Guide Who Witnessed Death At Reynisfjara Speaks Out: "We Need Boots On The Ground"

Guide Who Witnessed Death At Reynisfjara Speaks Out: “We Need Boots On The Ground”

Published November 11, 2021

Photo by
David Kelley

David Kelley, a tour guide who was working yesterday for Hidden Iceland when tragedy struck at Reynisfjara beach in South Iceland, spoke very candidly with the Grapevine about what it’s like for a guide taking tour groups to the location, the challenges they face, and what steps need to be taken to prevent tragedies such as yesterday’s death from happening again.

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As reported, a group of tourists near the cave at the eastern portion of the beach were hit by several so-called sneaker waves, i.e., waves of sudden and unexpected strength and intensity, yesterday afternoon. One of them was swept out to sea, and was later found dead by rescuers.

David estimates that there were some 150 people at the beach at the time, with some 15 to 20 near the far corner where the waves struck. He reviewed for us what his standard protocol is when taking tour groups to Reynisfjara.

“Once people are off the bus, as a guide, I always go down there,” David told the Grapevine. “I’m there the whole time. I go down ahead. My standard thing is I tell them how dangerous it is, and I tell people that where the waves are finishing on the beach, you give it at least 10 metres. You don’t go any closer and you always, always keep an eye on the ocean. I tell them that I will be there, and I don’t expect them to go any further than I say. I’ll tell them that they will see people doing really crazy stuff; playing chicken with the ocean, thinking it’s fun. You are not sheep. Use your brain, use your instinct, and listen to my words. To this day, I’ve had a few people get wet feet and that’s it, and I’ve been taking people there for over 15 years.”

While he says that this is common practice for experienced guides, there are limitations to just how much power they have over their groups.

“The problem with being a guide is, I have no authority,” he said. “After the last big incident, we’d be down there, screaming at people to get away from the ocean. Some people listen to us, but then there’s some people who will confront us and say ‘What are you, police?’ They’ll be swearing at us, telling us to f*ck off and all this.”

David has been disappointed with some of the rhetoric that has arisen about tourists in Iceland in the wake of this incident, pointing out that even Icelanders are not exempt from exercising poor judgement.

“Iceland earns a lot of money off tourism. I personally think that at these key places, you need more people interacting with the public, and you need specialists trained in how to manage large groups of people coming into a potentially dangerous situation. People with the authority to act.”

“Calling these tourists stupid and dumb is not useful right now,” he tells us. “There’s some supposedly very clever people who take no notice of the signs. They think they’re for others. Icelanders are a perfect example of that. We have the advantage of growing up here and having an instinct for this. Many people don’t. I’ve thought about this long and hard for many years. The police will be there for a week or two after a serious incident and tell people not to go near the ocean, but then you’ll see both those police take their coffee break at the same time at the restaurant at Reynisfjara. So you’ve got half an hour where nobody’s down there.”

In order to prevent further tragedies, David believes that the government must get involved. Indeed, there have been four fatal accidents at Reynisfjara in the past ten years, and many more close calls.

“What we need, in my opinion, is boots on the ground,” he says. “Iceland earns a lot of money off tourism. I personally think that at these key places, you need more people interacting with the public, and you need specialists trained in how to manage large groups of people coming into a potentially dangerous situation. People with the authority to act. I think you’d need two people at any one time, down there throughout the day, particularly through the hours of daylight.”

He added: “Putting a string out there or fencing is not going to work. If there’s nobody there, people are going to go under the barrier. You need physical interaction between trained people and the crowds that go there.”

David does not believe the beach itself should be shut down. Rather, everyone should be able to enjoy it, but the Icelandic authorities need to step up.

“That beach is such an awesome place,” David says. “It’s not the ocean’s fault, it’s not the beach’s fault, I don’t blame those that got in trouble and I don’t blame their guides. It’s a combination of lots of things coming together before a disaster happens. It’s such a beautiful, amazing place. It just needs to be managed. If you manage it, it’s down close to zero danger. Our Icelandic system is failing to get across to these people. All these rescue workers on the scene after this happened. Wouldn’t it be better to have five fully-trained people there who know how to manage that beach? And at any one time, always have two people there.”

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