“You are very petite,” said the instructor disapprovingly as I walked through the door of Scuba Iceland. What might normally be considered a hair-flipping compliment would in fact turn out to be a hindrance to one of my greatest adventures yet: scuba diving in Iceland.
Certain activities seem synonymous with visiting Iceland: seeing the Northern Lights, hiking glaciers, riding Icelandic horses. But anything involving submerging oneself in the country’s icy waters? Not so much. Yet scuba diving in Iceland is becoming more and more hyped among the world’s dive enthusiasts thanks to fantastic visibility, eerie topography and surreal creature spotting.
The majority of those divers are heading to Silfra, a glacial-water-filled ravine that runs between the tectonic plates of Europe and North America. I’ve been dying to do this dive since I first heard about it years ago — I mean, did I mention the between-tectonic-plates bit?! So in Reykjavik, while my mom and sister set off on a South Coast day tour, I joined the Scuba Iceland team to submerge into what is often listed as one of the world’s top cold water dives.
The trip started with an hour drive out to Thingvellir National Park, a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Sight and first stop on the famed “Golden Circle” tours of Iceland. From there we started to get into our dry suits — an incredibly arduous process compared to my diving routine in Thailand, which is basically throwing on a bikini and jumping in.
See, I’m what people in the dive world might sneeringly refer to as a “warm water wussy” — I probably have done around 200 dives by now, but never in water any colder than the Bahamas in January, or Ibiza in July! Those temperatures are around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, which is nothing to sneer at and requires a thick wetsuit. But this would be my first time in a drysuit, which is a whole different level of diving.
I started with leggings, a long sleeve top, and thick wool socks. Over that went a jumpsuit that would act as insulation. On top of that went the drysuit itself as well as thick neoprene gloves and hoods. So far so good, but then the rubber bands came out. Tight bands went over my wrists and over my neck, meant to seal out water but also cause to complete strangulation. At this point my mild panic over trying drysuit diving for the first time started to escalate to fever pitch, which I now realize is a common side effect of lack of oxygen to the brain.
Here I am rocking that drysuit in the most stylish way possible — after all, Tom Cruise had been diving there the day before and I wasn’t about to let that crazy dude show me up (he was shooting a movie while we were in Iceland!)
The gear and weights continued to pile on and I realized now why the petite comment was not flattery. As I struggled to walk to the entrance to the dive site, the divemaster told me I had a full 35kg of gear on. I am completely ignorant of the metric system so I just kind of smiled and tried to look less like I was about to die. Later I Googled that situation and realized I was wearing EIGHTY POUNDS OF GEAR. Never in my life have I more joyously flopped into freezing water.
So many emotions whipped around in that first moment when I became fully submerged in glacial water — I had to force myself to slow down and hold onto the thoughts so I could remember them later. First I felt relief as the weight of the gear I was wearing was buoyed up by the water. Then — the water. Oh my God, I have never felt such all-encompassing cold in all of my life. It touched every part of me, and there was so no relief. I flicked through my memory bank to online reviews which promised I’d go numb to the cold after the first five minutes. Five minutes, I could last five minutes in this water. Um, again — the water. I felt like I was in a neon dream — never had I seen colors so bright or water so clear.
I took a few deep breaths and told myself to play this cool — I’m meant to be a fairly experienced diver, after all! Sometimes I think I make it through a lot of my most feared scuba situations (shark diving, night diving, now drysuit diving) simply because I tend to always dive with people way above my level and the last thing I want to do is look like the Hysterical Lady Diver in the group. After a few meditative breaths I was able to calm my cold-rattled brain into slowing down and absorbing the sensations around me. For a better idea of what I was experiencing, check out the diving clips in my One Week in Iceland video.
And there was so much beauty, so many dreamlike sights to absorb. When I tell people about this dive one of their first questions is usually, “What is there to see? Fish?” Well, there are some small trout in the lake, but they don’t often swim into the ravine. But who needs fish when you have stunning reds like these?
Or greens as amazing as these?
Or blues as brilliant as these?
Some views just looked like watercolor paintings.
Yet even in black and white, the topography alone would make this dive worthwhile. We moved from deep to shallow areas very rapidly — at some points we were practically snorkeling while at other times we got low to truly appreciate the enormity of the rift we were in. I kept reminding myself that if I turned to my left, I was looking at North America, while if I turned left – ta da! I was looking at Europe.
