Iceland: Scuba the Silfra

Getting Some Glacial Water Brain Freeze

The Silfra is known as one of the top dive sites worldwide for two main reasons. The first being that it is one of the clearest spots to dive with visibility exceeding 100 meters (thats almost 330 feet!). The unique water clarity comes from melting glacial runoff that is filtered through porous underground lava rock eventually reaching Thingvellir Lake. In total the underground wells that feed the drinkable glacier water to the lake takes about 30 to 100 years to filter the water. The second reason, the Silfra is a top dive site, is that it is the only place in the world where one can dive between two continental plates, the North American and Eurasian. The idea behind continental or tectonic plate theory, is that geologically the outermost shell of the planet is sitting on top of a liquid mantle or core of the earth. That shell is split up into 8 separate plates or pieces that all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. These plates are constantly moving (very slowly that is) creating extraordinary natural landscapes and phenomenons such as mountain ridges, volcanoes, deep ocean trenches and earthquakes.

The Silfra Landscape
Suiting up in our Drysuits
The Three Musketeers with the Scuba Crossing Sign

Iceland from Underwater

Being an advanced cold water diver, I considered renting equipment and doing the dive without a guide. It wasn’t long after doing my research that I came to the unfortunate conclusion; the only way to dive the Silfra is with a licensed guide. I could already feel my wallet getting lighter. As any dive hobbyist will know, scuba diving is not a cheap sport. In spite of having all our certifications, two shore dives with pickup and drop off at our hostel came to roughly 44, 990 ISK (about $515.00 CAD). It was expensive, but it was also an opportunity that I could not pass up.

On our second day in Iceland, we got picked up by the dive outfitters (mom came along as our designated photographer and shore support) and shuttled to Thingvellir National Park, the site of the Silfra. The weather was indecisive. Gray storm clouds filled the sky with the occasional slender beam of sun that would seep in through an opening above. It took about 45 minutes for us to drive there giving me time to take in some of the rugged landscape.

Dad in his Gear
The Stairs into the Water
The Group Going Under
First Submersion in the Silfra

At such a pricey dive, it was nice when our two divemasters took care of all the heavy lifting and set up most of our equipment. The dive site was a busy beehive of activity with groups of both snorkeling and diving tours getting in and out of the water. I could not believe how many brave souls had come to torture their body in two degree glacial waters. We got a dive briefing and some geography on the landscape before suiting up in our dry suits. Even from the shore you could see far down into the depths of the silfra crevasse. Once our group was good to go, we descended the metal staircase into the water. At about waist height there was a dive platform, that divers could get mask, fins and regulators in place before sinking into the waters below.

The Three of Us Touching the Plates
The Rocky Lagoon
Ali Rounding the End of the Big and Small Cracks
Shallow Rocky Part of the Dive
Joey and Ali Touching the Plates
Close up of Joey in the Big Crack
Sandy Bottom Lagoon and Two Divers
Joey in the Deep Part of the Silfra
Sandy Bottom Lagoon with Single Diver

First putting my head in literally took my breath away. Instantaneously, my head started to hurt from the cold piercing through the neoprene hood I had on my head. My toes curled and my teeth clenched together as that brainfreeze took over my body, a sensation that would stay with me for the entirety of the dive.

Eventually my body got use to the unpleasant sensation and I started to look around and take in the towering rock formations around me. Far in front of me the continental divide stretched off into the distance as far as the eye could see. Porous jet black volcanic rock makes up a good portion of the Silfra as we pass through the Big Crack and into the Silfra Hall. No fish species are visible to us as we drift down a little deeper into the fissure. Peppered all over the lava rock was lime green algae or “troll hair” as the guides like to call it giving a splash of color to this magnificent aquatic landscape. We arrive at the section where both the North American and Eurasian plates are close enough that while diving we can touch both sides. What an amazing feeling, to not only learn about amazing geological occurrences but to also experience one. Joey, Dad and I each take our turn posing touching both cave sides. After all our photographs were taken we continue swimming towards the section of the Silfra known as the Cathedral.

