Article written by Ross Madden
Guest with Magmadive in Iceland, 18th September 2014
Do you want to dive at a site that is like no other in the world? Then you should probably get yourself to Iceland and dive Silfra with David at Magmadive. Silfra is a freshwater dive in the Thingvellir National Park that takes you in between two tectonic plates, the Eurasian plate and the North American plate. I had the pleasure of visiting Silfra with David Ramsay of Magmadive in September 2014. I don’t think I could open my eyes wide enough to take in the spectacle I saw underwater. I don’t think video or still photos can adequately describe this dive site. It’s something you should see for yourself and join the lucky set of divers who have experienced it.
This is not a dive that you do to see wildlife or coral. It’s not an especially deep dive. The current running through the dive is very mild and actually makes kicking your feet almost unnecessary. It’s a dive in some of the clearest water that most divers will ever see, and the coldest. The visibility easily surpassed 200 feet on the two dives I did. This kind of visibility can cause a problem with vertigo for people who have typically dived in water with more particulate matter in it. There’s minimal references for your eyes to tell your brain where you are in the water. Some people say it’s as close to a space walk as you can get. I’m going to have to take their word for it as I’ve never been in space. Fortunately, the sensation passed quickly and I was able to enjoy the surroundings and the scenery.
The water temperature was just above freezing. There wasn’t any ice on the water, but I wouldn’t want to spend any time in that water with anything less than a dry suit on my body. Depending on the time of year, there can be some fish life at Silfra, but that isn’t really what the dive is about. It’s about your location in a crack in the Earth’s upper crust. Europe is on one side and North America is on the other. At one point, a diver can actually touch both sides for a great photo. A dry suit is mandatory for this type of diving and even it doesn’t completely seal out the cold. I had thick neoprene gloves on my hands and by the end of a forty minute dive, they were so cold that I couldn’t feel a thing. Your head also gets a neoprene hood for protection. There’s really nothing that can prepare you for when that super cold water hits your face. It was a bit of sting at first that quickly became tolerable because I was so excited to see Silfra. In between dives though, it’s wise to get a warm hat on to prevent further heat loss and some hot chocolate in your stomach to get some heat back in your core. David whipped up some homemade hot chocolate in between dives. I’m not talking about warm water and some chocolate powder mixed together. I’m talking about real milk heated to near boiling with real cocoa powder and an entire chocolate bar melted in to it. Delicious? You bet and exactly what the doctor ordered!
As a rookie in a dry suit, I needed extra instruction in how it works and how to use it properly. Having learned to dive in Southern California, I thought I had dealt with cold water at depth out by Catalina Island. It drops to around fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit there(about twenty degrees warmer than Silfra). We typically use quarter-inch thick wetsuits in Southern California which provide some buoyancy and require us to wear weight belts to help us submerge. The wet suit keeps a thin layer of water around the body which warms it up. The dry suit keeps air around the body. Air is a much better insulator than water is. In fact, water is a heat sink and actively sucks heat away from the body. The air in the suit also provides more buoyancy than a wetsuit does. That means a diver has to carry a lot more weight in order to submerge using a dry suit than with a wetsuit. There’s another quirky thing that happens once you get under water. The air in your suit gets squeezed by the surrounding water and you feel the squeeze on your body. A few quick puffs of air from the power inflator into the suit relieves the pressure. Now, you can enjoy your dive.
A big caveat with dry suit diving is the dreaded foot first accent. In the dry suit I was in, the boots were integrated in to the suit. That’s great because is made a closed system that water couldn’t penetrate. However, that air in the dry suit can flow freely around depending on how a diver is oriented. Ideally, you should be in a sky diver position. Or sniper position. Whatever you want to call it, don’t let your feet get over your head. If your feet get too far above your head, the air flows in that direction. The more air that goes to the feet, the more buoyant they get and start taking you toward the surface. As you move closer to the surface, that air expands and you get more buoyant. Do you see what’s happening here? This can turn into a situation where your buoyancy is increasing exponentially and you can shoot to the surface feet first. That’s not ideal. The best prevention is to keep that steady, horizontal position. If you do feel your legs starting to come up and getting more buoyant, then the answer is a quick tuck and roll forward, a somersault.
This is quickest way to get your head above your feet and prevent that uncontrolled accent.
Magmadive takes divers to Silfra throughout the year. I was there at the end of the Summer season. There was minimal wind chill and no snow on the ground. From the stories I heard about Winter diving, it’s a little more challenging. The air is colder and the wind is stronger. Dressing in layers is a common piece of advice when traveling to Iceland. The weather can change quickly from sunny to rainy and back again. It’s good to be prepared for anything. Cotton is not a good choice for clothing (including socks) since it soaks up water and does not dry fast. Underneath the dry suit, I wore polypropylene long underwear and then an insulating jumpsuit that Magmadive provided. It proved to be good protection from the cold. My body core was well protected from the elements during both dives.
Silfra is not an easy dive. There is a short walk from the parking lot to the dive entry point. The exit point is a longer walk back to the parking lot. David made sure to ask us before the dive if we had any physical injuries that would prevent us from walking back to the lot with our gear on. He was glad to carry the gear back if we needed it, but wanted be prepared ahead of time. Overall, I was very impressed with the preparation for the dive, the safety checks and the instruction. The dive itself is awe-inspiring. If you’re a diver and you’re going to Iceland, this dive is something you must see. Heck, even if you’re not on your way to Iceland, it’s worth making a special trip there for this experience. Have fun and be safe out there!