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Snorkeling Silfra is a once-in-lifetime experience and a must-do on your Iceland itinerary. Silfra is located near the country’s capital of Reykjavik and is a very unique and special place. It is the only location in the world where one can swim between two continental plates. It has the world’s clearest water and is absolutely stunning. It’s also very cold, maintaining a temperature of 2–4 °C (36–39 °F). Snorkeling through its quiet, crystal-like waters is unlike anything else. Continue reading for everything you need to know before snorkeling Silfra.
What is Silfra?
Silfra is a tectonic fissure between the North American and Eurasian plates. The rift first opened as a result of an earthquake in 1789 and continues to separate by about two centimeters per year. Tension builds between the two plates and an earthquake takes place about every ten years or so. The earthquakes have caused cracks and fissures to form within Thingvellir Valley and Silfra is the deepest of those fissures. New cracks and tunnels are continually created by the shifting earth.
Why is the Water so Clear?
The water at Silfra is the clearest in the world, making it a great place to snorkel. Silfra is a freshwater rift with its water originating over 50 km (31 m) north at Iceland’s second-largest glacier, the Langjökull Glacier. The glacier melt-off once ran into a river that emptied into Thingvallavatn Lake but a few thousand years ago, the river became blocked by lava flows from a nearby volcano. The water then began to seep through the porous volcanic rock and move underground, creating an aquifer.
The water is slowly filtered through the rock and can take anywhere from 30 to 100 years to reach the lake, resulting in incredible clarity. It will most likely be the purest water that you ever drink or swim in. The visibility at many of the world’s most popular dive sites is usually between 10 m (33 ft) and 30 m (98 ft). At Silfra, it extends for over 100 m (328 ft).
How to Snorkel Silfra
Silfra is easily accessible from Reykjavik but in order to snorkel Silfra, you will need to be accompanied by a licensed dive organization. I booked my tour with DIVE.IS. DIVE.IS offers both diving and snorkeling tours. As a snorkeler, you’ll see almost as much as the divers. They operate daily tours from Reykjavík to Thingvellir National Park, the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Iceland. Transportation via van is included in the cost and it takes about an hour to reach the park.
If you’re coming from somewhere other than Reykjavik, then you have the option of meeting at a designated point within the park. This is what I chose to do as Silfra was the last stop on my self-guided Iceland tour before returning to Reykjavik. The tour includes an experienced PADI-certified guide, park entrance fee, all necessary equipment, a heated van to change in, photos, and hot cocoa. The cost starts at ISK 16,490 ($128 USD) for the self-drive tour. Another great tour company that offers an on-site meet-up is Troll Expeditions.
Best Time to Snorkel Silfra
There really isn’t a “best” time to snorkel Silfra. Snorkeling Silfra can be done anytime throughout the year. Since the water travels underground it maintains a constant temperature of 2–4 °C (36–39 °F). No matter what time of year you visit, the water will always be very cold. It never freezes because freshwater is constantly filling the fissure. Something to keep in mind, though, is the outside temperature.
Exiting the water is when you will feel the coldest and I can’t imagine what it would be like during the winter months. I visited in October and although it was cold, it wasn’t unbearable. The fall and winter months are quieter and overcast days allow for beautiful reflections upon the lake’s surface. Spring and summer tend to be more crowded with tourists.
My tour began with a brief overview of what the morning would entail. The near-freezing water temperatures require the use of a dry suit. The guides instructed us as to how to get into the provided suit and make it leakproof. For those who have never heard of a drysuit, it is a watertight shell that provides the wearer with thermal insulation.
Unlike a wetsuit, a drysuit keeps water from entering and protects the body from low water temperatures, with the exception of the head and hands. Drysuits are far from glamorous and there’s a good chance this is the most ridiculous that you will ever look. The process of getting into a drysuit is somewhat involved and assistance from a guide is necessary. The whole process takes about 30 minutes. It’s necessary that everything fits correctly to prevent leaks, so giving the tour company your accurate height and weight in advance is important.
You’ll want to wear your warmest pair of thermals as a base layer and bring a heavy pair of socks. An insulation layer will then be zipped over your thermals. Lastly, mitts and a hood will be put on and a mask and fins will be provided. The only part of the body that will be exposed is your face.
My Experience at Silfra
Snorkeling Silfra is a thrilling experience. I was excited but also somewhat nervous. I had never been in water that cold before. Once I was in, I was easily distracted by all the beauty around me. The crystal-clear, blue water is incredible. The only extreme cold I experienced was entering and exiting the water. It’s actually easier to swim in the cumbersome drysuit than one would think. It doesn’t weigh you down and actually, helps you float.
Expect to be in the water for 30-40 minutes. The current will gently push you along and very little effort is required on your part. It’s normal for water to start slowly seeping into your mitts and the less you move your hands around, the better. Your hands, along with your exposed lips, will eventually go numb. This isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds but I do recommend bringing some hot hands or a warm pair of gloves to put on afterward.
Don’t expect to see any plant or animal life as you are snorkeling Silfra. It’s too cold for most species. You’ll swim through beautiful underwater valleys and see incredible rock formations. DIVE.IS will take photos of everyone during the snorkel so a camera isn’t necessary and I actually advise against bringing one. The mitts are very bulky and you’ll have a hard time holding a camera, let alone operating one. If you do want to bring something to record your adventure, I recommend a GoPro. Was the experience worth it? Absolutely! I had an amazing time and the guides at DIVE.IS are great.
What to Bring to Snorkel Silfra
- Thermals for underneath the drysuit
- Set of warm clothes for afterward
- Warm socks x2 (one for the water and one for after)
- Warm gloves or hot hands
Where to Stay Near Silfra
Golden Circle Apartments
Golden Circle Apartments is a great option if you are looking for an affordable place to stay near the lake. They are set up like apartments and include a kitchen, which is great for saving money. They are located just 30 minutes from the Golden Circle. However, there is not much else in the area so I recommend only a night or two here.
Fosshotel is a hotel chain throughout Iceland. The mid-range hotels are generally newer and have modern amenities. Fosshotel Reykjavik is a good option if you plan on usingReykjavik as a base and taking the shuttle to Silfra.
Hotel Borg is Iceland’s first luxury hotel. The beautiful art-deco-style hotel is located near the city center in Reykjavik. It has numerous amenities and a restaurant run by an award-winning chef.
What do you think of snorkeling Silfra? Would you get in near-freezing water? If you’ve enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share using the social media buttons below. Planning on using Reykjavik as a home base for your travels? Continue to my post, “6 Easy Day Trips from Reykjavik”.