Snorkeling Between Tectonic Plates in Iceland

Posted on September 29, 2011 by

Dressed in a bulky dry suit, airtight hood and gloves, I’m taking the plunge into the glacial waters of a narrow crack. It’s not just any crack though – this is literally an opening in the Earth’s crust, a rift that separates two continents, a valley in no man’s land.  I float around in the 2 degrees Celsius water and dip my head beneath the water surface.

It’s a whole new world: sunlight pierces through the crystal-clear water, giant boulders stack atop one another into the endless depth while lime-green algae sway lifelessly in the still waters. Just before our group of snorkelers meander through the rift valley, our guide Hössi says, “Remember where you are, on your right is America,” he pauses for effect, “on your left, Europe.”

One of the World’s Best Dive Sites

We are snorkeling in Silfra, a rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It cuts through the Thingvellir National Park of Southwestern Iceland – a volcanic area created by the movements of the Earth’s crust. Today, it’s one of the most visited attractions of Iceland, although its rift valley is still a well-kept secret. Diving here first started in 1997 by the Sport Diving School of Iceland, which later converted to Dive.is in 2007, attracting over 1,000 divers per year.

“Swimming in this rift valley is truly a privilege, you almost feel like you belong to an exclusive club after diving Silfra.” Kevin, an experienced marine archaeologist and dive master at Dive.is explains. Considered one of the best dive sites in the world, Silfra promises visibility of over 100m (in clear glacial waters fit for drinking) and an underwater environment found nowhere else. In the clear-as-glass water, I can see beyond the narrow channel of water as it opens up to a wide waterway and plunges deep beneath my feet. It’s easy to see why some experience vertigo here – the water is so clear that it gives you a feeling of falling in air.

As clear as the water may be, it is after all fed from a glacier and thus stays at a humble temperature of around 2 degrees Celsius even in summer. At this temperature, no marine life can survive (except us humans). This explains why we are all wrapped from head to toe in ultra-protective dry suits and equipment. The preparation earlier that day had taken over one hour – first squeezing into the airtight dry suits, then zipping each other up and ensuring no holes for water to sip through before finally fitting on our gloves, hood, fins and last of all, our snorkel masks. Once we were floating on the ice-cold water, I could see the dry suit working its magic, keeping me warm and snuggly on the inside.

Underwater Mystery

Back in the rift valley, we continue to drift along the narrow channel flanked by massive squared boulders. Observing the spillage of rocks and boulders all around me, I let my imagination run wild as I picture how the Earth shook and rattled one day, causing catastrophic eruptions and quakes to form a crack as deep as this. Each year, this rift expands by 2-3mm as tectonic movements form new Earth. Staring down into the depths of the split, I wonder how it is to be scuba-diving amidst the caves and exploring its hard-to-reach gaps between the boulders.

I’d initially signed up for a dive, but as bookings were full, I opted to snorkel instead. My instructors had assured me that the experience would be equally rewarding – now that I’m floating in the glacial waters of Silfra, I get what he means. The visibility is so good that you don’t need to plunge deep to take in this amazing environment. While diving brings you deeper into the rift and close to the action, divers are only allowed to go to a maximum depth of 12-15m to assure safety. A recent fatal accident was a result of negligence as a pair of American divers went as deep as 63m and eventually got stuck in a cave. One of them was lost in the depths and by the time the authorities found him, it was too late…

Unique Creations of Nature

In the still waters, there is complete silence and a soothing kind of peace – even the usual breathing sounds from my oxygen tank is absent. I’m somehow thankful to be snorkeling instead of diving as I embrace this rare tranquility. Drifting through the narrow waterway, we come to a steep slope that leads the channel towards a shallow lagoon. Popping our heads up, we hear Hössi explain, “This site is named ‘the Cathedral’, for the similarity in shape and formation.”  Swimming past it, I turn around and take a good look at the water way – its lofty spaces surrounded by wide and tall walls of rocks is clearly a work of nature, and perhaps spirits of a different kind.

Soon after, we get to a shallow natural pool shimmering in a ridiculous shade of aqua blue. “This is the REAL Blue Lagoon, just take a look and you’ll know what I mean.”  The big boulders are gone, only to be replaced by a marshy bed of rocks and patches of beige wispy algae, around us was an immense blanket of blue. As how Kevin described it earlier, the lagoon resembles scenes straight out of the movie, Avatar.

