Stunned by Iceland’s rugged volcanic grandeur, Steve Jones encounters impossible visibility, hydrothermal chimneys, and is delighted by toothy wolffish while scuba diving Iceland’s otherworldly waters
As we plunge into the 2ºC water, the numbing cold bites at our exposed faces, but in seconds the pain is forgotten as our senses are overwhelmed by the breath-taking vista unfolding before us. The small, pear-shaped pool we’re scuba diving, high in Iceland’s mountainous wilderness and known as Tear of Odin, is roughly 120 metres long and we can see from one end to the other.
The visibility is otherworldly – it is as if we are floating in space. This may be one of the least-known dive sites in Iceland, but it is surely one of the best. It is late summer, and this is as warm as the water gets. It will be frozen within weeks. The pool drops away under an overhang to nearly 20 metres, and my buddy, seasoned guide and cave diver Fraser Cameron, searches the dark recesses for a passage, to see if it continues. However, it is impassable. The pool is devoid of marine life, but no matter; this dive is to experience the underwater view.
It is as spectacular as the dramatic volcanic panoramas we saw during the hours of off-road driving it took us to reach the site. When the 4×4 could go no further, we had to carry our gear for 20 minutes before we reached the pool. It doesn’t get more remote. Discovered by David Sigurthorsson, an expedition leader at the country’s largest dive centre, Dive.is, The Tear of Odin epitomises what diving in Iceland is all about; where a little bit of effort and discomfort is rewarded with jaw-dropping vistas, both above and below the water.
That night, cold but invigorated, we sleep in a mountain hut before embarking the following day on a long, enthralling drive even further out into the highlands. We cross rivers, wind our way over countless steep, volcanic dirt tracks, encounter off-road monster trucks that would be at home in a Mad Max movie, and bathe in 40 ° C of thermal river water, all the while surrounded by the unearthly views that were forged during Iceland’s fiery birth.
Geologically, Iceland is the youngest country on Earth, having formed 16 to 18 million years ago in a vast explosion of volcanic activity which continues to this day. We are heading to Eyjafjörður fjord on the remote northern coast of the island, one of the only places on earth where you can dive a hydrothermal chimney. They are more often found at abyssal depths of 2,000-6,000 metres and only accessed by submarines.
The Strýtan chimney, a towering structure of siliceous deposits, rises more than 50m from the seabed to just 15m from the surface. As we approach the site, our guide Erlendur Bogason explains, with I hope a humorous glint in his eye, what my fate will be if any careless fin stroke were to damage this fragile structure. I make a mental note to be extra careful, wishing to avoid the wrath of this imposing Icelandic guardian!
As we descend, the chimney shimmers as hot water gushes into the cooler sea at a rate of 100 litres a second. The water is around 72 ° C, hot enough to warm my hands through my thick dry-gloves. As we drop, the water becomes clearer and by the time we reach 35m, we can just about make out the base of the chimney nearly 30m below.
Estimated to have been formed some 10,000 years ago, and still growing, Strýtan is awe-inspiring. Nearby, the Arnarnesstrýtur chimney lies in much shallower water (between 15 and 23m) and is home to profuse marine life, including diverse species of nudibranchs and the aptly named lumpfish.
Within minutes of entering the water, we are surrounded by Atlantic cod, meandering through the kelp. As we move closer to the chimney, I realise we are being watched by a fearsome-looking wolffish. They can grow to 1.5m and weigh 18 kg, and despite resembling giant, angry blennies with a mouth full of shell-crushing teeth, they are surprisingly gentle.
Wolffish produce a natural antifreeze that allows them to survive in temperatures as low as minus one degree Centigrade. They play an important role in controlling disruptive populations of crab and urchin, yet in many parts of the world numbers of these engaging animals are dwindling due to overfishing, consequently putting entire marine ecosystems at risk of imbalance.
BOYCOTT OR NOT?
There is a troubling paradox about Iceland. The nation has embraced environmentalism, tapping into natural sources of thermal energy to heat homes, and implementing rigorous controls to protect national park ecosystems. Yet it is one of the few countries that actively kills whales for food and export, an activity completely at odds with Iceland’s burgeoning tourist industry as well as international opinion.
