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Snorkeling Silfra: Our Coldest Adventure Yet

Our most extreme Iceland adventure was definitely snorkeling Silfra, a crack between the North American and Eurasian continents. Located in Þingvallavatn Lake in Þingvellir National Park, the water is a mixture of ground water from the surrounding area and melt water from Langjökull glacier in the highlands. It’s some of the purest and clearest water in the world, attracting divers and snorkelers alike for both the visibility and the geological significance of swimming literally between two continents. It’s also very cold water, about 2°C (or 34°F) year round.
December 31 Sunrise at Þingvellir: 11:20am

December 31 Sunrise at Þingvellir: 11:20am

The water temperature was far warmer than the temperature outside. It was December 31 and the winds were gusting up to 40 miles per hour. The temperature was -1°C (30°F) but felt like -8°C (17°F) that day. The sun had just risen and didn’t provide much warmth as the clouds rolled in and it started snowing. I looked at Tim with an expression that must have said we were insane for snorkeling in cold water in such extreme conditions. “This was your idea,” he said.

We were advised to wear thermals and thick socks. Dive.IS would provide the rest to keep us warm and comfortable in the water. We met up with our group at Þingvellir National Park and our guides advised us to stay inside the cars with hats and gloves while they readied all of our equipment. With the winds blasting us, I wasn’t about to argue.

Snorkeling Silfra

Suited up in our drysuits

We were each given a warm suit (think a quilted thin snow suit) to go over our thermals and easily zipped them up. Next came the incredibly uncomfortable drysuits. These are NOT easy to get in to. The rubber neck and wrists are tight to form a seal against your skin to keep the water from getting in. And if you’re a girl, be prepared to lose some hair as you shove your head up through the tiny little rubber neck. Our guides were a godsend helping everyone in the group get in to the drysuits.

Snorkeling Silfra

Getting some help with my neoprene gloves

Snorkeling Silfra

Ready to get in the water

Once in the drysuit, I felt like that kid in A Christmas Story that has so many layers he can’t lower his arms. Totally me. And we weren’t done. Next came a neoprene hood, neoprene gloves, a mask, and a snorkel. We carried our flippers and walked (waddled?) from the parking lot across the road and down a path to the dive site.

We were warned that water does come into the neoprene hoods and gloves, so to expect our head and heads to be wet. The water warms inside the hoods and gloves from your body temperature. So you don’t want to move your hands too much because as the cold water continues to enter, it’s harder for it to warm up.

Snorkeling Silfra

I’m in nearly freezing water!

The drysuit keeps you floating right at the surface of the water and I floated on my back for a few minutes while the air pockets balanced out in the suit. It was much more comfortable than I had been waddling around in it. As I flipped over, I braced myself for the cold. The water on my face wasn’t as cold as I was expecting and it took a bit for any water to even enter my gloves since I tend to keep my hands at my sides when snorkeling.

Snorkeling Silfra

Between the continents

The water is incredibly clear and a world of various shades of blue. We floated with the current down the fissure and the water got deeper, visibility was probably around 80 meters. There are no fish to look at, but there is the occasional neon yellow algae waving from the lava rocks. It’s not everyday that we can literally outstretch our arms to touch two continents and drink the glacial water we’re snorkeling in. It’s an amazingly beautiful underwater landscape and unfortunately neoprene mittens aren’t conducive to the best picture taking for us to really be able to do it justice.

Snorkeling Silfra

The Cathedral

We continued drifting until we reached the section of Silfra that is called The Cathedral. Here, walls of lava fall straight down for the most dramatic underwater views. At the end of The Cathedral, a sand slope suddenly appears and the current picks up quite a bit pushing the water out into the lake. It’s here that we needed to make a left turn. Our guides advised that if we did end up in the lake, they wouldn’t be able to immediately come rescue us and we might have a bit of wait. I was NOT missing that turn. I paddled against the current to make that turn.

My hands were pretty numb and cold by this point, so I was happy to swim into the lagoon. Apparently Tim’s hands were numb too because I watched him drop our GoPro, which he had been videoing with, and swim on. Thankfully he hadn’t dropped it in The Cathedral! He realized a minute later and struggled against the drysuit keeping him above the water to retrieve it.

Snorkeling Silfra

Exiting out of the lagoon

We exited our of the lagoon one by one onto very slippery rocks. From there, it was a 300 meter walk back to the parking area where we’d change out of all of our gear. If snorkeling during Iceland’s summer months, the walk can even make you sweat. That sure wasn’t the case! The next 15 minutes were literally the coldest of our entire lives. The wind blasted us as we walked against it back to the parking lot and I watched in amazement as the back of Tim’s drysuit literally turned to ice like that scene in The Day After Tomorrow when the ice creeps up the Statue of Liberty.

