Fifty kilometres north of Iceland’s Þingvellir National Park, a drop of water melts from the glacier Lángjökull, liberated from the 1,000-year-old frozen mass. The drop falls into porous, volcanic rock where it spends 30 to 100 years being filtered through the ground until it emerges into the cracks and fissures that skirt Þingvellir lake. By the time it reaches these fissures and this lake, it is some of the most pristine water in the world.
The most notable fissure to be found along Þingvellir lake is the Silfra fissure, a rift in the earth’s crust between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. When you step into the near-freezing water of the Silfra fissure as a diver or snorkeler, you are literally stepping between two continents. This is a dark, cold and spectacular place.
The difference between a national park in Iceland and the rest of rural Iceland is subtle. When the van toting a group of five middle-age Danish women and I arrived at Þingvellir, I hadn’t actually realised that we’d entered a national park. It was winter, the sky was grey and the water reflected it. The landscape around the lake is sparse and volcanic, surrounded by distant snow-topped mountains and plateaus. It’s otherworldly in the way that the Icelandic landscape demands you acknowledge something in its nothingness.
There are things that sound more appealing on a winter’s morning in Iceland than jumping into water that is 2°C. We stayed in the heated van for as long as possible, took instructions from one of our snorkelling guides in the van, learned how to suit up in our dry suits in the van and then we were cut loose to dress ourselves in a thick, down onesie that made us all look doughy. Over that we put on bulky dry suits and pushed our bowling ball heads through a latex collar the width of a CD. We pulled on neoprene diving hoods that covered the top of our heads and our necks and squeezed our hands into neoprene gloves. Right before diving into the water we put on snorkelling goggles, stuck a breathing tube in our mouths and then flopped in with our flippers.
To understand the initial shock of that water on your face, your lips, your head and your hands, you have to understand that neoprene is wetsuit material, not drysuit material like the rest of the get-up. Those parts of the body protected by neoprene get wet and there is really no relief for your hands during the 30 to 40 minute submersion. Your lips lose feeling fast and you won’t be bothered, but the hands remain icy limbs that you can only hope to forget about while you take in your surroundings.
Beneath the surface
The water that on the surface had looked rather dull was surreal from beneath. Visibility in the fissure is around 100 metres and we were reminded that in the ocean, on a good day, it’s about 30 metres. The deepest most mind-bending blues–Super Man blue to glacial, icy blue to a dark, starry night blue–were all represented at various depths. The fissure is quite shallow at parts and reaches 63 metres down at its deepest. Scuba divers that come here get to go lower into the divide but visibility is so great that all who look beneath the surface see the bottom.
Small bits of algae dance suspended in front of you, writhing slowly to the backdrop of the dim light filtered through from the sky. When you hold your breath and lose the trail of the person in front of you it is so quiet and so isolating. From what I’ve heard and read about sensory deprivation tanks–the feeling of floating in an abyss, of mental wandering, of meditative peace–this could be very similar. The lava rock walls are covered with a translucent, orange algae that looks like the skin of a jellyfish.
This is the only life most snorkelers and divers see in Silfra. Occasionally a trout will swim in, but even that is rare.
Very little swimming is done along the journey. A slow and steady current carries you through most of the fissure to the final `lagoon,’ a 120-metre long pool where we exited the water onto land. While everyone walked around, shaking out their hands to try and regain some feeling, our guide told us that we still had one more aquatic emersion ahead of us.
We walked to a rock ledge that was about four metres above another small pool of water in the fissure, and took turns jumping in without goggles or breathing tubes or flippers. I thought that any traces of sleepiness had escaped me when I initially entered the water for the snorkelling journey, but few things wake you up as instantly as icy water pouring into your ears and your eyes and your nose on high impact. The pure beauty, and untainted taste and feeling of that water is somewhere between invigorating and electrifying and I literally gulped it up as I made my last swim back to land.
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