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Between Two Continents: Diving the Silfra Fissure in Iceland

Aktualisiert: 12. Nov. 2023

The shortest way distance between America and Europe is via Iceland

My first trip to Iceland led me to the famed Silfra fissure, where the Eurasian and the American continental plates drift slowly away from each other. The site lies about 40 km away from Reykjavik, with the gap running between the two continental plates filled with crystal clear water. It is considered to be one of the best diving and snorkelling spots in the world.

The area is particularly interesting from a geological point of view. It is a continuation of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the continental plates of Eurasia and America float apart, with the gap widening at an average of about 2 cm per year. This phenomenon can clearly be seen at the Alamannagjá Gorge near the national park of Thingvillir (Pingvillr). The gorge, with its steep and jagged walls of dark basalt, runs through the landscape like a kilometre-long gaping wound. There is perhaps nowhere else on earth where geology in action can be seen more vividly than here at the junction of the two continental plates as they inch further away from each other every year.

For Icelanders, Thingvellir is a magical place that is inseparably linked to the country’s history. More than 1000 years ago, around 930AD, the first "meeting of the free men of Iceland" was held at this site. Under the open sky this early community discussed the innovations and changes of life and landscape. It is from this meeting that Alamannagjá derives its name, meaning "column of the men" or "column of the general public". The moniker is also a swearword in Icelandic, used derogatively to describe a woman who has had a lot of male companions.

The Silfra Fissure in Thingvellir National Park

I parked at the visitor centre (car park P1) where I could get a good view of the landscape around. I was able to see the Almannagjá Gorge running from northeast to southwest, as well as Pingvallavtn lake, the biggest body of inland water in Iceland. Further down was the famous Silfa fissure that leads directly into the lake. I used a few rain-free minutes to walk the short distance to the Alamannagjá Gorge.

It was finally time to do some diving. I drove to the other side of the gorge to car park P5. From here it was another 400 m to a small car park, where several diving bases offer diving and snorkelling trips into the Silfra crevice. The cold rain and strong winds made me wander whether I really wanted to get into the water. The thermometer read an unfriendly 2 degrees. Back in Berlin when I was boarding my plane to Reykjavik it had been an early summer temperature of 25 degrees. Here, there was still some snow.

The team of Dive.Is was very friendly. We changed into our gear and received the diving brief in a small bus where we were protected from the elements. From here, we made our move, descending from a platform and down a few steps into cold and crystal clear water. I had a breath-taking view of the steep, rugged walls of the continental plates. Now I knew why the Silfra rift is considered one of the best dive sites in the world!

I moved along the bottom of the 18-meter-deep underwater canyon taking in its spectacular rock formations through some of the clearest water I have seen in the world. The visibility is supposed to be between 70 to 100 meters. The conditions are so perfect here because the crevice is filled with meltwater from the Langjökull glacier, about 50 km away. It is filtered through lava rocks for decades before it emerges to the surface from an underground spring north of Pingvallavtn. The temperature remains cold all year-round at about 4 degrees, and a slight current caused by the underground springs also contributes to the excellent visibility in the Silfra Fissure. Despite the overcast sky I could see far out into the endless underwater distance. What it must be like here when the sun shines and if beams of light refract through the water...

I let myself drift with the light current along the rock walls of the underwater canyon. What can I say? There is no other word to describe this place, but spectacular. Three large rooms divide the gorge: the Silfra hall, the Silfra cathedral and the Silfra lagoon. Left and right, gigantic stone walls made of heavy, angular basalt boulders fall into the shimmering blue depths that in certain light give off a green hue. Here, only a few meters separate Europe and America. At a rocky promontory I had the possibility to touch both continental plates at the same time. Europe to the left, America to the right. The shortest way distance between America and Europe is without doubt via Iceland.

At the end of the dive the walls narrowed again and I swam to the left into a crystal clear lagoon, known as the "Blue Lagoon" because of its bright blue water. If I had carried on further I would have reached Lake Pingvallavtn.

By the way, fish from Lake Pingvallavtn rarely get lost in the Silfra Fissure. In the fissure you can only really find brown trout (Salmo trutta), lake char (Salvelinus alpinus) and three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus). Plants are also rare: only some poison-green algae that adorns the walls, bobbing slowly back and forth with the movement of the water. The thread-shaped algae are called "troll hair" because of their resemblance to the strange mythical creatures with tall shocks of pointy green hair. Iceland is indeed the land of elves and trolls.

Apropos trolls: On Iceland a stone is not just a stone. Many striking rocks and boulders are never touched because they could be dwellings of some small creature or other. I repeatedly saw so-called stone men, rocks that looked like human figures. The stone men are supposed to be fossilized trolls who weren’t able to get to their caves in time before sunrise. Allegedly about half of Iceland’s population still believe in the existence of elves and trolls and there is even an official elven representative. A strange country... As a precaution, I left the algae untouched. I didn't want to mistakenly pull at any troll hair. Better to leave them bathing undisturbed amidst their stunning world of crystalline ice and water.

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