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“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.

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.

Diving in Iceland

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.

Scuba Iceland*

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.

Diving in Iceland

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!)

Diving 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.

Silfra

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.

Silfra

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.

Diving in Iceland

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?

Diving in Iceland*

Diving in Iceland*

Diving in Iceland Photo on right courtesy of Scuba Iceland

Or greens as amazing as these?

Diving in Iceland

Silfra

Or blues as brilliant as these?

Diving in Iceland

Diving in Iceland

Some views just looked like watercolor paintings.

Diving in Iceland

Diving in Iceland

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.

Diving in Iceland*

Diving in Iceland

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!

Diving in IcelandPhoto on right courtesy of Scuba Iceland

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.

Diving in Iceland

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.

Silfra

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!

Silfra

Diving in Iceland

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!

Silfra

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!

Diving in Iceland*

Diving in Iceland

Diving in Iceland*

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.

Silfra

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.

Diving in Iceland*

Silfra

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.

Diving in Iceland

Silfra

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.

Diving in Iceland

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.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Diving in IcelandPhoto on right courtesy of Scuba Iceland

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.

Silfra

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.

Silfra

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.

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144 Comments...
  • Dad
    September 4 2012

    Well, you should feel hardcore about your diving skills. The picture of you post dive is the first time I have ever seen you look exhausted AND happy at the same time…..and the photos are wonderful.

    • Alex
      September 4 2012

      Ha, yes it is a rare combination indeed! I think a big part of that smile is that the divemaster just took some of my weights off!

  • Kelly
    September 4 2012

    Hi Alex,
    I started reading your blog about a year ago, and I’ve now read every single one of your posts. I check the site daily (yep.. while I’m at work!). I’m hoping to take a RTW trip in 6-7 years and your blog is a great inspiration. Yours is one of 3 travel blogs that I check regularly. I love reading all about your travels and adventures. Keep it up and stay safe!

    Best,
    Kelly

    • Alex
      September 4 2012

      Kelly thank you so much for this amazing comment…. you made my day! I’m so glad to hear I’ve been an inspiration, and I’m honored to be one of the 3 blogs you sneak at work (I used to do the same at school!) Keep dreaming and planning… and keep commenting too πŸ™‚

  • Alexa Hart
    September 4 2012

    The visibility is incredible! What a gorgeous place to dive. I recently got certified and would be too scared to do it anytime soon with the heavy suit and equipment and almost freezing water. So awesome that you pushed yourself and did it though – super hardcore! Truly unique experience.
    Alexa Hart recently posted..Makeover of Atlas Sliced Coming Soon

    • Alex
      September 4 2012

      Thanks Alexa! I would have been way too intimidated to do this when I first started out as well, so you might be surprised where you find yourself in a few years! πŸ™‚ Where did you get certified?

      • Alexa Hart
        September 5 2012

        I got certified in Coron, Philippines – lots of wreck diving! There is also a really cool lake that I wanted to dive but didn’t get to do it. It’s called Barracuda Lake, and it has a unique thermocline, where the lake feels like a jacuzzi.
        Alexa Hart recently posted..Makeover of Atlas Sliced Coming Soon

        • Alex
          September 5 2012

          Oooo, amazing! I’m strongly considering the Philippines for my Divemaster. From my research I have to warn you that I think it will be hard to find diving that compares to that!

  • Sam
    September 4 2012

    Yes! I’ve been waiting for this post! The photos are amazing and you look so damn cute all little and chubby x

    • Alex
      September 4 2012

      Haha I’m glad it delivered! Yeah I think I rock the face bloat pretty well… but I have to say I’m glad that’s not what I usually look like underwater!

  • Federico
    September 4 2012

    What a dive! So I assume the water was too cold for fish to live in it? Or to sweet?

    • Alex
      September 4 2012

      Well, there are fish that live in the lake that this ravine feeds into so I don’t think it’s too cold for them, maybe the water is just flowing in the wrong direction? Not totally sure on that one!

  • Julie
    September 4 2012

    I can’t get over the colors! Looks like an amazing dive, although 35F would make Lake George seem like a jacuzzi.
    Julie recently posted..Places I Would Rather be on Monday Morning: Forgotten Paris

    • Alex
      September 4 2012

      Ha, yes it would! I’ll never really complain about having to wear a 5mm wetsuit ever again after this…

  • Erica Forehand
    September 4 2012

    Those colors are insane! This makes me want to go diving – coming from a person who’s never been and is scared of practically everything πŸ™‚

    That’s so awesome you were able to keep going, even with 80lbs of gear and freezing temperatures!

    LOVE the self portraits btw πŸ™‚
    Erica Forehand recently posted..Key West: The Ending

    • Alex
      September 4 2012

      I knew those selfies would be a hit! πŸ™‚ Thanks for the kudos, it was well worth the effort!

