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Scuba diving in Iceland

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Prelude in the Coral Sea

As I stare at my reflection on the surface of the Coral Sea pretending I’m not scared of drowning, it occurs to me that I really shouldn’t let my brother talk me into joining his adventures so easily. A healthy dose of sibling rivalry pushed me into saying yes when he called to suggest we get our scuba licenses diving the Great Barrier Reef.

I count the seconds until I take a giant stride into the water – not to co-ordinate with the dive master but to prevent the recollection of several bad kayaking trips where I’d left the water feeling lucky I hadn’t drowned. A splash, a deep breath through the regulator and then a glance at the Great Barrier Reef below and all my doubts vanish. The fear of drowning becomes a little less distracting each time I find myself dropping into the water. Gradually, I feel equal to the challenges of exploring sea life – I even imagine myself exploring the remote regions of the Arctic Ocean which feature regularly in dive gear catalogues.


A chance to travel to Iceland earlier this year meant I didn’t have to leave a dive trip in the Arctic to my imagination any longer. Iceland offers many unique diving experiences because it is a very active volcanic region with lots of different geology to explore under the water. It is one of very few places divers can explore volcanic fissures, touch both continental plates and see boiling spring water venting from chimneys rising from the floor of the Arctic Ocean.

Kristy Rusher scuba diving in Iceland
Kristy Rusher scuba diving in Iceland

I visited Iceland in June. Despite the summer climate, water temperatures of 2-4 degrees means that using a drysuit is essential. A drysuit is exactly what it sounds like. You stay insulated from the extremely cold water by filling the suit with air that is kept warm by your body.

The drysuit certification course takes one day, and I decided to complete the course in the capital Reykjavik to maximise the number of dive trips during my visit. The certification is straightforward, with the morning spent in a swimming pool learning the basics of operating the drysuit and getting used to wearing the heavy steel tank. The afternoon was an open water trip to Lake Kleifarvatn on the Reykjanes Peninsula. It is a 30-minute drive from Iceland’s international airport terminal at Keflavik.

Lake Kleifarvatn is above the fissure zone of the mid-Atlantic ridge and has a maximum depth of 97 metres. The area surrounding the lake is a volcanic rock field formed from tephra emitted during volcanic eruptions. There is no soil – which means no grass, trees or other plants; it is a truly lunar landscape. The only greenery to be seen on the road is moss and a very slow growing native lichen.

A lake without fish

Unusually, the lake has no inlet or outlet – instead it is fed from an underground freshwater aquifer. At a shallow end of the lake you can see the spring water and gas bubbles emerging from the volcanic sand. Entering the lake, the bed drops away quickly. Following the curve of the lake bed means that you get to a suitable depth for certification exercises with barely any effort. Due to the volcanic terrain there is no plant or fish life to distract you, but the lack of visual reference points means that you need to pay strict attention to your dive computer to adhere to the dive plan.

Even with the use of drysuits it was a challenge to keep my hands warm enough to operate the BCD (buoyancy control device) after 40 minutes in the lake, but a warm hot chocolate on the lake shore soon cured any numbness.

I went back to the Reykjanes Peninsula the next day to drop into a deep volcanic fissure. You can taste the salt spray from the heavy waves crashing on the adjacent shoreline as you get your gear on, but although an underground channel connects it to the North Atlantic Ocean it is also fed by a freshwater spring.

The fissure is formed from basalt stacks and it is a 3m wide tube that drops to about 20m. During the summer months its interior is lined with an algae so fragile that it breaks off the rock faces simply by bubbles from the regulator passing close by. The mixing zone between the fresh and saltwater create ripples, but visibility is still amazing provided you minimise fin movement and avoid disturbing the algae. The experience of descending into the narrow fissure is like dropping into a forested fairy land. If a troll had popped out of the rock face to wave to me I would not have been surprised.

The parliamentary connection

Silfra is the most famous dive location in Iceland’s Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir became a national park to recognise its significance as the site of Iceland’s first Parliament which convened annually. The Silfra dive is within an area formerly used for camping during the parliamentary sittings and are immediately below ‘Law Rock’ a section of the cliff top where at the conclusion of the Parliament, the laws of Iceland were read out to everyone present. A judge also passed out penalties (including death penalties) for breaches of the law.