After spending almost 40 minutes meandering along the rift valley, it’s about time to get back on land. Taking a peek above the water surface, I’m surprised to find the stark contrast in colors: the same patch of land that’s blanketed in lifeless beige algae underwater, explodes into bushes of colorful shrubs on land. This time of the year, Thingvellir blossoms into beautiful autumn colors, although under the water, things stay the same all year round. Nature is truly creative, at times downright bizarre; whatever this case is, I’m definitely ranking Silfra top in my list of favorite works of nature.

Here’s a video shot underwater, it’ll give you a better idea of what goes on at Silfra:

Photos and videos above are courtesy of Dive.is.


This snorkeling trip in Thingvellir was made possible by Dive.is, while my self-drive trip through Iceland was hosted by Discover the World. All opinions expressed above are my own. Read more about my adventures in Iceland here or follow my updates on Facebook and Twitter.

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About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is the co-founder of WildJunket. As a professional travel writer with a special interest in offgrid destinations and adventure travel, she scours through the world in search for a slice of undiscovered paradise. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Guatemala, swam with sealions in the Galapagos and built a school in Tanzania.

21 Responses to “Snorkeling Between Tectonic Plates in Iceland”

  1. GRRRL TRAVELER September 29, 2011 6:07 pm
    #

    Wow, I'd love to do this!! The water looks so clear! I'd bear the cold to scuba or snorkel this, although diving it must be damn cold. How long did you last in the water snorkeling?

    • Nellie October 4, 2011 5:07 pm
      #

      The standard snorkel trip brings you out for 35-45 minutes. Same goes for the diving trip. I didn\’t feel cold at all during or after the snorkeling trip, I think I was even colder when diving in the Red Sea.

  2. Josh Aggars September 29, 2011 6:22 pm
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    I am so jealous Nellie! That looks absolutely brilliant. Glad you had a solid dry suit or that would have been painful. When I started reading all I could feel was the brain freeze of cold water surfing. At that kind of temperature it would have been nasty! 1 hour well spent getting in your suit I think.

    • Nellie October 4, 2011 5:06 pm
      #

      Yes I was rather nervous about swimming in 2degC water especially having tested out freezing waters in the Arctic (could barely stay in for a few seconds), but the dry suits definitely proved their point – my dry suit kept me absolutely warm and dry – the only exposed part was the area between the snorkeling mask and lips. While putting on the dry suit was a pain, it was well worth it.

  3. Angela September 29, 2011 7:24 pm
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    This is absolutely gorgeous, there is everything, from beauty to mystery, I would so love to visit!

  4. Roxanne September 29, 2011 7:47 pm
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    Lovely photos and quite the story! Is there anything one CANNOT do in Iceland?

  5. Nancy $ Shawn Power September 30, 2011 4:57 am
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    How clear is that water! Wow! We've been doing a lot of snorkelling lately so seeing your images is making us crazy. We couldn't get those shots as clear as that.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Nancy & Shawn

  6. Shivya September 30, 2011 4:37 pm
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    Absolutely stunning! I can’t believe those pictures are for real. I’m dreaming about being in those waters now.

  7. Aussie on the Road October 3, 2011 10:09 am
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    That sounds like such a surreal experience. I had no idea you could even do things like this! :-o

    • Nellie October 4, 2011 5:00 pm
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      Yes when I was researching for my trip to Iceland, I was stoked to stumble upon this online. It was definitely an experience unlike no other, highly recommend it!

  8. Visiting Wanderer October 4, 2011 6:43 am
    #

    Beautiful pictures! Iceland is def. on my list of places to see in the next couple of years.

  9. Shirlene (Idelish) October 4, 2011 8:55 am
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    Absolutely amazing! I really want to go there now!

  10. techincal writer August 8, 2012 8:20 pm
    #

    Ok, honestly those are really great photos. now i think i want to dive in an ocean right now

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  12. Terrano Spirit April 16, 2013 11:14 pm
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    Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of the images aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same results.

  13. Karl October 13, 2013 3:31 pm
    #

    Who would think snorkeling in Iceland? Looks awesome!

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