Anxious Adventuring: Silfra Snorkel
I am not a very adventurous person by nature, but I am curious. This is why I wanted to snorkel at Silfra, Iceland. Silfra is a fissure located in Thingvellir National Park, where it formed in 1789 during the earthquakes associated with the Laki volcanic eruption. On one side of the chasm is the North American plate and on the other, is the Eurasian plate. These plates are pulling apart from one another, creating the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that bisects Iceland (and extends 65,000 km under the Atlantic Ocean). The volcanoes which created and continue to shape Iceland are located along the ridge. Iceland is unique because you can see the rift above ground (as opposed to at the bottom of the ocean). The idea of snorkeling between two continents, where you can literally touch Europe and North America, sounded great! The only problem is that I am not overly fond of or comfortable in water. I debated if I should try this activity out at all. But, in the end, I figured I would at least try it- despite my many worries. This is an overview of this experience so that other anxious adventurers can find the confidence to dip into the water and explore this tectonic wonder!
I had a number of misgivings about snorkeling at Silfra, but my main concern was that it would be cold. The water temperature is usually under 40 degrees F and was about 36 degrees F when I visited. It didn’t help that our tour driver/guide kept warning our small group that we were going to be cold throughout the day as we toured the Golden Circle. Silfra was one of our last stops. I tried not to think too much about the just-above-freezing-glacial water, but this was the main concern that weighed on me throughout the day leading up to the snorkel. Aside from this, I was also mildly worried that I was not a good enough swimmer or that I would become anxious swimming in the deep water (I think the deepest part is about 100 feet, though I am not sure of the depth of the water I swam over). Thankfully, none of these things turned out to be worth worrying over!
When we arrived at Silfra, we were handed off to a snorkeling/diving guide. The guide gave us a barrage of instructions regarding how to put on our dry suit. I was too mentally preoccupied to pay close attention. Gearing up to go snorkeling involved wearing a base layer (for me, the leggings and t-shirt I was wearing) and slipping into a flannel jumpsuit over this layer. Once this was on, we put a dry suit over the flannel layer. The dry suit was moist from earlier snorkeling trips in the day and required some assistance to zip in the back. The worst part and an unexpected aspect of the dry suit was that we had to wear rubber bands around our neck and wrists! The bands were meant to keep the suit water tight. Without them, our suit might fill up with cold water! The guide warned that one or two people out of every trip got water in their suit. Yikes! I felt immediate anxiety when the band was put around my neck. I felt that I could not swallow or breathe, but I also felt that if I complained or loosened it, my suit would fill with water. The thought of water entering my suit replaced the general fear of the cold. The guide assured us that if we got water in the suit, we wouldn’t get hypothermia. We would simply have to suck it up and continue uncomfortably to the end. This was not at all encouraging nor anything I had even thought to worry about.
This photo was taken AFTER snorkeling, but my expression is still a little anxious or strained.
We were fitted with masks, gloves, and flippers. A cold, wet, rubbery hood was squeezed over our heads, which only added to my sense of choking. I tried to relax and not show any signs of anxiety. We were given more instructions, such as the fact that the snorkeling was a one way trip. Once we commited to it, there was no turning back half way. Anyone with misgivings was told they had to quit right away or commit, even if they were wet, cold, uncomfortable, or afraid. However, the snorkeling itself would only last about a half hour, as that was the amount of time it would take to pass through the fissure to a lagoon. A current would carry us along, but at one point, we would have to swim a little harder to avoid being pushed out to a lake and separated from the group. After these instructions, we were marched along to the entry point, where the guide helped put masks on our face and eased us into the water. I continued to feel anxious, especially with the mask on my face, which forced me to breathe through my mouth. I felt that I wasn’t getting enough air. I told the guide that I felt anxious and he asked me what I was afraid of. I told him that I was mostly afraid that my suit would fill up with cold water (which was one of several concerns at that moment). He said that once I was in the water, it would either fill up or not fill up, then I could be afraid or not afraid. With that, the group of six of us slowly entered the water. I entered last.
The suit did not fill up with water. It squeezed more tightly, but remained dry. We were taught how to roll onto our backs if we needed a break or to adjust something. The suit itself was very buoyant, making swimming very easy. Sinking would have been nearly impossible, so the depth of the water was of little concern to me. The guide became less gruff and stayed close to me to make certain that I was was comfortable. The extra attention made me feel self-conscious and also socially anxious. I assured him that I would be able to do this. I probably wasn’t that convincing, since he stayed close. Eventually, I became more comfortable. The suit was warm, though my face and hands became very cold. However, the cold was actually far less terrible than taking a cold shower or doing dishes in cold water. The cold is really nothing to worry about at all. Breathing through my mouth became more natural, rather than the forced struggle at the beginning. I also stopped noticing the tight band around my neck. I started to feel more comfortable and the whole ordeal felt mildly enjoyable as I passed over the algae carpeted rocks. The guide did intervene to direct me away from the current towards the lake (and towards the lagoon), but probably because he either didn’t trust my sense of direction or didn’t want me to go through the experience of getting separated from the group. Shortly after that, the whole thing was over! My left hand was pretty numb at that point, so I didn’t waste time swimming around the lagoon. I got out of the water, as did everyone else in the group. Easy peasey…despite any concern I might have caused the guide.
When it was all over, I felt an enormous sense of self-efficacy. I felt that I could easily snorkel in most situations and that I was one step closer to trying diving someday. I even felt that if given the opportunity, I would do it again. My anxiety stemmed from the unknown of all of it and from the unfamiliar bodily sensations of breathing through my mouth while feeling that I was choking. The water was cold, but I would much rather have a cold hand/face than feel cold from a frigid shower or cold rain. Physically, it was not that challenging, as the suit floated easily and the current pushed us along. Therefore, anyone should reasonably be able to do the activity if they know what to expect and can swim. We were treated to hot cocoa and cookies after removing our gear. I was surprised that I wasn’t wet at all under the suit and that even my hair was only a little damp. As far as I could tell, no one in the group was significantly wet.
A small reward for facing my anxiety…
I think if I could do it, almost anyone can do this! It takes a little time to get used to all of the new sensations, but the reward is swimming between two continents! The particular tour that I did was through Arctic Adventures and included a tour of the Golden Circle. There were less than a dozen people on the tour, most of whom had never snorkeled before. Aside from Silfra, the trip visits Gullfoss waterfall and Geyser, as well as Thingvellir National Park. It is advisable to bring a towel and change of clothes. Also be mindful that there isn’t much time for taking photos. No one in our snorkeling group brought cameras along for the snorkeling part. Hence, none of the photos were taken during the actual snorkeling part of the trip. Despite this, here is the evidence that I survived the ordeal with a smile (and nothing worse than a cold hand).