The truth is that, had I not been dating someone who really loved diving, and if I hadn’t liked him quite as much as I did (still do, luckily), I probably wouldn’t ever have gone diving.
I love going on adventures and trying new things, but, as much as I hate to admit it, I’m also quite a chicken when it comes to putting myself out of my comfort zone. And strapping weights to myself, and a tank of oxygen, and hurling myself backwards over a boat in the ocean, qualifies as quite far out of my comfort zone.
But – the moment I descend, listening to the steady rhythm of my breath… bubbles… breath… bubbles… and take in the scenery I now find myself in, it’s like someone has given me the keys to this whole new dimension. An indescribably alluring world that I shouldn’t technically be able to visit, but somehow I’ve managed to defy the laws of nature, and, every single time, it blows my mind.
When we were thinking about travelling to Iceland and started doing some research, I came across an article about the Silfra fissure – a continental rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates in Thingvellir National Park. The water in the canyon is so clear because it is essentially glacier meltwater that has filtered through porous lava fields over the last 100 years, meaning that visibility is about 100m.
And they let you dive in it.
I sent the article to Joe.
“Sweet Jesus,” he said.
And we booked a drysuit diving course in Cape Town.
Silfra requires a special drysuit qualification, and within two minutes of that course, I understood why they changed the rules and don’t let you just figure it out on the dive anymore.
A wetsuit keeps you warm using a layer of water, warmed by your body, while a drysuit uses a layer of air. It’s completely sealed so that no water comes into contact with your skin. When you are diving in 2°C water at best, this is advantageous.
What is less advantageous is that the air in your suit affects your buoyancy more than you might expect. And if you’re using a drysuit that’s way too big for you, you might find that the air rushes to the enormous suit feet, whipping you upside down in an impressively unpleasant fashion.
As drysuits are not that easy to come by in South Africa, ankle weights were my best solution on day two of the course, and they did help a lot. But, although I qualified, I left feeling quite nervous about repeating that experience in (literally) glacial water.
A few months later, when the Dive.Is van pulled up outside our guesthouse in Reykjavik in the early morning snow, my legs were shaking.
Our divemaster, Ants, immediately put me at ease. He was friendly and laid-back, but very knowledgeable, and gave off a very I’d-want-you-on-my-tribe-if-we-were-on-Survivor vibe. Not dissimilar to the yes-you-can-guide-me-eighteen-metres-underwater-in-freezing-temperatures-and-into-narrow-spaces vibe, I suppose.
As he drove us to Thingvellir National Park, he spoke a bit about his life and the stand-out diving spots he’d been to, and how he met his lovely girlfriend (incidentally one of the best ways to distract me).
Thingvellir has that signature stark Icelandic beauty to it – moss-covered lava fields, eerie cracks in the earth, steel-coloured water, snow-covered mountains framing every view. The earth feels… alive.
Before I knew it, Ants had given us our briefing and helped us into our suits, which, with neck and wrist seals that need to be as tight as blood-flow will allow, was an experience in itself. Interestingly, while your suit is designed so that no water comes in contact with your skin, both your hands and your head are in wetsuit material, very much in contact with the icy water, and your face… well, apart from your eyes and nose, which are protected by your mask, your face is treated to the full glacial experience.
My suit fit me perfectly and felt brand new and high-tech, which did a lot to calm my nerves, although my feelings were strongly reminiscent of a long-ago Christmas Day. A day when I ran downstairs to see what Santa had brought and, on seeing it was a slide – the kind you can put a hosepipe down to slide right into the pool – my brain couldn’t compute the magic of getting this massive present into our locked house, never mind how an old guy I’d never met, all the way in the North Pole, had figured out the deepest desire of my four-year-old heart. The wonder, terror and excitement were so great that I fled back upstairs, and vomited.
As we walked the 150m from the van to the dive entry point, strapped to our oxygen tanks and all the extra weights we needed to counter the air we would add to our drysuits, I wasn’t sure that this had been the best life choice.
One thing I did really like about this dive was that, unlike sea dives which so often begin by falling backwards off the side of a boat (once at high speed, scrambling for masks, as our boat was seconds away from sinking), this dive began by walking down a set of metal stairs into the water. How civilised!
While waiting for a group of snorkelers ahead of us, Ants gave our small dive group of three a final briefing, and we climbed into the 2°C water.
Part of his dive ritual, superstition if you like, was for everyone in the group to take a small sip of the water, some of the purest on earth. My lips burned and I looked at Ants with wide eyes. He was smiling.
“Let’s go!” he said. And we let ourselves sink below the surface.
It was so exquisite, so stark and otherworldly, so clear and blue and surreal, that my nerves vanished as if a switch had been flicked, and I gazed around in utter disbelief. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.
All the underwater photos were taken by Ants and are unedited
In the 30 seconds or so it took for me to come to my senses enough to think about my body, I realised that my head and face had gone pleasantly numb. I also found that, with a suit that fit me properly, I could control my buoyancy easily. Both promises Ants had made me.
Joe signaled to me, asking if I was ok. “Very, very ok,” I signaled back, trying to smile with a frozen face and regulator in my mouth.
We set off, swimming languidly through the narrow fissure. I had thought I might feel a bit claustrophobic, but I didn’t. All I could think about was the fact that I was floating along between two continents. The water was so clear, so different to the usual 16m visibility you get in the ocean if you’re lucky, and a kind of blue I couldn’t remember ever seeing before.
We swam through large “halls” and small passages, deep “cathedrals” and shallow slopes. I kept rolling around and turning back to check that Joe was still there – and as blown away as I was.
In my early days of diving, when anxiety levels were high (unlike now, obviously), he had told me that, for him, diving feels a bit like you’re an astronaut, floating through space. I think he was trying to explain how you don’t really have to swim. You just sort of glide along, with the odd flick of your fins. That analogy rang so true for me – the suit, the little window of your mask that you peer through, the trespassing into an environment you shouldn’t be able to survive in – but in this rugged underwater moonscape, it felt truer than ever.
Forty minutes later, as we rounded a corner and found ourselves in the shallow Silfra Lagoon, along with a party of snorkelers, I knew that the dive was coming to an end. I’ll be honest – I was ready. As incredible as it was, my hands were so frozen that I was having difficulty working the “add air please” button on my drysuit.
Someone was waiting to meet us to help us with our gear, and good thing too, because my face was so frozen that, when I surfaced and removed my regulator, I had to check that there was nothing left on my face because I couldn’t feel my mouth.
The next trick was the 350m walk back to the warm van, still carrying all our heavy dive gear, but now with the added bonus of feet and fingers that felt like slabs of frozen meat. But I couldn’t stop smiling.
Ants fed us biscuits and hot chocolate as we sat in front of the heater and he showed us photos he’d taken on the first dive. “Yoh!” I kept saying. “YOH!”
“Is that a South African thing?” he asked, amused.
He scrolled to the next photo.
“Yoh!” I said.
My hands were still so frozen that I couldn’t drive them enough to get them into my gloves, so I made the very difficult, grown-up decision not to do the second dive with Joe and Ants. Instead, still dressed in the miraculous ski-like undersuit, I wandered around Thingvellir, wishing that I’d had a suit like this for watching the Northern Lights in the icy wind.
As torn as I was about not doing the second dive, I felt glad to have this time to digest the experience in such a beautiful place.
It was the strangest, most exhilarating, bewitching thing I’ve ever done. And, I suspected that, next time I was in an out-of-my-comfort-zone situation, this memory might trump the Christmas slide.