Slimy Lagoon Rocks
Shallow Part between the Cracks and Cathedral
Exploring the Silfra
Toll Hair in Lagoon and Divers

The Cathedral is a big open chamber that reached a depth of about 66 feet making it the deepest point of the dive. The sun must have decided to come out because small rays of light radiated off the pure white sand at the far end giving a illuminating appearance to the water around us. The glacial current continued to push us along gracefully, through the pearly stillness of this divine section, and onwards through the waters. As the rocky walls tapered down, the divemaster made a sharp left handed turn from the Cathedral navigating away from the current pushing us towards Thingvellir lake. Our group followed, not wanting to be swept into the center of the lake and needing to be rescued by boat. Quickly navigating between rocks that barricaded the way I floated into a picturesque lagoon, the end point to our dive.

Joey Deep in the Silfra Crack
Silfra Fissure
Dive Shadow in the Silfra Crack
Decending in the Silfra Crack
The Barren Lagoon
Deep Shot of the Silfra Crack
Cathedral with Divers in the Distance
Cathedral Ascent with Ali
Ali with the Group Waiting Behind

The first dive lasted about thirty minutes, but in that thirty minutes I was already having a hard time with my finger dexterity. Don’t get me wrong dry suits are great at keeping you dry, but what they don’t do is keep you warm. Warmth is all in the insulation and layers of clothes you put on under your suit.

Some much needed cookies and hot beverages were served between dives while we took our surface interval. The guides swapped out our tanks much to my relief, as I couldn’t feel my fingers let alone deal with fine tuning all the valves.

Ali at End of the Silfra Dive
Surface Swimming
Exiting the Glacial Water
Us Looking Frozen

Diving the Silfra Take 2

After what felt like seconds it was time to freeze our butts off all over again. I had only just started to warm up from the first dive. Our second dive was a lot shorter than the first, with a bottom time of only about 20 minutes. I think that is a record for the shortest dive I have ever done. By the time we surfaced, rain was falling like pins and needles on the ground. I was so cold I could barely walk myself back across the street to our van. Who would have thought my limbs would feel like popsicles after only an hour of diving in a drysuit. Somehow I made it there and managed to disassemble all my gear. Shore support mom was ready to bundle me up in any extra clothes we had and got us all hot chocolate to warm our bodies from the inside out. It took several cups of hot chocolate and a good night’s rest buried under a mountain of blankets before the chill of the Silfra left my bones.

Call me crazy, call me suicidal for putting my body through all that torture, but as an adventurer at heart, some experiences are worth the frostbitten limbs.

Practical Scuba Diver Information:

Cost: It’s not rocket science, if you are going to dive one of the top scuba diving sites on the planet you are going to pay for it. Expect to pay approximately 44, 990 ISK (about $515.00 CAD) for equipment rental, transportation to and from the dive location (45 minutes from Reykjavik), National Park fees and two dives if you are a seasoned dry suit diver. For those who have never dove in a drysuit and need to do the course, the cost can be as much as 99, 990 ISK ($1,195.00 CAD). Divers start saving your pennies!

Seasonality: The first question that most scuba divers ask when considering a dive vacation is; when is the best time of year to dive the Silfra? The great news – there is no best time. There are perks to diving the Silfra during any season and in any weather. If you are looking for calmer weather or diving under the midnight sun head to Iceland in the winter time. If you like diving with less crowds consider the spring and fall months. If your looking to hike, camp and do a bunch of other outdoorsy stuff above and beyond the Silfra, summer is probably your best bet.

Restrictions: As with any extreme type sport there is always red tape that you need to make sure you can pass through, diving the Silfra is no different. For your safety most companies require you to pass following restrictions:

  • Have your Open Water certification
  • Be a minimum of 17 years old
  • Have cold water and more importantly dry suit diving experience (number of dives may vary between companies)
  • Fall within these height and weight measurements:
    Height – min 150cm / max 200cm
    Weight – min 45kg / max 120kg

Companies: Iceland has many different companies that offer scuba diving and snorkeling tours of the Silfra fissure. We decided to go with PADI five star DIVE.IS. Take a look online, book in advance and figure out which one is the best fit for you.

  • Viking Adventures
  • Activity Iceland
  • Dive Silfra
  • Arctic Adventures

There are also plenty of other private lesser known companies.

Brrrrrrrr, dipping into the Silfra was chilly, it brings me brain freeze just thinking about it. What is your coldest scuba diving experience?


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