Thanks to the development of new technology designed to tackle the problems of frigid water and severe weather, Iceland’s waters have become the new frontier in diving and a revolution is happening meters under the surface.
Underwater explorers have travelled the world for decades, building a legacy of adventure and romance. But until now, Iceland has been left all but untouched. According to Tobias Klose, owner of the Reykjavik based dive company Dive.is, today cold-water recreational diving is becoming a trend but diving here is more than fish-gazing and underwater tourism. Commercial divers have been in high demand for years and the scientific community is starting to turn their eyes toward the icy waters of this once forgotten area.
Jeff Timm, a diving guide at Diving.is, took me to Þingvellir National Park to give me a taste of dry-suit diving at Silfra, considered by many well-respected divers to be one of the top five sites in the world. With a visibility that is unrivalled—on a good day a diver can see over 100 meters— and deep canyons created by the divide in the American and Eurasian continental plates, diving here feels like an epic adventure even if you’re just going down a few meters.
The dive gear takes about 20 minutes to put on. Silfra water is cold and protecting every part of your body becomes paramount if you’re going in. Getting suited up is a cumbersome process, starting with a full-body thermal layer and completed by a heavy neoprene dry suit. Aside from the oxygen, this is probably the most important tool for diving in the icy waters.
Once I’m adequately waterproofed, I put on a snug neoprene dive hood, gloves and a mask before I am loaded up with weights, an oxygen tank and flippers. I have to say that even though everyone in full dive gear looks a little ridiculous, it still feels pretty bad-ass. All I need is a gun strapped to my hip and a 1970s spy theme playing in the background.
Cold is not quite the right word to describe Silfra. My lips instantly become numb; they are only thing exposed to the true temperature of the 3°C water. I breathe softly, pulling air from my regulator and head down below. It’s certainly no dip in a tropical sea; there’s a constricting feeling of the freezing water pushing in on me but that goes away after a bit and I’m left to experience what divers in this area have been feeling for the past two decades: an overwhelming sense of amazement.
While recreational diving is a growing industry in Iceland, commercial and scientific diving has an exciting, if not long, tradition. Divers like Erlendur Bogason and Omar Haflidason, who have been diving for over ten and twenty years respectively, know that Iceland’s waters are ripe for discovery.
While the rough waters surrounding the island will tear apart most sunken vessels within two or three winters, there are still protected fjords where lost ships are preserved and these wrecks are just waiting to be found. “In Iceland there are a lot of undiscovered things,” says Erlendur, a scientific research diver. “One year we found three wrecks in one week.”
The secrets to aquatic treasures like sunken ships are found on land as often as they are underwater. As a boy, Omar heard stories of farmers in the West Fjords who looked out past the shore and saw dozens of men walking across the frozen sheets of ice toward land, leaving their ship, deeply embedded the frozen sea, to sink to the bottom of the ocean. For a long time he wrote off the tales as rumour but when he found the story written in a book of 17th century Icelandic sagas, the details of a sunken British ship were so well documented that he thought there might be something to it after all.
Years later, as a commercial diver, Omar and a few friends set out to find the lost ship. “At first, nobody believed that we would find anything,” he said. “We had the stories with us. The eyewitness accounts were well described and we had good landmarks—in a way it was like a treasure map.” Using the clues from the saga, they pinpointed the location and sent down an underwater sonar device to see what they could find. The trip was worth the effort as the sonar reported back abnormal echoes that indicated the existence of foreign objects on the ocean’s floor.
After their hunch was confirmed, Omar and his team took on several dives over the course of a few years, pulling up wood planks that established the ship’s age— over three hundred years old—and later, using a metal detector, they found three cannons.
Omar and his team had solved the mystery of the saga. “It’s not often that a commercial diver gets to be part of an adventure like this,” he says. “And when we do it’s very exciting.”
Omar isn’t the only diver to follow the clues from the past to interesting dive sites. On a trip to the northeast coast, Erlendur ran into an old man who claimed to have seen two British trawlers sink in the harbour near his farm in 1933. The farmer said that all of the men survived the shipwrecks but were plagued with disease and had to be quarantined to the small farm for over 30 days. Erlendur loaded up his gear and found the sunken trawlers within an hour. In doing so, he unravelled a rich strand of history that would otherwise have been forgotten.
I end my dive less eventfully than these divers, but I am still satisfied with the otherworldly feeling of going just a few meters below the surface. It strikes me that the history of Iceland is so pervasive that it’s nearly tangible; it leaves me wondering what else might be waiting to be found.
Erlendur Bogason is a scientific diver who is most famous for discovering Strýtan, the world’s only geothermic chimney that can be reached by a scuba diver. Below is a list of his top five dive sites in Iceland.
Lónafjörður located in northeast Iceland.
Some 10–15 years ago I was working as a diver in Þórshöfn and the local fishermen showed me a big steam of cod. Every year the cod comes to the same spots to spawn. Since then I have dived there every year to study the cod spawning behaviour and also how the cod behave around fishing gear, especially hooks.
The hot water submarine cones in Eyjafjörður
In 1997, we discovered the giant 50m high cone in Eyjafjörður. It rises from the seafloor at 70m depth up to 15m depth under the seafloor. The fresh water that comes out of the cone is 73.6°c. This was the first underwater area in Iceland to be protected by law.
Icelandic fresh water rivers
When you dive under the surface of a clear Icelandic river you will discover colours and fish you don’t expect and diving under a big waterfall is an indescribable experience.
The Skútan Standard in the harbour of Akureyri
The 60m long and 11m wide ship was discovered by me and two other divers in 1997.
Surtsey and Heimaey
I dived here with Karl Gunnarsson, a seaweed biologist. We were studying how life begins at the floor of the new island. This is special for me because I was born in the Westmann Islands and the eruptions of Surtsey started in 1963 – the same year as I was born.