From above the world was grey, but below, it was the most brilliant blue I’ve ever seen. So vibrant that it looked like someone had dragged the saturation level on a photo editor up as far as it could go. And yet, it was all real.
Snorkeling and Iceland are not two words I ever thought really belonged beside each other. After all, “Ice” is in the name, and although the country defies this by turning a lush green in the summertime, the water isn’t exactly known for being balmy. Let alone thinking about snorkeling in Iceland in winter!
The first time I visited Iceland in winter my local friends took me to Thingvellir to throw a coin in the crystal clear waters at Thingvellir. They mentioned people snorkel and dive in Silfra, and I shivered at the thought and promptly forgot about it.
In the intervening years until my most recent trip to Iceland, I learned a lot more and saw many pictures about snorkeling in Iceland at Silfra, and placed it firmly on my Iceland bucket list, should I ever return. Little did I know that when I booked another winter trip to Iceland, that my husband would surprise me with snorkeling as a birthday present!
But what exactly are Thingvellir and Silfra?
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a national park west of Reykjavik, and a popular stop on the Golden Circle route. It’s an important historical site, as it was the site of Iceland’s parliament between the 10th-18th century. But geologically, it’s important too (don’t yawn, it is interesting I swear!). Iceland is the only part of the meeting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates that can be seen above sea-level. In Thingvellir, You can actually see the edges of the two tectonic plates clearly, you can walk along and between them, and you can snorkel and dive between them too. Pretty cool huh?
The tectonic plates move apart a further 2.5 centimetres every year. The effect of this, along with earthquakes, means the area is strewn with ravines. Some of them have filled with water that has travelled underground for years from Langjökull glacier. The filtration process along its journey means that by the time it reaches the ravines it’s pristinely clear. Silfra is one such ravine filled with this crystal clear water and the only one where you are allowed to snorkel and dive. It’s so clean, you can drink it as you float along!
The water temperature is consistent at a cool 2 degrees celsius throughout the year, so you can even snorkel in Iceland in the middle of winter like we did! Both snorkeling and diving are done in a dry suit, however, to form a protective layer against the elements.
Our experience snorkeling Silfra in winter
Please excuse the fuzziness of some photos, I had to cut them from video and had some issues. Check out the video at the end to see it better!
Daylight hours in Iceland during winter are somewhat scarce. When we visited in November, we had the choice of several different times of the day to snorkel, beginning at 9 am when the light would just be peaking over the horizon, and ending at 2 pm when it would be getting dark just after we finished our experience. I chose 2 pm, so we could try and see the rest of the Golden Circle in the morning, dry, rather than attempting it after being in the cold. Although a drysuit mostly protects you, your hair will still get wet and they can leak. I didn’t fancy shivering for the whole day after!
By luck, we were the only people that booked our time slot, so essentially, we had a private tour. And to make things even better, we were the only people in Silfra at all for our whole snorkeling tour! This is fairly rare, given that there are several companies running tours, but could happen more easily when you choose to snorkel Silfra in winter.
But before you can even begin about getting in the water for one of the best snorkeling experiences of your life, there’s the gear to get into. Lots of it…
You start off with your long thermal pants and top, with a thick pair of wooly socks. Next comes a sort of onesie made of a thin quilted material, then the actual drysuit itself. It has feet attached to the bottom and you pull it up your legs and put your arms through until all you need to do it pull your head through the neck hole, the really tough bit. Take a deep breath and don’t think about how attractive your squished emerging face must look as the guides try to yank the small opening down over your head. Next up is a bit of a choker around your neck to try and prevent water seeping in, then another attractive moment as you pull on a wetsuit balaclava. Lastly, put on your lobster claw wetsuit gloves, and you’re ready to go! Whew.
After a bit of history about the area and some safety info on the snorkel itself, we set off on our walk to the beginning of the adventure. It was so weird walking along in the snow all dressed up for snorkeling in winter! People definitely gave us weird looks.
Flippers on, and I edged backward down the stairs into the chilly water. If you’ve never worn a drysuit before, it creates a layer of air between your body and the waterproof suit that helps to keep you warm. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include your hands or head, which can be points where the water leaks in, and where you can only wear standard wetsuit gear that means you feel the water but at least are a little protected.
We spotted a tiny black fish, unusual to see here, and then our guide explained to us that we could float along with the current and explore as we liked. He let us know when some particular features would be coming up, and how we would emerge into a large pool at the end where we were free to spend time floating around exploring, although he would get out then and wait for us.
I popped my head under the water and couldn’t believe how blue it looked. Of course, I’d seen other people images, but I took them with a grain of salt thinking they must have been edited a little for colour. Well, when it came to looking at my photos and video after the experience I almost wanted to turn the saturation down because it looks fake when it’s not!
Snorkeling at Thingvellir is like entering another world. You see piles of rocks pushed up by the tectonic plates, centuries-old lava, frozen in time, and strange plants in shallower parts. Really, it’s all a bit like I would have imagined another planet like Mars to be!
We floated along together but were lost in our own silent blue world. My face and hands started to go a little numb, but I wasn’t bothered as I tried to burn the experience into my memory, not wanting to forget how I felt and what I saw. It’s one of the most beautiful places and most awesome things that I’ve ever experienced.
Altogether we were in the water for around half an hour, but it felt like much longer. The only thing that pushed me to get out was the lack of feeling in my hands, otherwise, I would have happily kept floating around! It was strange to emerge from the blue world back into dull grey and white. And it had started snowing!
If you’re worried about having to swim or being in such deep water, there’s no need. At one point I attempted to duck dive down to experience being further under the water and get a photo, but a dry suit basically acts live a massive floating surrounding your body and it’s extremely hard to get underwater! I flopped around like a fish on the end of a line and had to give up. However, if you do want to give it a go, you’ll need to let some air out of your drysuit which makes you much colder, as your body is closer to the water and less protected. So try it near the end!
After our epic snorkeling in Iceland experience, we warmed up with some hot chocolate and biscuits and chatted with our guides, AJ and GC, from DIVE.is. They were awesome, and I’d highly recommend booking your Silfra Snorkelling experience with them (no, I didn’t work with them and this isn’t a sponsored post, we just loved it!).
Need to know for snorkeling in Silfra
Where: Thingvellir National Park. You can drive yourself to the site or be picked up in Reykjavik.
Who: We loved DIVE.is and would recommend them. If you want to dive in Silfra you can also go with them or do courses to become certified.
How much: From 14,990ISK, or around $150US per person for a snorkeling Silfra tour. Extra for pick up from Reykjavik.
What to bring: Wear long thermal underwear and thick socks (2 pairs even) and bring a change of clothes in case your dry suit leaks. They give you hot chocolate and biscuits after you finish snorkeling but you might want some snacks!
Looking for more Iceland info and tips?
- Iceland in Winter: 25 Things You Have to Know Before You Visit
- How to Pack for Winter Travel with Carry On Only Luggage
- Expat Stories: Moving to Iceland, Another World
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