I hail from a surfers’ paradise in the Caribbean, where the ocean gets rowdy and unpredictable with undertows and strong currents. The most dangerous beaches all have warning signs, which do not prevent tourists from splashing in the seemingly calm waters only to require rescue or, even worse, resulting in drowning.
From this personal experience, when I learned of the couple who nearly drowned in Dyrhólaey and of the subsequent controversy about whether a warning sign should be erected, I sided with the Environmental Agency of Iceland. It announced that warnings can be risky because tourists then assume that any place without a sign is safe. It also creates a slippery slope. Once you put one sign up, more will follow and then when will it stop?
As a tourist, you have to be aware that the sublime and pristine nature of Iceland is also volatile and unforgiving. It deserves respect, whether that be not standing so close to the shore or not entering an ice cave in the summer months when the ice is melting. The weather here is extremely erratic, especially in the highlands. It can change within a few minutes and drastically at that.
I experienced this first hand while I was hiking along the stark desert landscape adjacent to the Dyngjufjöll Mountains. A windstorm of mammoth proportions sprung out of nowhere. I was being pelted by tiny rocks with gusts of winds so strong that it felt like I was being shot at with bb guns. The wind swayed me like a paper doll and I had to crawl to get to the car. Once I got to the mountain hut, the ranger in charge told me in what direction I needed to park my car in order for it not to flip over like a Tonka toy.
If you are embarking on a trip that stares Mother Nature in the eyes, it will be remarkable but you may be at jeopardy. This is true in any country. If Iceland were to put a warning sign in places that are deemed perilous, most of the country could be dotted with the word ‘danger’. Tourists have perished on the hike from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk due to sudden changes in weather, does that deserve a sign? Blue solid chunks of ice have collapsed from an ice cave killing an adventurous tourist. Should there be a sign by the many ice caves tourists visit each year? The foul-mouthed British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey recently recounted his near-death experience after falling off a cliff trying to catch puffins in the Westman Islands. Should all cliffs where tourists perch on its ledges to capture a close-up of a puffin have a warning sign?
I say no.