Back in the parking lot, Dive.IS guides were there to help us quickly get out of the drysuits. I ripped the neoprene hood from my head and my hair froze into little stands of icicles immediately as the wind and snow blasted me. My hands were so numb I could hardly move them and a guide worked to quickly get the drysuit off so I could put on my gloves. I sat at the back of the van as the drysuit was finally peeled off and then sprinted for our Landcruiser to layer back up in my sweater, coat, hat, and gloves.

Were we insane? Probably. Were those last 15 excruciatingly cold minutes worth snorkeling Silfra? Definitely!

Know Before You Go

  • Snorkeling Silfra is possible all year round, even on the coldest days! Wear thermals and thick socks. We both wish we had actually worn two pairs of thick socks. There was plenty of room to have two pairs on in the drysuit.
  • As you are suiting up, keep your hat and gloves on whenever possible.
  • Book with Dive.IS. Free hotel pick-up and return is available or you can meet at the Information Center in Þingvellir National Park at a designated time. 14990 ISK per person (approximately $120).
  • The Information Center serves soup and hot chocolate and is a great way to warm up after snorkeling.
  • A hot shower after never felt so good!

Thank you to Dive.IS for hosting us on the Snorkeling Silfra tour. As always, all opinions and decisions to snorkel in the middle of winter in Iceland are entirely our own.

Jennifer Dombrowski

Jennifer Dombrowski is a location independent globe trotter who is based in Prata di Pordenone, Italy. She works as a social media and communications strategist and is an award-winning travel writer. She is also a travel correspondent on Traveling on the American Forces Radio Network. Jdomb's Travels was named one of the top travel blogs to watch by the Huffington Post and has been featured by top publications such as CNN, Buzzfeed , and The Telegraph. Her iPhoneograpy has also been featured on publications such as USA Today and Travel + Leisure. Google+

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  1. Christy

    Wow. So cool! I wouldn’t have thought water would get into your suit and that your hands would get so cold. Was there at least a hot tub to jump in right after? haha

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    A hot tub or a natural geothermal spring sure would have been nice, but only cold water is around the snorkeling site. I didn’t realize about water getting in the hood and gloves before hand either. My head was never really cold despite my hair being wet.

    [Reply]

  2. Peter Lee

    So cold. I can only guess how it feels. You look beautiful in dry suits. But I would really like to appreciate the clicks you managed in such cold environment.

    [Reply]

  3. Laurel

    That looks cold, but sooooo worth it! What a unique experience.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    The water itself was not bad with only my hands and head actually exposed to it. It was the wind and weather that day that made it so excruciatingly cold. But the few minutes that we were cold was totally worth seeing such amazingly clear water and lava rocks and caves.

    [Reply]

  4. D.J. - The World of Deej

    Wow….now THAT is awesome. Of course, how bad was it getting out as far as temperature?

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Getting out was excruciatingly cold, but only because of the wind. Had it not been so windy, it would have been much more comfortable on the walk back and changing out of the drysuits. I suppose this is why most people do this during the Icelandic summer?

    [Reply]

  5. Ali

    I love the fact that you can be in between the 2 plates! I’d never be able to do this in the cold. I don’t scuba dive, but I love snorkeling, and anything that’s cold enough to require more than a shorty is too cold for me. Sounds like an incredible experience though!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Definitely an incredible experience, Ali! I could have done without the wind that just sliced right through us, but it was worth it to see the amazing underwater world between the two continents.

    [Reply]

  6. Deb

    This looks like a great adventure. Glad you retrieved the GoPro, that would have sucked! I’ll bet that 300 metre walk was the longest 300 metres of you life, but so well worth it, you got to do something that very few people ever do!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    I am just thankful he didn’t drop the GoPro where is was 90 meters deep. That REALLY would have sucked! And yes, that 300 meters was the longest and coldest of my life. Somehow I think a polar plunge would be less torturous!

    [Reply]

  7. Bridget @ GreenGlobalTravel

    Wow what an incredible experience! I’m glad the cold didn’t stop you from snorkeling. Thanks for sharing!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    If I were to do something like this again, I think I’d do it when the temperatures are warmer outside. The water at Silfra is always a consistent 34F, but that last little hike back with the wind and freezing temperatures was like torture.

    [Reply]

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