The wind is cold in my face and there is a dignifying silence resting in this place. The sea is more than 50 km away. Still I find myself standing in Thingvellir National Park in Iceland in full scuba gear. This vast, and partly water filled, valley is like a natural cradle fenced by snowcapped mountains. I am looking straight down into a wide crack in the crust of mother earth.
It is filled with silver liquid that shifts from transparent lush greens into distant blues. I smile inside and then I take a giant stride. The big chilly splash breaks the silence when I fall into Silfra’s incredible water world. Finally inside the place of my dreams.
The scenery is straight up in my face and absolutely mind-blowing in its true sense, and at the same time the merciless and bone-chilling 3 degrees C enfolds me. It is like entering a “cathedral natura”. Proud towering walls falling straight down along the edges of this submerged valley. Huge boulders are scattered around and the scenery is dressed in silvery water. My mind and body is busy trying to catch up with the unreal reality and I quickly dump air from my tank into the dry suit to insulate. Silfra is a cold beauty.
My improbable dive guide, Louis from Namibia, is pointing downwards towards the deep cavern opening below us. As carefully planned we descend together into the black crack. It is like swimming into the mouth of mother earth and Jules Verne’s ”A journey to the center of the earth” flashes in my brain. We enter the dark side of Silfra and follow a fixed line as our reference. Deep inside I look up and there are openings high above, like skylights on a ship, and the sunlight travels all the way down to us at 40 meters, in the clear water.
I follow Louis, or rather his torchlight, under a massive boulder wedged between the walls in the cavern. I think about the fact that these walls are actually moving away from each other by 2-3 cm per year. Sooner or later this rock has to tumble down but I decide it is not just now and swim under. The Atlantic rift is actually a huge crack in the earth’s surface between the continents of Europe and America. This fault cuts its way through the centre of Iceland through Thingvellir National Park. The fact that Silfra is a part of the divergent tectonic boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates is making us literally swimming between two continents.
In some places it is tight and we can reach out and touch both sides. I feel very small in this big-scaled thought. Louis finds his way out from the cavern systems into the open crack that is bathing in sunlight and colors. The cold is taking its toll on Louis but we continue over a shallow part to enter yet another part of Silfra further downstream. This stretch is even more overwhelming and scenic. The wild landscape in this clear water is luring my brain into doing visual somersault readings and distances are confusing to judge.
The reason behind Silfra’s incredible water clarity is the fact that melted water from the glacier Langjoekull is filtered through lava rock underground for 20 to 30 years before it is vented through wells and then slowly runs via the crack of Silfra to the lake Thingvallavatn which is Iceland’s biggest lake. The water temperature is stable, 2 to 4 degrees C, all year around. Unesco has declared Thingvellir National Park a world heritage site, both for its cultural & historical significance as well as natural & geological uniqueness. In Thingvellir the first parliament in the world was held year 930.
I continue to dive in Silfra for the whole week with Louis from Namibia. We investigate the deep and dark areas, the parallel cracks and of course the fantastic lagoon. I even find the brown trouts, Salmo trutta, inside small caverns and overhangs. Apparently arctic charr, Salvelinus alpinus, and three-spine stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatus, are also around. Gradually, dive after dive, my buddy Louis is freezing up faster and faster and I know I am wearing him down to the limit. I ensure him that I am leaving Iceland soon and he just has to bite the bullet for a couple of more days. I send my regards to him and thank him for his heroic stamina.
One day we decided to visit the sea to reset the Silfra brain. We drove to a place called Garthur, not far from Reykjavik, and did a dive from a pier. Straight away I realized that the wind from the previous days had lowered the visibility to 1 or 2 meters. After Silfra this vis is hard to coop with. Finalizing the first dive I was spending time around a sandy patch at around five meters. I discovered aggregations of dabs, Limanda limanda, hanging out, suggesting some sort of mating behavior. They were everywhere swimming around in “show off” mode. I decided to go back with a wider lens to capture dabs on the move. So on the second dive I stayed on that very patch at 5 meters shooting the dabs for more than two beautiful hours and they continued to show off over the sand.
I saved my favorite for last - the lagoon. And the lagoon is actually, no surprise, a lagoon connected to the Silfra crack running towards the lake. When I enter the lagoon the first time and realize that I can easily see straight through to the other end I find it hard to believe. The scenery is strong with fantastic lighting, spectacular colors and cracks and piled stones making the dramatic shapes. Bearing in mind that water is our true origin Silfra lagoon symbolizes and embodies the unspoilt wilderness we want to preserve. She is a roll model and very much an icon for untouched nature.
It is my last dive and I hang around in the lagoon. Looking up at my exhaust bubbles, shining like quicksilver domes, I see Louis signaling his exit quite early shivering like an autumn leaf. I stay as I do not want to let go just yet. My mouth is very dry after breathing scuba air for 80 minutes. I decide to lift the mouthpiece of the regulator a fraction and I drink pure refreshing water while diving. It feels a bit strange but works fine. I say my fare well to Silfra as I hover close to a long stone ridge. It’s just the spectacular lagoon and me… and of course Louis on the top probably wondering why on earth I am taking so long?
After 20 years of underwater photography the most interesting and rewarding things is to enter a, for me, new type of environment, a new type of habitat. While in Silfra I rediscovered my long forgotten memories from dives made in Pupu Springs in New Zealand in 1992. The memories came back when I re-entered the same “water world” in Iceland 17 years later. In my heart Silfra is a place of true wonder and raw beauty and of great importance on any given level. I am a fan for life. Thank You world, thank You Silfra… and thank You Louis from Namibia!
Next I went to the Azores to explore the great wide open sea looking for interesting mammals and marine life. The main target was the greatest toothed animal on earth, the greatest diver ever seen, equipped with the largest brain around even if Einstein would have been alive – the powerful, thrilling and mysterious sperm whales. Stay tuned these reports are coming very soon.
Magnus Lundgren / Wild Wonders of Europe
Please note that blogs reflect our photographers' opinions and not necessarily those of the directors of Wild Wonders of Europe.