Would you go north to within miles of the Arctic Circle just to dive in a wetsuit?
Our freediving correspondent MARCUS GREATWOOD thinks that after reading this you’ll answer yes. We’re not sure…
IN 2011, AFTER READING a short article about Icelandic scuba-diving, I decided to organise what turned out to be the first-ever freedive expedition to the island.
Eight of us travelled 66°N and explored what was then a destination off the tourist radar. Along with hikes up to bathe in hot springs and adventures in lava-tubes, we dived the Silfra rift – the crack between tectonic plates, full of glacial meltwater so clear that you can see for more than 100m, and so pure that you can drink it.
Surely this must be a site on any diver’s bucket-list?
Spin onto 2016, and 23 NoTanx Freedive Club members, inspired by our YouTube video from five years before, insist that there is a gap in our programme for a return trip.
The original eight places sell out in under an hour, so we arrange a further trip two weeks later.
Since our original trip, tourism in Iceland and freediving had both grown exponentially. Birgir Skulason started a freedive school in Reykjavik in 2012, revealing several exciting new dive-sites that the tourist industry was pleased to help us access.
On our drive from the airport to Little Silfra, locally known as Bjarnagjá, or Bear Crack, we check out the spectacular ice decorations in the Raufarholshellir lava-tube.
Our extreme-location freedive team have been working hard on their caving-skills for a couple of years, so these are easily accessed, and well worth a visit.
AS REMOTE AS ANYWHERE in southern Iceland, the short off-road drive to Mini Silfra is mercifully dry and leads us to some tiny, post-apocalyptic industrial units hidden away on the volcanic coast.
The rocky moonscape doesn’t seem the most likely location for an incredible dive-site, but turning the final hairpin bend reveals a sharp, deep gash in the ground filled with tranquil water.
Only 20m long and 2m wide, it lives up to its nickname “the world’s smallest dive-site” and it looks inviting. Kitting up excitedly, sheltered by a derelict building just 45 minutes’ drive from the international airport, we share the hot scoosh blagged from the airport coffee-shop earlier that day.
Any doubts evaporate as we drop into the vertigo-inducing water. The crystal clarity absorbs our senses. Nobody dives for several minutes as we take in the location’s beauty.
A hydrocline that had formed between the saline seawater and glacial meltwater hides ancient whalebones, discarded by the fishing industry and picked clean by shrimps over the decades. We’re eager to explore.
A tight horizontal shaft drops a little past 15m, giving way to an awe-inspiring central pit and the entrance to a swimthrough. The vertical exit is the highlight of the dive. As the sun shines directly into the 15m-deep shaft, the clarity of the water makes it feel like flying as positive buoyancy guides us gently to the surface.
We spend more than an hour exploring, the tight rift, revealing several of the megalithic bones for which the site is famous, as well as four or five amazing swim-throughs.
A decent flight and two adventures are quite enough for the first day, and we move north to spend an evening in a hot tub stargazing and watching the Northern Lights. Unfortunately nature gets the better of us, and the overcast evening denies us the sight of either.
The next is a perfect day to dive in Iceland, crisp and cold but with bright sunshine, and we’re off to experience classic hot and cold water.
Our first dive is in the centre of the Thingvellir National Park, an impressive location that was home to the original parliament of Iceland in 930.
Silfra is easily the most famous and popular dive-site in the country, a crack in the ground along the fault-line between the American and European tectonic plates. Its glacial meltwater wells up after a 30-mile underground journey that is reputed to take 100 years.
The best way to explain this dive is to quote Birgir Skulason – “Silfra is more beautiful than it is cold”. One of our number, Adam, adds the caveat “but not by much”.
OK, SILFRA IS COLD – 2°C above freezing means tough diving. Luckily we have come prepared with decent Elios freediving wetsuits and new socks and gloves, and hope to get 40 minutes in the water.
We arrive early to avoid the crowds of snorkellers, but there is a group of scuba try-divers there already – not sure that’s such a good idea for them!
Thingvellir National Park runs a tight ship when it comes to diving. The areas around the rift are roped off and the entrance has sturdy steel stairs – we’re not used to such luxuries.
The final dive allows us to investigate Kleifarvatn lake in the south – 95m deep, it is reputed to contain a giant man-eating worm. But we’re not there for depth or mythology, as we’re looking for volcanic hot vents, a unique geological wonder.
Sitting on the active mid-Atlantic ridge, the lake area changes every time volcanic activity occurs. All water enters and leaves through underground tunnels, which also change on a reasonably regular basis.
This dive is smelly – the sulphorous outpourings hit the back of your throat as soon as you leave the minibus. This doesn’t dampen our enthusiasm, and the dive continues out into the lake, following the tell-tale underwater sounds of bubbling and hissing.
At first there is nothing but streaked white soil on the lake-bed, but this is accompanied by bubbles and a milky-white texture to the water.
Eventually we find the vents, holes in the lake-bed from which super-hot water pours out. Of course, when the surrounding water is 1°C above freezing the discharged water cools pretty quickly.
The haze of the temperature difference is mesmerising. The cold and the smell (which even seems to penetrate mask rubber) quickly saps our energy, and as our dive-times decrease we decide to call it a day. What a trip!
Appeared in DIVER February 2017