Underwater shot of the Silfra fissure in Iceland
Underwater shot of the Silfra fissure in Iceland. Photo: Shriram Rajagopalan

However, the area is also famous as it is where tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia meet. They are gradually drifting apart at a rate of 2cm per year – allowing glacial meltwater from the Langjökull glacier 50km away to percolate through the lava rock to form Thingvallavatn Lake where the Silfra fissure is located on the lake shore.

When diving Silfra, there is a stepped entry and exit platform which means getting in and out of the fissure is easy and you can focus on the interesting rock features immediately. At the end of the short descent, you find yourself facing both the continental plates. Although the fissure is 63m deep, the dive itself is relatively shallow.

There is an opportunity to get up close to each of the continental walls in the deeper sections of the fissure and it is possible to reach both plates within a single arm span for some parts of the dive. There are also several sections showing evidence of recent earthquakes and continental drift with boulders the size of garden sheds balancing precariously between each of the two plates. At some point the plates will pull apart and drop the boulders to the floor of the fissure – in the meantime we are briefed to swim above them rather than under them in case today is the day that they drop. The scale of the basalt formations on each of the continental plates means that passing between them is like diving inside a stone cathedral.

Chimneys older than dinosaurs

The freshwater is so cold and so clear, that visibility is limitless – in fact it is as if you are not really diving through water at all. The water is cold – so instead of hovering inside the heated van, I decide to drive 30 minutes to Fontana spa in Laugarvatn where hot springs on the lake shore are diverted into a series of hot pools and a sauna.

In the northern part of Iceland are several fjords – and the Eyjafjördur is located immediately above the tip of a series of fault lines beneath the Greenland Sea. Hjalteyri is a small town on the shoreline and the dive centre there takes trips out to a range of spring water vents on the floor of the fjord. This dive site is unique because chimneys in other parts of the world are beyond depths that can be reached by divers.

We depart in an inflatable boat, fully suited and steel tanks fitted. The trip to the Arnarnesstrytan dive site takes less than 10 minutes, and en route we are looking for spouts and sprays from whales feeding in the fjord. We descend on a line and the water is cloudy. The dive master turns on a torch as we approach the floor of the fjord and immediately the beam shows minute purple and blue flecks the size of dust particles – this is what plankton looks like. I discover that the limited visibility is because I am swimming in the equivalent of a whale’s vegetable soup.

Throughout the water jellyfish of various shapes, colours and sizes are dancing through the currents. I never saw two jellyfish the same shape or size. At 22 metres we reach the bottom of the fjord and we are greeted by Stephano, a wolf fish and his girlfriend Stephanie. The dive master feeds them some shellfish, then we tour the dive site.

At the dive briefing the dive master told us that the chimneys are created in a similar way to stalagmites in a limestone cave – each millilitre of water carries a small amount of magnesium which is left behind and the chimney grows fraction by fraction. The Arnarnsstrytan chimney is approximately 7m tall. It is hard to believe that this fragile chimney vent began forming at the time that dinosaurs were roaming the earth and has survived multiple earthquakes, eruptions and changes to the sea floor as it has grown.

Hot chocolate

We reach the vent which is gushing hot fresh water. It is rapidly spiralling out of the chimney and the vortex of hot freshwater mixing with the ocean is mesmerising like watching the flames of a fire. The interior of the vent is crystal white and looks very similar to the inside of an oyster shell. Putting my hand over the vent I can only count to five before I can’t stand the heat any longer. On other trips the dive master has filled a thermos with the hot water from the vent and made hot chocolate on the way back to shore.

However, today we have chosen to have more bottom time to see as much sea life as possible. Following the trip back to shore it doesn’t take long to warm up from the dive trip as a geothermal spring nearby has been diverted into an outdoor swimming pool overlooking the fjord. Over an Icelandic beer in the pool we continue scanning the horizon for whales spouting.

To enjoy the trips and feel confident about the demanding dive environment in Iceland, the dive centres provide orientation dives and dry suit refresher dives. I recommend completing those before attempting the chimney dive so that you are not distracted with managing your equipment.

To dive the Silfra fissure, and Arnarnsstrytan chimney you must hold an advanced dive certificate as well as a drysuit certificate. For the drysuit certification and Silfra trip I chose, and for the north Iceland dive trips I chose Strytan Divecentre

In her legal life Kristy Rusher is Chief Legal Officer, Corporate Services for the Dunedin City Council.

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