Unfortunately, I was having some trouble being able to turn left or right. I realized on these dives that they teach drysuit diving as a full separate course for a reason! I have never felt so out of control of my buoyancy or mobility or depth before. It was actually a little frustrating to feel so helpless in the water, a place where I normally feel so comfortable. It was a struggle just to move — I felt like a newbie diver again!
I was so focused on not crashing into the walls or flying up to the surface that it took my a while to realize something was actually kind of wrong with my face.
YOU GUYS. Can you say face bloat? I wanted to delete these underwater selfies as soon as I saw them but when I saw the joy and laughter they brought to friends I just had to share them with the entire internets. I’m no science blogger so I can only guess that my skin swelled in reaction to the freezing water temperatures! Remind me not to enter any Icelandic Underwater Beauty Contests anytime soon.
Because, oh, I did mention that the water was freezing, right? As in 2 degrees Celsius, a whopping 35.6 degrees Fahrenheit! And those people who claimed that I would go numb after five minutes? Liars. I mean, I guess you kind of get used to the shock, in a way, but I felt cold down to my bone for the entirety of both dives we did. The worst were my fingers and forehead, which were exposed to the water (our gloves were wetsuit material). In fact, five minutes into the second dive it took all the willpower I had not to signal and call the dive, I was in so much pain from what I can only describe as a brain freeze headache. It subsided but enough for me to carry on, but suffice to say — I am a warm water wussy!
However, one benefit of that icy water is its source — a nearby glacier. Such water is purer than anything you could ever find in a tap or in a bottle, and a few times during the dive I removed my regulator and took a few gulps!
Reaching Silfra Lagoon signals the end of the dive, a sandy area that accentuates one last time the unbelievable visibility of the water — up to 100 meters, or 300 feet! That is simply unparalleled in the dive world. Yet I must confess that despite the surreal and wonderful experience that those dives were, I was happy to get out of that drysuit and cold water and rip that rubber band from around my neck!
I couldn’t recommend Scuba Iceland more highly for this trip. What could have been very intimidating and panic-inducing situations, they made safe and fun. I felt like I was diving with old friends — old friends who were much more brilliant and experienced divers than I, that is! In addition to the Silfra dive that I did, they also offer snorkeling trips, PADI courses, and extended trips to Iceland’s more far flung dives sites.
And one bonus thing I loved about them was that they took photos for me and gave them to me on a disc! I had my own Canon PowerShot with me, of course, but it was so wonderful to have photos of myself underwater… after all, I’m usually the one behind the lens.
Unfortunately, relief was not immediate after crawling backward out of the lagoon, because we still had to walk back to the van. I truly struggled with the weight of everything and a few times I thought I could not stand another moment of pain in my shoulders and back. I suffered for it too — I was sore for days to come! But the group was kind and patient with me and I finally made it, dripping in sweat. I had done it. I had gone diving in Iceland.
Are you a diver too? Get thyself to Silfra, and soon! This is far and away the most popular dive site in Iceland. Instructor Kevin estimates that there are at least 20 divers a day there in the summer — a figure that would have been unheard of a few short years ago. While increased exposure has definitely boosted the site’s popularity, so has the economy. While this trip is still a big investment at 29,900 ISK (currency conversions are especially unstable right now — what was $230US while I was planning the trip is now $164US while I’m writing this piece!) it cost well over $500US a few short years ago.
However, there is a delicate ecosystem here and too many divers could upset that balance. I say go now, while things are still pristine — and ask your dive operator how you can help keep them that way.
I promise, you won’t regret diving in Iceland — this was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Being between two tectonic plates, seeing the brightest neons nature has to offer, drinking glacial water throughout the dive — these are experiences that simply can’t be replicated anywhere else on the planet! And after struggling through the constant discomfort of the drysuit, the psychological challenge of the cold, and laboring with the weight of the equipment, I can certainly say that it was a hard-earned high. And that of course made it so much sweeter.
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The next day, I returned to the site with my Mom and sister as we did a self-drive tour of the Golden Circle (post to come!) I showed them the transparent waters and they stuck their hands in before whipping them out, shrieking and wondering how I could ever go diving in such waters.
And I couldn’t really give them an answer. I don’t know how I went from a girl afraid of pools and paralyzed by the thought of sharks to a girl who wins scuba scholarships and goes diving in Iceland. Some days I feel like I’m just faking it! But not after this. After scuba diving in Iceland, I feel pretty damn hardcore.
Many thanks to Scuba Iceland for hosting me on this tour. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own. All photos with an asterisk (*) were taken by Scuba Iceland, edited by me.