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    September 4 2012

    Your photos really are magical, Alex! Although your descriptions of how icy cold the water was do give me pause, I know that if we make it to Iceland, I will have to try this for myself (at least snorkeling). The color of the water is out of this world… it must have truly felt like you were on another planet!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..The Time we Ate at the Japanese Cheesecake Factory

    • Alex
      September 4 2012

      This is definitely a site that would be (almost!) equally impressive as a snorkeler, since so much of it is actually quite shallow and the water is SO clear. Definitely contact Scuba Iceland when the time comes!

  • Ayngelina
    September 4 2012

    I just got my scuba certification and I can’t wait to use it. Iceland looks like the perfect place to start.
    Ayngelina recently posted..The Perfect Day in Portland

    • Alex
      September 4 2012

      Well, if you do start there… make sure you follow rapidly with somewhere warm and tropical in case the cold scares you off πŸ™‚ Where did you get certified?

  • Camels & Chocolate
    September 5 2012

    You are truly and utterly insane–and I love it. While these underwater landscapes are stunning, I don’t think I could take the heat–or rather, cold! I never even made it into the water in California, after all.
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..Enrichment Voyages Giveaway Winner!

    • Alex
      September 5 2012

      Is it weird that I like the idea of being known as the CRAY CRAY blogger? Because I really do. However, sometimes I think I do things just to have said I’ve done them. Luckily in this case it was totally worth it!

  • TammyOnTheMove
    September 5 2012

    I am petrified of diving, because I am scared of all kinds of fish and open water just freaks me out, but this seems really safe for a strange reason. I am not sure why, but maybe the knowledge that no fish could bite through all these layers. πŸ™‚ The photos are amazing by the way. Loving the colours. Maybe one day I will beat my inner fear and go for it as well.
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Finding my inner Indiana Jones

    • Alex
      September 5 2012

      I hope you do Tammy! And I know what you mean, something about being in the ravine is less psychologically traumatizing than being in open ocean, which was my big fear when I started out!

  • Juno
    September 5 2012

    Love it! Look at the colour… I didn’t go to scuba diving in Iceland but I would love to go back to do so someday. It was too rainy when I was there! πŸ™‚ Great pictures!

    • Alex
      September 5 2012

      Thanks Juno! We were definitely blessed with beautiful weather while we were there… we only had a few hours of rain the entire week!

  • Aparna
    September 5 2012

    WOW!! Loved the pics !
    Did you have to get trained formally to scuba dive?

    • Alex
      September 5 2012

      Thanks Aparna! You can do a “try dive” most places in the world that doesn’t require certification, but to really get into the sport you’ll have to do a 3-4 day Open Water Course with PADI or SSI or another certification agency.

  • Hannah
    September 5 2012

    What an incredible experience – I would love to do this. Your photos are amazing and you truly are hardcore πŸ™‚

    • Alex
      September 5 2012

      Aw, thanks Hannah!

  • Ashley
    September 5 2012

    This looks so amazing… scuba diving and Iceland had never occurred to me as a combination but it seems to be a great one! Iceland is definitely on my “to-travel list” and might I add I love your blog!!

    • Alex
      September 6 2012

      Thank you so much Ashley! I’m glad to hear from ya πŸ™‚

  • Raymond @ Man On The Lam
    September 6 2012

    Although it looks absolutely beautiful, I doubt I could handle the cold water for that long (and I’m from Newfoundland!)

    Good on you for tackling it though… πŸ™‚
    Raymond @ Man On The Lam recently posted..What to Expect on a Safari in Tanzania

    • Alex
      September 6 2012

      I kept telling myself I can do anything for an hour, and tonight I’ll be curled in a warm comfy bed…. it kind of worked πŸ™‚

  • Kent @ NVR
    September 6 2012

    Wow, as if Iceland isn’t incredible enough on land. I bet you feel hardcore!
    Kent @ NVR recently posted..Be Well

    • Alex
      September 6 2012

      Oh yes, definitely earned my badass scuba diver stripes now πŸ™‚

  • Ingvar RΓΊnar
    September 6 2012

    awesome blog. It was so much fun diving with you and amazing pictures πŸ™‚

    • Alex
      September 7 2012

      Thanks Ingvar! Oh, and thanks for being so patient with me and my slow walking!

  • Giselle and Cody
    September 6 2012

    Wow! Those photos are amazing! We didn’t even think about scuba diving in Iceland. Giselle plans on getting her diving certification here in Thailand, so we’ll have to put diving in Iceland on our bucket list!

    • Alex
      September 7 2012

      Oh, where in Thailand are you?! If you’re heading to Koh Tao, email me — I’ve got a million friends over there still! I was based out of there last year.

  • Giselle and Cody
    September 7 2012

    We are all over Thailand right now doing some work for Elephant Nature Park at the moment. We will be heading to Koh Tao at the end of November. So excited!!
    Giselle and Cody recently posted..CAPTURE THE COLOUR Photo Contest

    • Alex
      September 10 2012

      Nice! You’ll be catching the end of the monsoon season, so hopefully crowds are low and sun is shining! Check out Roctopus Dive, they are friends of mine and will take great care of you — just tell them Alex sent ya πŸ™‚

  • El Che
    September 7 2012

    Really interesting post and nice photos! I’m happy to find your blog.