Monday, 20 February 2012

Becoming a human bridge between continental plates at Silfra

I have to confess, I knew I was going to fall for Iceland before I'd even stepped foot off the plane. A mild climate, diverse natural environments, countless opportunities for adventure, a continuing belief in elves...what's not to love? Couple that with the country's reputation for being one of the friendliest and most welcoming, and we were definitely onto a winner.

Although I'd been wowed by summer photos of emerald green hills, deep azure lakes and the steaming milky Blue Lagoon contrasting against a bright sky, we chose to visit during winter for a couple of reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, there were a couple of activities/events we were keen on that only run during the colder months. The famous Northern Lights are most common during the November to March period, and with 2012 supposedly being one of the best years for viewings, we were determined to try our luck. We'd also heard about a tour through the ice caves created by glacial movement, which become too unstable once melting begins to occur. Secondly, there was the issue of budget. Iceland is an incredibly expensive destination to visit (especially compared to our usual budget!), and we hoped that going during the off-season would help cushion the cost a little.

After deciding on the optimal time to go, the biggest difficulty was choosing what to do and where to go. With only a week, we had to plan our time carefully and make tough decisions - especially when considering the sheer range of options. One activity, however, was set in stone from the very beginning...

Months earlier, when Iceland began to seriously creep onto our radar, I read an article in a magazine about scuba diving at Silfra, just outside of Reykjavik. Although diving in water barely above zero degrees Celsius doesn't usually get me excited, there is something very special about Silfra. The lake is positioned where two continental plates - the American and Eurasian - meet, a rift stretching out and down in waters with some of the best visibility in the world. At certain places, the two jagged outcrops of rock are close enough that a person can stretch out their arms and become a human bridge between the plates. The possibility of joining continents together suddenly makes freezing cold water as appealing as a warm coral reef, and singularly confirmed the land of elves as our next destination.

After a late touch-down in Reykjavik, we grabbed as much sleep as possible before meeting with our dive operator the following morning for the short drive. Having never dry-suit dived before, we were a little apprehensive, but were reassured that the horror stories (including flipping upside down and not being able to right oneself), "didn't happen as often as you might think". On arrival at the lake, we stripped down and made an awkward dance of getting into our dry suits, assembling our gear with very restricted movement, and hearing some key 'do's and don'ts' before heading down to the water's edge.

Things got a lot easier once we were bobbing in the cold, sipping the gorgeously pure water and astounded by the visibility. Despite my fears and natural clumsiness, I didn't flip over, and after the initial adjustment period getting used to the drysuit operations, we were off. The rift stretched far out in front of us, crystal clear, rock walls either side and littering the floor. The water glowed, a brilliant deep blue in the distance, and the current helped guide us gently forward. We stopped for a photo reaching out between the two plates, before moving on to explore deeper and further.

Although idyllic, we were also concentrating hard on keeping the correct buoyancy - the combination of the fresh water and dry suit a challenge to get used to, and a couple of times we misjudged our needs and drifted a little far up and down, but on the whole it was easier than I'd expected and by the end we were both feeling more confident. The hour we were submerged whizzed by, and before we knew it we were up and out, dragging ourselves and the 30kg of equipment back to the van.

Of course, the disadvantage of coming during the winter months was that getting changed again at the end was a chilly experience, only slightly warmed by the hot chocolate provided, as we fought to take off the equipment and dry suit as quickly as possible and sink back into our warm clothes. The dive had been one of best I've been on, and was an incredible experience I would definitely recommend at any time of the year. The colours, jutting rocks, clear water and the peacefulness of being deep down in the space between continental plates is unique to Silfra, and was a real highlight of our trip.

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