Nicaragua didn’t cause me to lose a wink of shuteye; but make me jump in water so cold my face goes numb? It’s the stuff nightmares are made of.
You’re probably wondering, okay, so why’d you sign up for the tour then? Because I know that if I turn down a bucket list experience — especially one as special as swimming in crystal waters between divergent tectonic plates — I’d kick myself later. Hard.
My tour guide from Viking Adventures picked me up from my accommodation, the ODDSSON Ho(s)tel, at 9am. At this point I’d already peed six times having worked myself up into an anxious tizzy about not being able to go in the dry suit.
This is what I do when I’m anxious about something; I start questioning everything. What if it’s so cold my body freezes and I get so stiff I can’t swim? What if I didn’t bring enough snacks and I get such bad hunger pains my head hurts and I can’t see under water? What if it snows and I slip on a banana peel and a tornado blows me away and then I break my leg?
See, this is where my mind goes when I’m uneasy.
Luckily, the 45-minute scenic drive to the snorkel spot is beautiful enough to calm my nerves for a bit, the surrounding snow-capped volcanoes quieting my mind. Plus, there’s some interesting folklore to contemplate.
“You see that volcano ahead? It’s believed there are two trolls that live there that have thirteen sons. To us they’re like Santa Clauses. They leave presents in our shoes leading up to Christmas.”
In fact, the story is even more interesting than that if you want to learn more. Boiling children in a cauldron is part of the festive fun. Plus, there’s a Christmas cat that eats kiddies that don’t receive clothing as holiday gifts. No joke!
Iceland Attractions: Þingvellir National Park
But enough about children getting eaten by trolls. We’re here to learn about snorkeling.
It takes about 45 minutes until we’re in Þingvellir National Park, one of Iceland‘s must-visit attractions and where Silfra is. Silfra, meaning “silver,” is the glacial water fissure where you can snorkel between two continents — North America and Eurasia! It’s here where the tectonic plates of the two continents divide, and you can actually touch both at the same time in one spot called The Big Crack (at least, that’s what the divers tell you).
It works like this: once upon a time ice melted from a glacier outside of Þingvellir National Park, running with a river into Þingvallavatn Lake. Shortly after, nearby Skjaldbreidur Volcano erupted, causing a lava blockage in the river. Fire and ice united, and now we have Silfra, a gorgeous fissure with visibility reaching over 100 meters.
Along with visibility and beauty, Silfra is known for its low temperatures, which stay around 2-3 °C (~35.6-37.4 °F) year round. Even though the sun is shining now it doesn’t make it any warmer. Plus this is Iceland. In winter. Anything can happen at any minute.
Gearing Up For Silfra
We park in a lot with other snorkel and dive companies getting geared up for the adventure. This is when we learn Rule #1 of snorkeling Silfra: no peeing in the dry suit.
“It wouldn’t be clever either as you’d be peeing on your clothes,” smirks my guide. “There’s a bathroom in this lot I suggest you use right now.”
While divers wear wet suits so they can dip below the water’s surface, snorkelers typically wear dry suits, which keep you dry and buoyant.
The reason the guide suggests we use the toilet sooner than later is that once the dry suit is on, it’s on. I mean, this thing is reallyyyyy hard to take off.
Actually, the funniest part of the day is getting into the gear. We start by layering up underneath with long johns and thermals. Then comes a puffy overall-like garment for extra warmth. Next is when it gets comical. Getting into the rubbery dry suit isn’t like putting on pair of pants; it’s like squeezing into a child’s Halloween costume. And once we add the rubber hoods, we all look like giant fish. Add the snorkeling mask, fins and neck tighteners (so water doesn’t get in) and the group could literally be served on ice at a seafood market.
Descending Into Silfra
“On ice” is the key phrase here, and as we move closer to the stairs that descend into Silfra’s clear waters my heartbeat quickens.
On ice…on ice…on ice…
Slowly, I take each step one by one, trying to focus on the shining sun and surrounding volcanoes. Instead, my mind focuses on my feet leading to what feels like a sudden chilly death.
“Don’t be scared,” smiles my guide. “You’ll be fine. Only your hands and face will get cold. And the scenery will be so beautiful you won’t even feel it.”
I gulp. It’s time. My flippers begin dipping down into the water. And when the black rubber breaks the surface I want to screa…
Hmmm, that’s odd. Nothing.
I step in a bit farther.
