IN VISIBILITY EXCEEDING 100M, we find ourselves diving between two continents. Magnificent volcanoes rise above the horizon, painting the landscape with a fiery, reddish hue. Unique hydrothermal vents mark the ocean below, and fascinating World War Two wrecks wait to be discovered. Welcome to Iceland.
Our van tumbles down the road that leads to the very heart of the tectonic rift system, while our guide, David, tells us about the myths of Norseman settling his home country.
Embraced by volcanoes on either margin, this foreign landscape intensifies all our senses. Long stretches of evergreen grasslands, yellow and orange wetlands and little streams of bright blue water pass by my window as if on their way, as we are, to the Thingvallavatn Lake.
Rain and glacial water traverse unconventional routes on their way into this basin, situated two hours east of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik.
Most of the glacial water from Iceland’s second biggest glacier Lángjökull filters through the porous basalts for hundreds of years before welling up in the many fissures found around the lake.
This is why it’s so clear and clean that a diver can drink from it during the dive. But there is a price to pay when visiting this wondrous place – we must weather water temperatures of 2°C.
A convenient staircase allows me to descend into Silfra, one of many ruptures caused by tectonic activity.
Silfra means silver lady. The cleft is quite narrow, and her deepest point is at around 60m. It’s filled with the planet’s purest fresh water.
A steep wall of magmatic rock near the entrance guides me into a labyrinth of cavities, arches, troughs and saddles. Above my head, a shimmering effect turns the surface into a silvery mirror.
It is only at the very end of the dive that I am reminded of the limiting temperatures.
A short break in the bright but faint summer sun gives us enough warmth to continue our dive into a shallow lagoon. At the bottom, just above the piercing white sediment, the production of tiny gas bubbles causes wisps of light green algae to float and flutter softly in the stream.
Soon we re-enter the main fissure and a cathedral – as the locals call it – of massive basaltic boulders steals my breath. Here the Earth is split in two by energy coming from the deep mantle below. We are diving between continents, on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge system.

THE EARTH IN MOTION
Geologically speaking, Iceland is very young at roughly 20 million years. Much of its landscape has not yet been levelled, and Europe’s most powerful waterfalls tumble from great heights as they carve their way into the lava fields.
This is one of the most active places in Europe, home to more than 30 active volcanic systems.
The island consists of volcanic rock generated at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a mountain that stretches along the entire Atlantic Ocean. Far from your average mountain range, this is a rift system, also known as a “spreading centre”.
Here two tectonic plates are being pushed apart, leaving a gap in the middle where hot magma rises and crystallises on the ocean floor.
Much of the ridge lies below the surface of the water. In some areas, it rises above sea level, creating the island country. Iceland is also situated above a hotspot, a region of high volcanic activity caused by the rise of a hot mantle plume, similar to that in the Hawaiian Islands.
Mantle plumes come from far deeper then the average mid-oceanic ridge. Scientists believe that this one arrives at the surface from as deep as the core-mantle boundary, 3000km below the Earth’s crust!

QUEST FOR ADVENTURE
Along with guide David Sigurthorsson from Dive.is, Iceland’s biggest dive operator, we embark on a 10-day journey around the island.
Diving in Iceland is slowly becoming more popular, but few of the locations on the schedule are commercialised and there are relatively few diving facilities. Tanks are filled at fire departments!
However, nothing beats being at Nature’s mercy. When sudden volcanic activity on the second day of our trip forces us to abandon the coastal road to the east, David questions whether inland rivers and unpaved roads will allow us to continue our journey.
He awaits outfitted 4x4s to cross the rivers, before guiding our heavily loaded van through the water.
While travelling inland, the volcanic landscapes vary as in the pages of a geological textbook. Black barren moonscapes are covered with pumice and volcanic bombs, which was why they provided an ideal place for NASA to train its astronauts, during the Moon landings in the 1960s.
We round a corner and, suddenly, rivers carve into light-coloured ashes of glowing hills and valleys and nothing remains to remind us of its destructive nature. The creation of Earth’s crust occurs in so many beautiful ways.
But the detour does more than allow us to see the beautiful inland areas; it gives David the opportunity to take us climbing into a ravine, formed by stream-cutting erosion. A waterfall has cut soft curves into the bedrock of a hill and, with ropes and drysuits, we make our way deeper into the system.
David has been here before. He knows the shape and features of what seems almost like a cave. On our way back we let the water carry us.
Where we initially climbed upwards along the edge of the stream, we now make a freefall. “Are you sure” I ask David. “Yes!” is the reply.
When the evening sets we finally arrive at the south-east coast of Iceland. Here its biggest glacier, the Vatnajökull, flows majestically down the mountain and calves icebergs into a shallow lagoon just in front of the sea.
The icebergs will have to melt before crossing an even shallower pass into the ocean. Some are coloured black by the ashes from last year’s eruption, which indicates that the iceberg has not turned since that time.
Seals march up and down next to the ice and give us a curious look before disappearing into the dark water. We still have four hours to drive to our next destination, and the forced detour is taking its toll. In the back of the van I fall into a deep sleep. Tomorrow we will go wreck-diving!

