Diving Iceland

50528 117Pangs of nausea suddenly hit me as I realised that it had been a while since high school math. I had been quite pleased with my discovery of a cheap excursion relative to the baseline $100 to see a puffin, irritate a whale or stare at some geologic anomaly. With my rudimentary arithmetic I quickly converted the 24 000 Icelandic krona to the equivalent of $35. I was wrong and I had just noticed the mistake. I was standing at the tourist information in Reykjavik, having just paid $350 for a two tank dive. Inside I was laughing – hilarious... I wanted to vomit. This had better be good diving was my only thought. By Fiona McIntosh and Evan

Iceland had always conjured up some misplaced romantic appeal... abandoned in the Arctic, a blackened island filled with volcanoes, glaciers, geothermal pools nestled in lava fields, an insane Scandinavian party circuit, the rare opportunity to eat grilled Puffin. One has to admit that it is a strangely unique place. The prospect of diving the island simply lent to the appeal. The dive site is that of Silfra, in the unpronounceable Thingvellir National Park. A little background is necessary to understand why this site may be slightly different from any other on the planet.

50528 124Iceland has the dubious honour of sitting on the mid-Atlantic ridge, constantly being torn apart at an incredible 2cm per year as the two tectonic plates, home to the continental masses of Eurasia and America respectively, battle each other. Ignoring for a second that my knowledge of the fundamentals of geology are probably second only to that of my math, this translates to the constant rupture and healing of a terrestrial fissure, passing through Iceland's western pensinsula."Who cares?" would be my knee-jerk response. However, land-based tourists arrive at the World Heritage site everyday (probably less in number during the two months of perpetual winter darkness) simply to marvel not only at this geologic spectacle but at the incredible landscape.. .a glacial lake dotted with islands, a horizon littered with dormant volcanoes, glaciers and lava fields, and of course, evidence of the plate activity as fissures carve their way up the mountainside. Bearing in mind that the geological activity is not merely limited to the landscape, but rather extends underwater, this should pique a little more interest from the diving community. The prospect of venturing between the continental plates of Eurasia and America (poetic license now tending towards scientific sacrilege) was enticing.

The pick-up and transfer to the dive site had been smooth and professional (although I was still trying to justify the cost). We picked up another diver, a British tourist, irked by the fact that one could probably fund a dive trip to South East Asia for the price of a weekend in Reykjavik, together with an Icelandic yoghurt and a banana (I should qualify the latter as my own, and to their credit, it was a very nice banana). Thingvellir is a comfortable 40 minute drive from Reykjavik. The weather was perfect... a rare cloudless blue sky and a hellish 10ºC outside.

It was at the dive site that we met Hedinn Olafsson, instructor and owner of Dive Iceland. A comprehensive briefing detailed the plan for the two dives. We subsequently kitted up in immaculate Poseidan crushed neoprene drysuits, 7mm gloves and hoodies, and top of the range coldwater dive-gear. Have I mentioned that the water temperature hovers between a refreshing 1-4ºC? Entry was off a fixed metal platform overlooking the fissure. Even from the surface one can appreciate the crystal-clear water – being glacial in origin, the viz is constant and never falters below an incredible 50-100m! It is truly perfect.

50528 005Descending the ladder, filled with excitement and trepidation, we entered the underwater canyon. The first emotion was intense pain as an ‘ice-cream headache’ threatened to implode my skull. 4ºC water for those complaining about 19ºC at Sodwana (reminiscing back to my previous weekend) is very cold (‘very’ can be more aptly substituted by your expletive of choice). Fortunately, the pain settled down to a low-grade grumble.

The canyon is truly spectacular... framed in it's entirety by immaculate visibility, you really gain the sense of flying through the rock falls with a gentle current helping you along. The depth was set at a comfortable 10-15m... no real need to test the 70m+ depth. I'm still uncertain as to what extent this marvel has really been fully explored; gazing down one can see stone bridges and swim-throughs snaking their way through the chasm.

Negotiating some of the shallow rockfalls we descended again to a surreal sand steppe, guarded by the sheer walls of the canyon. A simple detour brought us to Hedinn's ‘Blue Lagoon (alluding to the contrasting milky blue waters of the designer geothermal spa near Keflavik International Airport), a pool of water only experience can describe. Of course, by this point in the dive, my hands were so cold it felt like some one had deep-frozen the digits and was now gnawing away at them. Sorry, I'll get back to the graphic depiction of beauty and natural wonder now... Within the floor of the pool, one could see evidence of the constant geological activity as new cracks and fissures are forming. Hedinn maintains that these cracks have increased in size since he started diving Silfra. The viz in the pool is even better than that of the canyon.

After 31 minutes I surfaced, greeted by glaciers and a volcanic ice mound with snow on the horizon. I bobbed clumsily on my back while attempting to dispense with my fins using popsicles as instrumentation. Thus began the hike back to the vehicle. I could only smile. No, really, I could only smile as my face had adopted this disturbing, fixed-frozen clown-face.  

After an hour surface interval spent discussing Icelandic adventure options, a seemingly endless list of extreme activities, we returned to the same entry point for our second dive. This would, however, be different, having now acclimatised to the frigid water. Initially following a similar path to that of the first dive, the road less travelled soon diverged, and we found ourselves traversing tunnels and swim-throughs, snaking into some of the collapsed rockfalls within the chasm. Emerging after 28 minutes, I have to say that I was not done – it was fantastic – the rockfalls have created a near-labyrinth. In contrast to many other dive sites, one is unrestricted in one's view of the spectacular surrounds.

The experience was certainly unforgettable, and one which I will repeat in a heartbeat. The dive site, boasted by Hedinn to be one of the world's greats, really lives up to it's fabled reputation. My only regret is not having stayed longer to take in the many wonders of this strange island. For more information, visit www.diveiceland.com

Author: Fiona McIntosh