Unusually, the wow moment comes right at the start. When diving in the crystal clear waters of the Silfra canyon, it is the process of dipping your mask beneath the surface that really blows your mind.
Silfra is Iceland’s most famous dive site – it even has a celebrity fan club. Movie stars Tom Cruise and Ben Stiller have both logged its total immersion assault on the senses. For such a celebrated dive, the start is incongruous, with a clumsy climb down a swimming pool ladder into the fissure, followed by a minute or two where you bob about on the surface, buoyed by your layers of thermal insulation. Once the group is ready, it is time to submerge, and that moment of brain scrambling, sensory overload.
“Silver” canyon gets its name because the dark waters, shaded by the narrow walls of the canyon, conspire with the smooth surface to reflect the white clouds above. The mirror-like surface reveals very little of what lies beneath. It’s only at the moment of submergence that you pass through the looking glass and everything is revealed.
The cold water (1–3˚C) bites into any exposed skin on your face and you inhale sharply. Reeling, your eyes struggle to make sense of the scene. The scale of the chasm is suddenly apparent, and because you can see so much more than you could from above the silver surface, at Silfra you get the feeling that the water is even clearer than the air. In fact, the stunning visibility is almost impossible to gauge because, despite the scale of this jagged fracture that divides the North American and Eurasian continental plates, you can never see far enough in a straight line to judge it. There is always a turn in the canyon before the visibility runs out. The water is glacial melt, which has filtered through the porous volcanic rocks over hundreds of years and is pure enough that it could be bottled and sold as mineral water. In fact, it is delicious to sip during the dive.
“Silfra always gets amazing reactions from people,” Finni Finnbjornsson of Scuba Iceland tells me. “Wow!So unique! I hear these every day. Divers are always surprised by the visibility, however much they have read about it before.”
There is little life to see in Silfra, but the visibility and scenery secures its place firmly on almost every diver’s bucket list. It is less than an hour’s drive from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, and many people travel to Iceland specifically to dive it. All the dive centres have first-class rental gear and can teach you to use a drysuit, so you just really need to arrive to dive.
Silfra is clearly world class, but I am interested in what other diving adventures Iceland offers. Is it a place to visit for a weekend and just dive Silfra, or come for a week or two and take in a range of dive sites with tongue twisting names? As Finni says enticingly, “What I like most about Iceland diving is that it is almost entirely unexplored underwater. Icelanders have been diving Silfra for more than 30 years, but it has only been attracting overseas divers for little more than a decade. And all our other sites are dived much, much less. We’ve 1,600 wrecks in Iceland and we dive fewer than eight regularly.”