With grey rain lashing against the windows, our little minibus pulled into a barren car park in the middle of the Icelandic countryside. Louis, our driver, pointed to a little hut in front of us: the only sign of life in the immediate vicinity.
“Ok, time to get you guys changed!”
At Louis’s instruction, I waded through puddles towards a wooden picnic table, strewn with various piles of clothes, shoes and diving gear, and joined the group of shivering limbs struggling to stuff themselves into layers of different appropriate materials.
First, a thermal vest tucked into thermal leggings tucked into heavy duty socks; second, a base layer suit made of something very thick and clingy, the insides of which were covered in talcum powder and zipped tight up to the neck; and third, a huge dry suit with attached rubber boots, covered in zippers in strange areas.
Basically, getting dressed took quite a while.
Phase one: getting to know the facts and figures
The reason for such extensive suiting and booting was to prepare for a snorkelling experience like no other. The Silfra rift, located in a lake in Thingvellir National Park, is a natural phenomenon and world class diving site, due to its insanely clear blue fresh water: a product of melted water from the Lángjökull glacier about 50km away, which has filtered naturally through the porous lava rock.
The water temperature is a cool 2°C – 4°C the whole year round, and visibility is one of the highest in the world (hence why the divers love it); rated at 150 to 300 metres, it’s literally ‘as far as the eye can see’.
Although seeing as I have significantly bad eyesight and don’t own contact lenses, it could have been a lot less of a distance and still impressed me.
The rift itself is the product of a natural split between the American and Eurasian continental plates, and in certain places you can reach out and touch both continental plates at the same time. It’s a bit of an overwhelming feeling when you realise just what you’re paddling in the middle of!
But from up above the surface, it doesn’t really look like much. In fact, for a casual onlooker, our snorkelling session would have seemed downright bizarre.
Phase two: snorkelling preparations
After the Dive team had fimly encased our hands and heads in breathable rubber gloves and hoods (I resembled some kind of seal pup), we stumbled up a rocky path, trying not to drop various flippers and snorkel masks, and then enjoyed a lengthy period of attempting to put flippers on each others feet and simultaneously not fall over in the mud.
My feet, by this point, were getting pretty chilly, and I was starting to regret wearing only one pair of thick socks.
Phase three: getting in the water
When we finally took to the metal stairs and entered the water, my previous worries about whether the drysuit was actually going to do its job were thankfully put to rest.
Not only was I completely dry, but the suit flattened around me as the pressure of the water pushed against it. I felt a bit like I was being vacuum packed. The compressed air inside my suit then kept me lovely and buoyant as I floated out into the water. It was like being at the Dead Sea all over again!
And then it was time to actually start snorkelling. Face down in freezing water, teeth clenched on plastic, feet flailing in their flippers – and the sudden realisation that there was an interminable depth of water and rock below us, and all of it was absolutely crystal clear.
Phase four: “hang on, where am I?!”
I don’t think I’d properly thought about what I’d see at Silfra. I knew the water was blue; I knew the visibility was great.
What I hadn’t reckoned with was how beautiful a single piece of floating algae would be in this environment. How delicately the sand on the rocks would shift and move. How ethereal the strands of green plant life would look in the blue glow of Silfra’s water.
If voices were audible underwater the rest of my group would have been very irritated by my constant gasps and exclamations. As it was, the breathing tube of my snorkel got an earful.
At the infrequent moments when I thought to raise my head, I noticed that it was raining in the world above. And as I watched the rain fall, I realised that it didn’t just become part of the water; rather, the rain settled into tiny orbs on the surface, and stayed there, glistening, for seconds at a time.
Snorkelling the Silfra rift was, quite simply, out of this world. Plus the current in the water (due to the constant influx of melting glacier) made it ridiculously easy to make our way around the rift. It was a bit like being in the world’s most bizarre waterpark ride.
But my favourite part of the whole experience was taking off my snorkel and gulping mouthfuls of the deliciously chilled fresh water. I once did a taste-test of bottled water in San Diego (long story) and I can absolutely guarantee that the water in Silfra is the best tasting water I have ever had the pleasure of sampling.
After an amazing time in the water, the bus journey back to Reykjavik was a quiet one. I mustered up the energy to make some quick notes about the experience but soon I was falling asleep like everyone else. Who would’ve thought that ten minutes of snorkelling could be so tiring?!
Top tips for snorkelling in the freezing cold
- Make sure you eat a good breakfast. The pick up time for snorkelling is pretty early in the morning, and if you’re anything like me you find it a daunting task to ingest anything other than coffee and some toast at breakfast. Do it anyway. If you’ve eaten a hearty amount you’re much more likely to stay warm in the freezing water.
- Accept the fact that you’re going to be cold. Most of your body is in a drysuit, but for easy manoeuvrability your head and hands are covered by wetsuit material and there’s no stopping them getting wet. You can try and offset the chills in those parts of your body by wearing as many pairs of socks as you deem necessary, good thick leggings and a long sleeved thermal top.
- That said, if you think you’re getting colder than you should be, tell someone. The snorkellers only do one session in the water but the PADI-certified divers go in twice, and one girl on our trip had unfortunately not tightened the dry suit around her neck enough, causing a bit of water to get in her suit. Her freezing cold skin was going a worrying shade of purple while they prepared for their next dive – not the greatest thing! Make sure the professional divers check your suit for any possible leaks or problems once it’s on your body.
- If your fingers start to freeze, resist the impulse to move them around. I spent the first ten minutes of the session surreptitiously clenching and unclenching my freezing fingers to absolutely no avail. Eventually, when another girl raised her head and plaintively moaned that her fingers were in so much pain they were about to drop off, I discovered the secret. Just let your hands go. The less you allow the water to move around your hands, the better. Once I learned to keep my fingers straight and still within their gloves, they stopped hurting pretty quickly, and eventually I was able to forget all about them and concentrate on the gorgeous sights around me instead.
- You don’t have to take a waterproof camera – but you might be glad you did. Dive gave me the copies of the photos taken on the trip and they were gorgeous (as you can see!) but my self-indulgent side would have enjoyed a few more self-portrait candids.
- If you’re sensible, you’ll bring some extra food with you – a chocolate bar, some biscuits or that half a sandwich you didn’t finish eating on the bus ride over from Reykjavik. I’d underestimated how hungry I would be after my snorkelling experience, and even after gratefully accepting the hot chocolate and biscuits that the Dive guys doled out post-snorkel, my extra few bites of sandwich made me very happy.
- Because the temperature at Silfra is so cold, it’s not recommended to stay more than about 45 minutes in the water. In fact, our snorkelling session lasted a maximum of 25 minutes before we got too frozen and made a break for it! So make the most of your time in the water; turn your head as much as possible and look at every little thing you can. Snorkelling at the Silfra rift is one of those experiences that stays with you forever. So make the most of it!
Many thanks to Dive Iceland hosting me on their Silfra snorkelling tour. Special thanks also to Hossi from the Dive team, who recovered my lost notebook in the bus and posted it the whole way back to London for me!