Guide to Snorkeling in Silfra in the Winter
If you told me that one day I’d be taking off my coat and boots to put on a drysuit outside in the middle of winter, I would have told you that you’re crazy. But, that’s exactly what I did on my trip to Iceland! When my friends and I were researching what to do in Iceland, a few things were obvious: see the waterfalls, swim in a lagoon, look for the northern lights… But one thing we didn’t know about? Snorkeling! But we were going to visit in January, we couldn’t possibly snorkel then, could we? Wrong! Yes, you can go snorkeling in Silfra in the winter. People may think you’re crazy, but it will be the best decision of your trip!
What makes Silfra unique?
Silfra is the only place in the world where you can go snorkeling between two continents. The fissure was actually formed from an earthquake in 1789 because of the shifting tectonic plates of the North American and European continents. This caused the split in the earth to fill with glacial water. Because it is filtered through the lava rock in the fissure, it is the clearest and cleanest water in the world.
Because the water flows right off of the glacier, the water is very cold. And not just in winter! Even in the summer it’s still about 3 C / 36 F. Keep this in mind as you prepare to visit.
What will I see when I go snorkeling in Silfra?
Unlike most places you go snorkeling, Silfra doesn’t have many fish, so that’s not what draws people in. In fact, don’t expect to see any wildlife with your naked eye. No, the main attraction here is the pristine blue water – unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And because the water is so clear, you can see so far down! It’s incredible.
If you’re visiting in August or September (mating season), you might see some arctic char. Otherwise, the only fish found in the fissure are dwarf char, which are pretty tiny and hide in the deep, dark crevices of the rocks. Most of the living creatures in Silfra are actually microinvertebrates, which are impossible for us to see!
How to Book a Tour to Snorkel in Silfra
Silfra is located in Thingvellir National Park, and snorkeling is only accessible with a guide. There are plenty of tour options to choose from, so pick whatever works best for your schedule. We went with Arctic Adventures – who also provided some of the photos for this article – and they were fantastic all around.
As with most tours that you book in Reykjavik, make sure that you let the company know where you need to be picked up – or make note of where the bus leaves from. You don’t want to miss it! I recommend choosing the option that is earlier in the day, and then give yourself some time in the afternoon to relax back at your hotel to warm up and rest.
Looking for something else to do in Reykjavik? Try a whale watching cruise!
Preparing to Snorkel in Silfra
Because of the unique location and cold water, there are a few things to know before snorkeling in Silfra. First, make sure that you wear a layer of thermals underneath your clothes. You’re going to want them! Even with the thermals and your clothes under the drysuit, you’ll be cold. (Honestly, I didn’t think it was bad until I had to take OFF the drysuit! So I’m glad I was well-prepared.) Changing rooms are very limited and occasionally unavailable at the national park, so make sure that you have your thermals on when you arrive.
While you won’t be wearing gloves, hats, or boots in the water, make sure you have them for before and after your tour. You will also be advised to remove all jewelry, and to put long hair back in a low ponytail to keep it out of your face.
You are technically allowed to bring your own underwater compatible camera/video equipment, but you do so at your own risk. Make sure that you check the temperature and depth limitations on your equipment. Also, with the gloves that you’ll be wearing while snorkeling, it will be nearly impossible to accurately use them! It’s better to just enjoy the experience and let the guide take photos for you to purchase. With that said, leave all valuables back at your hotel.
Due to the nature of the activity, most companies have restrictions about who is allowed to participate. Snorkelers need to be 12 years or older, and anyone under 18 must have a parent or guardian with them. Because of the drysuits you are required to wear, there are also height and weight limitations to ensure that they fit you properly and don’t fill with water. People with certain medical conditions are also advised not to participate without a doctor’s note. Pregnant women and those with serious health concerns are not allowed.
The equipment that you will be wearing while snorkeling is made from latex and neoprene. If you have allergies to either, you’ll need to contact the tour company to see if there are alternative arrangements. Glasses are also not allowed to be worn under the snorkeling mask.
Snorkeling in Silfra in the Winter
Yes, I know it sounds crazy. Who snorkels in the winter? Isn’t it too cold? Well, yes. It’s very cold. Extremely. But it’s worth it! You just need to be prepared! As I mentioned, make sure that you’re wearing thermals under your clothing and you’ve got warm hats, gloves, and boots – and maybe a change of socks – to warm you back up when you get out of the water.
Putting on the equipment
Are you ready? When you arrive at Thingvellir, your guide and his/her assistants will help you pick out an undersuit and a drysuit.
You will need to remove your coat, boots, gloves, hat, and outer layer of clothing – outside in the winter cold. It’s not the most fun. But you can do it! Then you put your drysuit on over your thermals, as you’re being careful not to step in the snow. Your guide will help make sure it is zipped appropriately.
Next? The drysuit. This is where it gets interesting… and quite humorous. The drysuit is a full-body suit, complete with boot-like feet attached. You’ve got to step into it (while still wearing the thick undersuit), and pull it up over your body. It’s designed to be pretty form-fitting, so it’s not the easiest thing to do! It’s helpful to have a friend or a guide help you.
That’s not all! Once your drysuit is on and sealed at your neck and wrists, you’ll need to put on your snorkel mask and a hood to keep your face covered and warm. Then it’s the gloves. You’ll definitely need help with these pieces.
Grab your flippers, and you’ll be ready to go! (I know, I know, about half of the time of your tour is actually spent getting ready, and then taking it all off again after!)
While the majority of your body will be covered and sealed off from water, parts of your face and long hair will be exposed to the water.
Getting in the water
Once your whole group is ready, your guide will lead you to the start of the fissure, where you’ll enter the water and put on your flippers. The time in the water is about 40-45 minutes for most tours, and you’ll be following your guide the entire time. And while your equipment is designed to keep the water OFF your body, you’ll be advised to keep your hands out of the water to be safe. (Another reason it’s not worth bringing your own camera!)
The pace is pretty slow as you make your way through the fissure. Look down, look around – take in all the natural beauty! Keep in mind there will be a few points that are particularly shallow, but your drysuit is buoyant and will help keep you at the top of the water. Just do your best to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on the rocks below you.
Your time in the water will end in a lagoon – a pool of water with a current. You’ll be able to spend some time there if you choose, or get right out of the water. This is usually a spot where the guides take lots of photos of you – so you can remember how ridiculous you look. 😉
Warm up with cocoa
Once you’re done in the water, you’ll walk back to the parking lot to remove all of the equipment and change back into your own clothes. Plus, the guide will give you a cup of hot cocoa to warm up! (Every tour we did in Iceland included cocoa!)
While not necessarily the cheapest thing to do in Iceland, snorkeling in Silfra in the winter is something I’ll remember forever. It was such a uniquely beautiful place. Are you ready to try it?