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Chilling Waters: Iceland’s Silfra Fissure

The Silfra Fissure.The Silfra Fissure. Image: Corbis.

Shaney Hudson discovers the surreal and storied waters of the glacier-fed Silfra fissure, Iceland’s most famous dive site

It’s the early evening, and while the summer sun still shines brightly in Iceland, the country’s most popular national park is decidedly empty. Though it’s the busiest month on the tourist calendar, no other cars linger in the parking lot, the visitor center has closed its doors and no footsteps echo along the paths.

I’ve come here to snorkel the Silfra fissure on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It’s here that the tectonic plates between the US and Eurasia tear apart from each other like an estranged couple: slowly, painfully, with the occasionally vicious eruption.

The fissure is home to one of the world’s most spectacular freshwater diving sites. Lauded by divers, the water is cold and clear, seeping up underground from a glacier more than 30 miles away. It’s a spectacular filtering process that takes around 100 years, and one that produces a surprisingly strong current.

Divers are flushed through sub-aqua highlights like Silfra Hall and Silfra Cathedral, and into Silfra Lagoon. However, without a diver’s license, I’ve come to snorkel the fissure with a handful of others, through local operator Dive.Is on their Midnight Sun snorkel tour.

Silfra is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, not just because of the magnificent fissure, but also because it’s the location of the world’s first parliament, established around AD930.

It was here that people would travel each year to discuss events, catch up on news and eke out territorial agreements, but also where laws would be executed — along with the people who were judged to be breaking them. Our guide points to a waterfall, nicknamed Axe Waterfall because it’s where male victims were supposedly decapitated.

Women, he tells us, were offered a no less gruesome death — drowned in the small pools of water close to us, often tied up in a sack — for alleged crimes including immorality, infanticide and witchcraft. They called them, unceremoniously, the drowning pools.

Standing above the fissure where we’ll snorkel and dive, our instructor grins. “There were even people drowned in here — so if you hear voices underwater, ignore them.”

As we wander back to gear up in layers of thermals and quilted liners and drysuits, it’s a difficult thought to shake off. Silfra means ‘the silver lady’. I muse whether it’s a reference to
the ghosts of its past.

Once in the water, I’m swallowed up by a surreal underwater world of deep blue beauty. It’s lined with volcanic rocks that are illuminated sapphire blue and decorated with neon-green tendrils of fine seaweed, and I can just make out the shadow of Arctic char as they swim between the shadows.

But as much as I’m thrilled by the experience, and as much as it lives up to expectations, the water holds a chill that can’t be explained by the glacier-fed supply. I find myself listening as the current moves me along, but all I hear underwater is the sound of silence.


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