What’s the last thing you imagine doing in Iceland?
If you said snorkeling, you’d be surprised to learn it’s one of their top tourist attractions.
You don’t go into the seas surrounding the island for this experience. Instead, you head inland to Þingvellir National Park located 45 minutes east of Reykjavik. Here the Earth is ripping itself apart at the rate of two centimeters per year, creating a fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
This space is partially filled with meltwater from the Langjokull glacier and is some of the clearest and cleanest water in the world.
Aunt Nancy and I booked our snorkeling trip through Adventure Vikings. They picked us up near our hotel, drove us to a dive site called Silfra and outfitted us with dry suits.
Silfra is ranked as one of the top dive sites in the world. You can see straight to the bottom 100 meters down and the water temperature hovers around 35 degrees. Thus the need for dry suits. It took a solid 30 minutes to put on the various components. First came the one-piece base layer that zipped in the back. Next came the booties and gloves. Then the actual dry suit itself.
Once I was suited up, my guide Adam wrapped a zip tie around my neck and cranked down until a look of panic washed across my face. Having a slight issue with claustrophobia, I made him loosen it up two notches to calm the rising panic reflex. He helped me into a hood made of dry suit material and strapped on my mask and snorkel before I had the chance to launch into full-blown hyperventilation.
A German girl in my group called it quits shortly after the necktie. Once my mask was on, I had to stand quietly in a corner and remind myself to not freak the fuck out. It was tough to hear my inner monologue over the shouts of my panic reflex and the sniffles of the German girl, but I somehow managed to keep it together.
The guides divided our group into two. Naturally, Adam claimed the women and Bryndis led the men. She jokingly reminded us not to pee in the water. Liquid can’t escape the suit and we’d have to live with the consequences of that decision for the next hour.
We entered the water via a metal staircase and it felt like going for a spacewalk. The suit became buoyant once submerged and I couldn’t feel the water at all until it hit the wet suit material covering my hands and head. My skin burned from the cold within a few minutes.
I bobbed along the surface, kicking lightly and marveled at the beauty below me.
The space between the two fissures is only about 50 feet wide. But the world drops off endlessly beneath you. The water was crystal clear and the noon sun directly overhead. Sunbeams extended about 20 feet down illuminating brilliant shades of blue against jagged rock walls.
I kept popping my head above the surface to contrast the two worlds: calm, placid waters above, deep, dramatic rock formations and dancing light beams below. The occasional chunk of algae would float by. Otherwise, there was little to contend with except our own bulk.
“All of the water is drinkable in Iceland,” said Adam. “While you’re in here, just open your mouth and drink. It’s some of the cleanest water you’ll ever taste.”
As native Milwaukeeans, Aunt Nancy and I were skeptical. Our great lake is seemingly clean, until you learn about the raw sewage that gets dumped directly into it every time it rains.
Bravely, Aunt Nancy removed her snorkel and sipped tentatively. She didn’t spit the water back out, so I followed her lead. By the end of our swim, we were unabashedly gulping down mouthfuls of the best tasting water I’ve ever had.
We explored the fissure until our hands ached, which was only about 45 minutes. Afterwards, Adam drove us back into town. He is exactly the kind of guide you’d expect to lead snorkeling tours in Iceland. British, long-haired and nomadic, his stories include tales of getting banned from Iran for visiting too often.
We were the last of the group to get dropped off near the Hallgrimskirkja cathedral. Adam hopped out to give us a hug goodbye and suddenly, we were making plans to meet later for a swim at the public pool and hot dogs afterwards.
It was here we had a crash course in navigating one of Iceland’s most off-putting cultural traditions.
To be continued.