Everything You Need To Know About Snorkeling in Silfra
Perfect freedom. I am weightless and virtually motionless. The world has slowed down, I am floating effortlessly as the gentle current, that I can barely feel, is taking me along. Freed from gravity, unable to communicate, I am forced to observe without reacting. I am just passively admiring images which are unimaginable: the Earth opens and a dark crevasse yawns in the depths beneath me. In my drysuit, that is filled with air, I am floating safely along, right inside the space between North America and Eurasia.
It is like being in another state of consciousness. The colors, the sounds, the thoughts, and the feelings are more intense and deeper. A minute ago, I was a little bit all over the place, worrying about being outside of my comfort zone. Suddenly, when I put my face into the water and the blue underworld unfolds beneath me, nothing exists but the magnificent Here and Now.
Why is Iceland’s Silfra so Special?
Anyone with any diving or snorkeling experience can tell you that the weightlessness and the ultimate peace of the underwater world can be experienced in any waters. It is the unique geological and hydrological characteristics which make Silfra so special.
The island of Iceland resulted from a massive and violent movement between two enormous tectonic plates that have been drifting apart continuously and unstoppably, forming the island’s landscapes over the last 18 million years.
Silfra is a newly opened rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The fissure appeared after a major earthquake in 1789, this was followed by greater and lesser earthquakes. The plates have continued to move farther apart by about 2 cm (0.79 in) every year.
Iceland is the only place in the world where you can dive or snorkel between two continental plates.
If this isn’t reason enough to visit, nature has provided another powerful argument: Silfra is also famous for having the clearest fresh water with the longest underwater visibility on the planet. Divers from all over the world come to Iceland to cross this matchless experience off their bucket lists.
On top of all this, the best thing in Silfra is that it is very easily accessible for anyone. You don’t have to sail out or dive deep into dangerous underwater caves. You don’t even have to have a diving or snorkeling background to be able to try it. You just have to be healthy, adventurous and know how to swim.
Why is the Water so Clear in Silfra?
The cooler the water the clearer it is. The water temperature at Silfra is constantly between 2 and 4C (35 to 39 F), making it too cold for most creatures to live there. However, this is not the main reason for its crystal clarity.
Silfra’s water comes from beneath the ground. The meltwater from Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest glacier, takes 30 to 100 years to travel 50 kilometers (31 miles) through the lava field, which is the finest natural filtration method on the planet. Quite simply this water is incredibly pure before it flows into the fissure. The force of this natural spring is strong enough to create a gentle current, so the water is not static, ensuring it never becomes dirty.
This gentle flow is very helpful to snorkelers as well. You can just rest on the water and it will guide you along the fissure. This makes the experience so easy and effortless, like sitting back on a comfortable couch and watching an amazing show.
The current has another advantage, the constant flow of freshwater feeding into Silfra keeps the temperature at a stable 2 to 4C (35 to 39F), because the water is in motion all of the time, it is never able to freeze. Diving and snorkeling are possible at Silfra throughout the year.
Is the Water in Silfra Really the Clearest in the World?
Why is the visibility so important? Many people ask this question. It is the clarity of the water that gives you the feeling of flying: the water in Silfra is almost as clear as the air, so you don’t need much imagination to experience the feeling of flying.
Visibility in other popular diving sites around the world mostly ranges between 10 and 30 meters (32 to 98 ft). Places with 30 to 45 meters of visibility have been ranked within the best underwater visibility in the world category.
Silfra in Iceland is still a lesser-known secret, but it is getting more and more popular with divers. Exceeding 100 meters (328 ft) in visibility, it is no doubt the best diving and snorkeling place in the world! Moreover, some sources emphasise that the length of fissure is not great enough to test the outer edges of the visibility here.
Is It Scary to Snorkel in Freezing Cold Water?
Without a doubt, the water in Silfra is extremely cold. Don’t even think about trying to swim there without all the proper gear!
