What Not to Do in Iceland: Snorkeling at Silfra

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“I’m soaking wet!” yelled my fellow snorkeler whose dry suit was apparently not working — an issue of concern in the 35-degree F water in Iceland’s Silfra rift, reputedly one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. My dry suit, too, had sprung a leak the minute I slid into the icy water, and my backside was being slowly cooled by a trickle of the world’s clearest, coldest, volcanically filtered waters.

Snorkeling in these glacier-melt, frigid waters requires wearing a dry suit over a sleeping-baglike liner, plus gloves, hood, booties and everything to keep one’s body from contacting the rapid, hypothermia-inducing water — not the most pleasant experience.

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Gloomy, chilly weather with sideways, spitting rain doesn’t help either. But our intrepid snorkeling group was hot to experience this once-in-a lifetime chance to snorkel in the rift between the North America and Eurasian continental tectonic plates. Eerie Sapphire blue light and green “troll hair” algae highlight the rock formations. No fish swim here since there are no nutrients in the ultra-clear water that has filtered through volcanic rock for some 50 or more years.

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Unfortunately, wearing all this gear makes a person extremely buoyant, so as soon as you hit the water you flip over on your back like an otter, which makes snorkeling challenging. Since the water is so cold, and the neoprene gloves don’t really insulate the hands, our instructors told us to snorkel with our hands behind our neck or back — another difficult maneuver in a sleeping bag covered with a rubber suit, making one’s arms feel like overstuffed sausages.

After the first 50 feet or so, most of us with leaky dry suits baled out after the struggle to stay on our stomachs, the fear of hypothermia, claustrophobia, constantly fogging masks requiring ice-water facial baths to clear, and just no plain fun finally won out.

Iceland is a splendid, magical place, with breathtaking waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, verdant farms, and the hip, colorful capitol of Reykjavik. Thingvellir National Park is likewise beautiful and fascinating, and perhaps a different snorkeling company with better dry suits might have made the experience more pleasant. Our young guides were certainly competent and enthusiastic. Another of our group did a dry-suit scuba dive at the same site the next day and reported a good experience. Her dry suit probably didn’t’ leak. All the rave reviews on Trip Advisor must have had different outfitters than our group. But the experience was certainly bracing, and made most of us vow to stick to warm-water snorkeling only. One man’s whole body went numb and he was barely able to drag himself out of the water. Another woman’s hands went completely numb, and our guide and bus driver had to help her out of her gear as she wept from the pain as her hands began thawing. Chalk it up to another memorable travel tale.

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