There is within the country a growing and very vocal opposition to whaling which was resumed in 2003. In 2018 Icelandic whalers harpooned 145 fin whales and six minke whales. However, last year the two companies involved in the barbaric practice decided not to take up the allowed quota. Nevertheless, the quota, authorised by the Icelandic government, is still in place until 2023.
Rannveig Grétarsdóttir, CEO of Elding, Iceland’s largest whale-watching company and extremely active in the campaign to stop whaling, told me: ‘As a country of green energy and beautiful nature, it is difficult to understand the motive and reason for the Icelandic government to allow the whaling to continue.’
She suggested it may have something to do with national pride – not wanting to be bossed around by other countries. But she insisted that the opposition is winning the argument. A campaign called ‘Meet Us Don’t Eat Us’ supported by the main dive operators and whale-watching companies, has been gaining traction, steadily winning over those in power. It also promotes restaurants which do not support the trade and that refuse to stock whale products.
This leads us to the key question of whether conservation-minded tourists should boycott Iceland for its whaling activities, or, instead, should environmentally-aware tourism be encouraged? There’s no simple answer. However, some of the strongest voices against Icelandic whaling are those from within – the whale-watching and diving operators who campaign within the community and government to end this awful practice. Don’t they need our support?
Only 30 minutes from the capital ReykjavÍk, one of Iceland’s deepest lakes can be found amid a stunning volcanic landscape. As you kit up on the black sand shore of Kleifarvatn, it is easy to imagine you are about to explore some far-distant planet. Following a short swim in shallow water, we encounter underwater hot vents where streams of bubbles pour from sulphur-stained lake-bed cracks with such force that the nearby ground resonates!
Iceland sits on the mid-Atlantic Ridge, which separates the Eurasian and North American Tectonic Plates, and the country’s most famous dive site, the Silfra fissure, is the only place on Earth where you can literally scuba dive between two continents, with America on one side and Europe on the other. The water here is of a similar clarity to the Tear of Odin, with visibility greater than 100m.
The meltwater from the Langjökull glacier, that fills the crack, has spent a hundred years being slowly filtered through basalt during its journey and is extremely pure, said to be the clearest water in the world. It has a temperature of around 2 to 4°C but doesn’t freeze because of freshwater continuously flowing into the fissure, thus allowing diving year-round.
Formed in 1789 in the Thingvellir National Park, following movement of the tectonic plates, the Silfra fissure continues to grow wider by around two centimetres a year, due to the continued plate movement. While some areas of Silfra have caves that run very deep, the cold water and instability of the environment means that diving is restricted to 18m for safety reasons, and venturing into the caves is forbidden.
Dives all run in the same direction and timing is controlled to prevent too many people disrupting the incredible scenery. As we proceed through the first section, ‘Silfra Big Crack’, the chasm deepens into a section known as ‘The Hall’, before opening into an expansive area called ‘The Cathedral’, where the incredibly clear water can be fully appreciated. The dive ends in a lagoon in which the brilliant blues of the water contrast with the neon green of the troll’s hair algae in an intense colour show that overpowers the senses.
Spectacular landscapes, waterfalls, geysers and stunning diving, complemented by seasonal spectacles such as the Northern Lights, make it difficult to imagine a more attractive location for those seeking outdoor adventure. Yet there is no escaping that the continuation of the country’s whaling activities casts a dark shadow over Iceland’s considerable attributes, in particular for those nature-oriented people who would otherwise be drawn to this location.
The organisations within this country that oppose whaling deserve maximum support to help end this practice, one that is so environmentally and ethically at odds with what makes this unique land so appealing: its abundance of natural beauty.
• Steve Jones dived with Dive.is who arranges tours throughout the island, both to inland and offshore sites. Special thanks to Tobias Klose, Fraser Cameron and the dive staff of Dive.is (www.dive.is). Also, thanks to Erlendur Bogason and the dive staff of Strytan Dive Center (www.strytan.is). For more details about Meet Us Don’t Eat Us go to http://icewhale.is