When I’m fully floating, I’m surprised to find myself still dry — and reasonably warm, too!Would you #snorkel during #winter in #Iceland? Here's what it's like! Click To Tweet
And mesmerized. The visibility is the best I’ve ever seen on my travels, with every color, shape and algae pattern vividly clear. Literally, some of the rocks almost seem to have
street underwater art on them in crazy designs.
I may have found Banksy’s next mural spot.
I feel like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, a whole underworld canyon showcasing caves, narrow passageways and slender tunnels full of Mars-like rock formations. There are no fish — I’m told they come out at night — but I’m still in awe.
Beauty & Hardship
For me the hardest part is not the cold like I expect, but the dry suit and how buoyant it makes me. You can’t go below the surface no matter how hard you try, and at times swimming above it feels awkward, though I get used to it.
Note: This excursion is nowhere near as hard as, say, summiting Nicaragua’s Concepcion Volcano or downhill mountain biking Colorado‘s Winter Park Resort; however, it’s certainly challenging. For those who have never worn a dry suit it’s very constricting, and someone on my tour even ends up leaving the water early as they start panicking that the suit choking them. If you’re not a strong swimmer there is a moderate current to swim against, too, and you’ll need to navigate narrow tunnels. At no point am I ever scared, but I’m also a decent swimmer and am really good at reminding myself to breath. I’m not saying this to scare you; just to remind you that this is more than a laid-back Caribbean snorkel.
The most beautiful section of the Silfra fissure is an area called The Cathedral, a stunning underwater wonderland stretching 100 meters long and reaching depths of 20 meters. Here I see lava rock walls, dramatic sand pillars and an endless floor of broken jagged rock. It’s ruggedly gorgeous, and spills out into a big lagoon with endless views. These vistas are both above and below the surface (again, we’re in a National Park). I’d been afraid the 20 minutes — or 300 meters — in the water would be too much, but it actually feels like only 10.
I spend some extra time swimming before getting out to peel (read: contort) myself out of my wet gear.Who knew #snorkeling in #winter in #Iceland could be so fun! Click To Tweet
Coming Out Stronger
At the end of the tour I wait in line again for the bathroom, this time without anxiety flowing through my veins. A group of five new snorkelers stands in line behind me, shaking with the same trepidation I had less than an hour ago.
“Is it scary?” asks one wide-eyed brunette.
“Don’t be scared,” I smile. “You’ll be fine. Only your hands and face will get cold. And the scenery will be so beautiful you won’t even feel it.”
Pro Tip: Have some extra time? Do the short 15-minute hike through Almannagjá fault and take in expansive aerial views of the area from Hakið viewpoint.
If the photos weren’t enough, check out the below video of snorkeling Silfra, one of the top Iceland attractions for adventure enthusiasts. The video was shot by me on a GoPro Hero4.
Stay:The ODDSSON Ho(s)tel. I absolutely loved this hostel and hotel, which caters to both budget backpackers and the older budget traveler. On the fourth floor you’ll find a self-catering kitchen, free-to-use yoga room (with the occasional complimentary class), terrace lounge and outdoor hot tub. The first floor, on the other hand, has more of a hotel feel with a gorgeous restaurant, “yoga food” cafe, work areas with communal tables and plush couches, and free bike rentals. What’s awesome is both my dorm and my hotel room had gorgeous views of Faxaflói Bay and the Esja, Akrafjall and Skarðsheiði Mountains. Rates: ~$33-$50 USD for a 12-bedroom dorm and ~$225-$385 USD for the private hotel room. Use code “JESSIEONAJOURNEY” for 10% off your stay!
Tour Or Solo? By law, you must go with a licensed tour operator if you want to snorkel or dive Silfra. As people have died taking on this activity, it’s really important you follow this rule.
Tour Price: ~$153 USD (without hotel pickup/dropoff) and ~$189 USD (with hotel pickup/dropoff)
Packing Essentials: Yes, Silfra is cold. The good news is you can wear warm clothing under your dry suit, which keeps you dry and warm. Along with a set of warm dry clothes in case the suit leaks, I recommend wearing/bringing the following. Most of your gear will be provided.
- Water / Snacks
- Long underwear (a bottom to go over the tights and a top)
- Leggings (to go over the tights and long underwear)
- Looser sweater to go over this (a small hood is okay, but you’ll need to tuck it tight)
- GoPro with underwater housing and waterproof monopole (I wasn’t able to use my headstrap with all the gear)
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