DIVE INTO HISTORY
On a thick, mussel-covered rope, I descend into the Seyois Fjord at the foot of a small, authentic fishing village in the east of Iceland. The fjord is a spectacular U-shaped valley carved by a glacier that has now receded.
The ridge is thickly covered in snow, even in summer. Although the ocean water is said to be a few degrees warmer then the fresh water in Silfra, the cold soon seeps in, and it isn’t long before darkness envelops us. The El Grillo, a 147m-long oil tanker of 7000 tons, slowly emerges in the beam of my light.
It must have been a cold winter day on 10 February in 1944, when British soldiers stood against the railing watching the German forces approach from the sky. The El Grillo was built by the British in 1922, and positioned in this natural harbour during WW2 to supply the Allied forces with fuel.
The ship took a serious hit, but didn’t sink right away. Fearing that the Germans would return, the crew sank her that same day. Long after the war, the oil was recovered and used as fuel.
Today we do two dives. The deepest part of the ship is at 45m, and it reaches up to about 28m. We descend on its metal frame, which is covered with little sponges, echinoderms and crustaceans. At the bridge, a small corridor leads us around several small compartments.
We pass a wooden door, wide open, and for a moment can almost hear the human laughter that once rang through the vessel. But in the cabin there is little to see, and several pitch-black portholes emphasise an abandoned emptiness.
Despite the limited bottom times, this dive into Iceland’s history provides another amazing experience.

BUSTLING WITH ENERGY
We move on to the Oxarf Fjord, which is just 60 miles from the Arctic Circle. In the deltaic landscape a small crack, named Nesgja, connects a brackish lagoon to the nearby open ocean. Unspoiled, the vulnerable environment is even more elusive in this crack, which is named Silfra’s Sister.
Thick, plastic-like microbial mats cover the rocks like a translucent veil.
A bluish-green hue distorts any sense of depth, and there seems no end to it.
However, 15 minutes into the dive, we are forced upon a shallow, razor-sharp saddle of basalt that represents our way to the lagoon.
In the lagoon itself, the undisturbed floating algae thrives, especially when compared to Silfra, and forms a landscape of hanging curtains.
This afternoon we stop at a concealed spring in the middle of nowhere. With a grin on his face, David puts our patience to the test.
With only drysuit, mask, snorkel and fins, we enter water that’s no deeper then 2m. At the bottom of the spring, an extraordinary phenomenon takes shape. Geothermal energy wells up and creates bubbling mud lakes and troughs in which coloured minerals and shells are being juggled in the water column. This is so cool to watch!
It’s the same energy we have seen on land, taking the form of geysers as they blow boiling water metres into the air. Fumaroles release hot gases into the atmosphere, upon which bright yellow sulphur precipitates and fills the air with the characteristic smell of rotten eggs.
The Icelandic people use the hot water to heat their homes, and miles of pipelines run across the country.
Although our journey around Iceland is mostly focused on diving, the surface experience is just as intense and varied.
We visit numerous waterfalls, steaming lava fields and crater lakes, along with strange volcanic formations and glaciers.
David treats us to a very humble Icelandic tradition; a natural thermal bath. Via a small ladder we climb into a narrow cleft until we reach intense blue water with overhanging rocks adding to the ambience of the place.
The water has a temperature of nearly 40°C, and it isn’t long before we’re all relaxing in this magical place.

WHITE SMOKERS
The RIB travels at full speed over the dark water of Eyja Fjord, close to Akureyri, the capital of the north. Adjoining volcanic mountains pierce through low grey clouds.
In the middle of the fjord, a line descends to Strýtan, a hydrothermal vent that rises from 70m to within 15m of the water surface. We’re here to dive the shallowest known hydrothermal vent in the world, also called a “smoker”.
This geological phenomenon is normally restricted to the abyssal plain, thousands of metres deep!
Excited, we descend upon a massive white formation. Our guide Erlendur Bogason discovered the site in 1997, and is happy to dive here again.
When hydrothermal vents were first discovered in 1977, the scientific community could hardly believe what they saw. Around the vents they found entire eco-systems that were totally isolated and needed no sunlight.
Microbes and other unicellular organisms that live in this total darkness use chemicals from the hydrothermal vents as a means of energy – this is called chemotrophy, as opposed to autotrophy, which is based on the energy of sunlight.
For a while it was believed, and perhaps still is, that these sites provided clues to the origin of life.
Strýtan is a white smoker, so named because of the colour of the clay mineral smectite that is precipitated from the hydrothermal vent fluids.
These fluids circulate through the oceanic crust under high temperatures and pressures, which causes them to saturate with lots of crystal elements and minerals.
On mixing with the cold ocean water, these minerals coagulate and form the chimney. The 80°C hot water that seeps from the top of the vent causes a visible thermocline. You can warm your hands by carefully removing your gloves!
The chimneys are not the only thing that makes this one of the most spectacular dive sites on the planet.
Big schools of pollack and cod circle the site, massive wolf eels emerge from their caves, and every rock is covered with anemones and sponges.
This is how our seas should look; like a playground of life.
On our last dive, Erlendur opens a vacuum flask and fills it with the hot water. While in the boat at the surface he adds a chocolate mix.
A humpback humbles us with a visit, surfacing an arm’s length away from us. This is diving in Iceland…

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE:Airlines to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, operate from most major cities in Europe. No visa is required.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: The 10-day tour around Iceland is the ultimate experience offered by Dive.is and runs between April and October. It includes 15 dives, all excursions on land, local transport, accommodation and breakfast. Advanced scuba certification and drysuit experience is required, www.dive.is
MONEY: Icelandic króna
PRICES: The 10-day Iceland tour costs 1990 euros per diver and includes all transport on land and water, 10 nights’ B&B accommodation, 15 guided dives, air tanks and weights. Dive.is offers a range of shorter packages at various sites. Icelandair offers return flights to and from Reykjavik from £240, www.icelandair.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visiticeland.com

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