Cold water breeds some of the most unique underwater environments on the planet. Curious divers have always been keen to explore these places. Thankfully, technology has advanced tremendously throughout the long evolution of diving. Submersion in, what were previously considered to be hostile environments, is no longer a rare thing, in fact, this doesn’t even count as ‘extreme’ anymore!
Thick, durable drysuits made from special materials really help to keep the water out. They are designed to resist freezing and to keep your body’s core temperatures at near summertime levels. Under your drysuit you will wear your own, long-sleeved undershirt, long johns (long pants) and socks, these also increase your thermal insulation and comfort. If you are planning to snorkel or dive in Silfra, your tour operator will provide the right gear, you just need to come with the right undergarments.
How Does It Feel to Snorkel in a Drysuit?
When I snorkeled in Silfra, I had never snorkeled, nor dived before, so my first time ever was in freezing cold water! I thought I was about to do something which was very extreme, but it turned out to be incredibly simple and easy.
The drysuit was heavy and it felt awkward, like a soaking wet spacesuit, when I was out of the water. I definitely would not want to go for a long walk wearing it! The mask cut off a little of my peripheral vision and breathing through the pipe felt a bit weird for a minute. But all of the unpleasantness completely disappeared the very moment I put my face into the water, I was just so enthralled by the beauty beneath me.
When I placed my whole body into the water, I was immediately thrown back up to the surface. Since my drysuit was filled with air, I could not have submerged even if I had wanted to. After a few minutes, I felt acclimated in my gear.
Then I realized that the current was gently moving me forwards, just a few centimeters every second, so the only thing I had to do was just to lay there, totally calm, and enjoy the underwater show. Okay, a little swimming was needed to turn and move around here and there, for example, when I wanted to see something up close.
The parts of my body which were covered by the drysuit were not cold, just the few places where my skin was in direct contact with the water. For instance, my thumbs, in the wet neoprene gloves, and my mouth were completely numb at the end. It felt like when I had been skiing or hiking in winter and my face became numb in the freezing cold wind. It is certainly not something to be concerned about, it isn´t dangerous, just a little uncomfortable.
What is a Snorkeling Tour Like?
There are plenty of opportunities. If you want to drive yourself, you just need to show up at the meeting point on time. You can be picked up from Reykjavík or even combine snorkeling with other tours in one package, you will then be taken care of before and after the tour.
Before you go to Silfra, make sure you are wearing, or have with you, good long thermal underwear and thick socks. You will need to wear these under the drysuit.
I chose the self drive tour and met the guides and my few fellow snorkelers at the location. The guides gave us interesting and detailed information about Silfra, its geology, the gear and the tour itself. We were given training in how to use the gear properly, and also told, step by step, what would happen, this immediately made me feel very safe and confident that I was in good and experienced hands.
We were helped to gear up properly and they continued explaining everything until the moment we reached the water. We were then separated into two small groups of around 6 people, the two groups then went into the water separately, so they wouldn’t disturb each other.
In the water, I constantly felt the guide’s eyes on me. He was swimming around us silently, taking pictures, and we always knew he was there for us if, for any reason, we needed him. We spent about 40 minutes in the water. The first few minutes were incredibly exciting, I felt very safe and relaxed the entire time.
What Does Silfra Fissure Look like Under the Water?
Under the surface, there is the rough but awe-inspiring wonderland of the bare rock, the blue shades of the crystal clear water, and the bottomless crack below, which reaches down into almost invisible depths.
From the point where you enter the pool, you need to gently swim the 120-meter length of the narrow Big Crack. This section contains both the deepest and the shallowest areas, the greatest depth is 42 meters, and the shallowest point has a depth of half a meter.
This is also where the “Big Crack” is at its narrowest, so this is the part of Silfra where you are literally able to touch both sides of the rock at once.
In summer, vibrant green algae thrive on the rock in the shallow area, giving this seemingly hostile, freezing cold and rocky underworld very vivid scenery and a tropical atmosphere. If you have good eyesight, you will see plenty of tiny fish and critters. Although, these creatures are very shy, so they scoot back into their hiding places the moment you swim by.
