Exploring the deep
Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic with many lakes and all this water around it. This means that it's a great place for a scuba diving vacation.
We recently sat down with Kevin Martin instructor/guide at Magmadive and asked him about diving in Iceland. Kevin Martin is an Irish underwater archaeologist, the only one in Iceland, and he's been in close association with this country over the past 12 years. The reason: He specializes in Viking archaeology, searching for shipwrecks around our rocky coastline. During this time he even managed to get himself a local Icelandic girl and they have a little boy called Kiljan Kormákur.
Irish and Icelanders both have written and sung about the blue sea. And Kevin knows the sea. As a matter of fact, he is working on his PhD in underwater archaeology at the University of Iceland. This red bearded Irishman learned to dive in 2003 around Dublin Bay and since then he's been hooked. He kept on diving after he moved to Iceland, worked for a number of diving companies and then joined forces with David Ramsay to build up Magmadive promoting unforgettable and adventurous scuba trips and expedition dives into the amazing watery deep. David was trained by the British Royal Navy as a chef and ship's diver.
“Magmadive was set up to cater to divers who had already built up a lot of diving experience and wanted more personal, luxury scuba diving tours. What we learned was that the divers that are experienced are interested in more time underwater, more privacy and not having to look after or worry about their dive buddies all the time,” says Kevin.
I can see clearly now
Silfra is one of the most famous diving-places in Iceland and is situated in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Þingvellir National Park which is about a 40 minute drive from Reykjavík.
“Iceland has some of the world's most amazing places to scuba dive and one of them is Silfra. The reason Silfra is so popular is not just because it's in Þingvellir – the world's oldest parliament site – although that helps of course, it's because of the remarkable visibility underwater. It can be over 120 meters on a bad day. This is very special because in many other countries you get maybe 10-30 meters of visibility. You can also drink the water you are diving in.”
The Silfra site is also where two continental plates meet, making it a major geological attraction. Divers can touch both plates at the same time. You can't do this anywhere else in the world. The Silfra ravine was formed as part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which runs diagonally through the middle of Iceland, presenting the divide between the diverging North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The average depth of the site is 15 meters and at its deepest point the site touches over 50 meters in depth.”
The colors of Silfra are magnificent. Cobalt blues while the surrounding lava rock morphs from burning reds to vivid yellows and greens during the summer months. In the winter the blues are sharper and visibility is better than during the summer. “You can dive all year round in Iceland. In summer you can dive in Silfra under the midnight sun; this is one of the most unforgettable experiences of diving in Iceland. Though the water is quite cold you don't really feel it as you are wearing a dry suit. This keeps you warm and dry so you can enjoy this unique underwater world comfortably.”
Presenting the past
There are a number of other places in Iceland where you can go deep diving. One of them is in Seyðisfjörður in the East of Iceland where the El Grillo wreck lies. The ship, a British oil tanker, was shot down by a German plane in 1944; there were no casualties. “The wreck lies at a depth of about 45 meters and is very special because you can dive inside it. You can go inside some of the rooms and some of the artifacts are still in there; machines they were using and the steering wheel. We have pictures and some historical information which we discuss before jumping into the water.”
In order to dive El Grillo, divers need to be certified as PADI advanced open water divers or carry a comparable certification from another organization. Divers also must be experienced dry suit divers. If they are not, Magmadive can train them to use a dry suit before the dive. Kevin says that there is a fantastic potential in Iceland for shipwreck diving.
Where down is up and stones float
The Icelandic Highlands are quite spectacular – the colors, the vastness, the silence ... Öskjuvatn (Lake Askja) is an extraordinary deep water dive site in the highlands. It's a volcanic crater over 200 meters deep and is a true expedition dive adventure. The crater is only accessible for 2-3 months of the year during the summer. Other times of the year the rivers and roads up to the volcano are impassible.
“In 2012 I went there with two other divers and it's a quite spectacular place to go. The water was crystal clear and you have this amazing phenomenon of floating rocks. They float because they are made of pumice stone. Pumice floats as it is less dense than the water. We only went to about 35 meters depth on our dive and the crater kept getting darker and deeper and deeper beneath us. As this was a high altitude dive at 1550 meters, we decided for safety sake not to go any deeper, but the floating rocks and the otherworldly feeling of being in this place is hard to describe; it was an amazing environment.”
Kevin talks about the bottom of the crater. “There are sulfur deposits with unusual colors. They are bright green, blue, yellow and red. I have never seen anything quite like this place.”
Join the club
According to Kevin around 150 Icelanders actively dive and in Reykjavík there is a sports diving club who organizes trips every weekend.
“Approximately 99% of the lakes in Iceland have never been dived so we are interested in taking divers to places that have never been explored before. It is the essence of true adventure. Many tourists are especially interested in this – in being explorers – and we can make those dreams a reality.”
Learning the hard way
Kevin says that to learn to dive in Iceland gives you a fantastic experience and confidence to dive abroad. “That's because Iceland is one of the toughest places on earth to learn. The water is very cold and you need to wear lots of heavy equipment like dry suits. You could go to Thailand and learn how to dive in warm calm surroundings but it does not prepare you for the extremes of the Arctic. It's now becoming increasingly popular for tourists to learn here as they want to take this knowledge with them.”
And the divers of Iceland certainly don't just stay at home during the winter months. In Iceland diving is possible all year round; in darkness and frost as well as when the sun shines for 24 hours. “In the winter we have the northern lights and a lot of our trips include northern lights watching so we often go night diving under a light show; a fantastic experience for our clients,” says Kevin and adds that they also offer ocean diving at night. “Many of the animals come out to hunt in the sea at night so you have much more marine life to survey.”
You are like a guest in another world when you are diving. “You could watch all the diving clips on YouTube ... but until you get your head under the water and take your first breath you cannot truly appreciate it. It's a very unnatural thing to think about but it feels very natural when you do it. You'll always remember the first breath under the water because it's a world that you think you should not be in and I think the other reason is also because people are so surprised that they are so comfortable down there.”
Drive and dive
Another couple of places a short drive from Reykjavik popular for diving are Þingvallavatn and Kleifarvatn. If you want to know more about these and other sites visit magmadive's home page. Don't postpone your diving vacation in Iceland for another second. Book cheap flights to Iceland with WOW air and get your incredible adventure started.