The Big Crack leads to a place called Silfra Hall. This is where the fissure broadens out and opens up to 8 meters in width and 14 meters in depth, with giant boulders laying on the bottom.
As you continue, the next section in Silfra fissure is called the Cathedral. This place will truly blow your mind! Walls 100 meters long and 20 meters deep actually rise some 30 centimeters above the surface of the water. If it bears comparison to anything, this majestic section can be compared to the monumental, ancient ruins left by a long-gone civilization. Thanks to the incredible visibility, it is possible to see all the way to the far end, over 100 meters, this is the longest recorded natural underwater visibility anywhere in the world.
After the Cathedral, you’ll swim past a small island to the left before entering a picturesque lagoon, the average depth here is 5 meters. The bottom of the lagoon consists of super-fine sand, in the summer there is also plenty of surreal neon green algae. Snorkelers have the opportunity to enjoy a supervised swim around before they exit the water. After you head back and get changed you can warm up with a steaming hot chocolate.
I have traveled halfway around the globe and witnessed so many natural wonders. However, snorkeling in Silfra has to be one of the very best experiences I have had on my travels.
What to See Around Silfra Once You Are There
The other best thing in Silfra is that it is situated in one of the most exciting parts of Iceland, surrounded by wondrous, fairytale landscapes, endless hiking trails, hot springs and geysers, and some of the most beautiful waterfalls on the planet.
Þingvellir National Park
Silfra is within the heart of Iceland’s very first national park, the Þingvellir National Park, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Þingvellir is of extraordinary historical, cultural, and geological value.
The whole park lies in a rift valley that is part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, this rift stretches an astonishing 16,000 km. Silfra is one of many fissures which have formed along this ridge between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates. Quite a few enormous chasms can be seen in the area, and it is also possible to walk between the tectonic plates.
Þingvellir was also the location of the very first democratic parliament in the world. Alþingi, the parliament of the Icelandic Commonwealth was founded here in the year 930, its annual sessions were held at Þingvellir throughout the centuries with just a 45 years break, before modern times when the Alþing was relocated in Reykjavík.
The Golden Circle
As for the even bigger picture, Þingvellir is only one of the many treasures on the famous Golden Circle Route in South-West Iceland. This very popular name refers to Iceland’s most frequently visited sightseeing route. The Golden Circle features the top must-see places that are located just a few hours driving distance from Reykjavík. The main stops along the Golden Circle are Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall.
The Geysir and Gullfoss are located an hour’s drive from Þingvellir, just a 10-minute drive from one another.
The geothermal area at Geysir is one of the places in Iceland where evidence of intense underground volcanic activity can be clearly seen. Boiling streams and puddles, steaming mud, and the fascinating erupting geyser, Strokkur, with eruptions every 5 to 10 minutes, this geyser never fails to enchant the visitors!
Gullfoss, ‘the Golden Fall’, is one of the main attractions on the Golden Circle and, also, one of the most spectacular and powerful waterfalls in Iceland. The falls drop down two sets of stairs from an overall height of 32 meters (105 ft). In good weather, beautiful rainbows appear above these falls and the magnificent Langjökull ice cap dominates the background, making this sight even more precious and unforgettable.
The Golden Circle Route has far more than three attractions. This area is packed full of hidden treasures, each one offers you a matchless opportunity to experience something truly unique.
- For example, The Secret Lagoon is a natural geothermal lake where you can bathe in the middle of Icelandic nature. There is even a tiny geyser, which erupts every few minutes, just a few meters away.
- You can ride in a Super Jeep or a snowmobile onto the glacier and even visit a natural ice cave in the winter season, or a man-made ice tunnel inside the glacier all year round.
- There are adorable farms where you can taste the freshest local food, homemade ice cream, and the world famous Icelandic skyr.
With all of these wonders – honestly, who wouldn’t want to visit Iceland?
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