Diving Between Continents

Well into the swing of things, Rebecca and I hustled to be up and out of the apartment by 9:00 a.m. and stood out on the street corner. Nearby, a utility crew sprayed down the sidewalk, street, and gutter with high-pressure jets of water blasting away all traces of last night’s revelry. I have no idea what effect a regular scrub-down has on the people’s mentality there: do the kids feel more free to urinate or puke on a wall, knowing that someone else will clean up after them? Is this just the city’s way of flushing all the trash and flotsam away, and do people count on this in their behavior?

Subway signs

Eating fresh in all nations.

Rather than a gleaming white tour bus, we were picked up by a young man in a small four-door car. His nickname was “Sibbi” (the full pronunciation was actually very regal-sounding), he wore a stocking cap with some abstract design embroidered into the front and a parka, and in conversation he mentioned he lives on the northern side of Iceland. He played American rap music; Rebecca sat in the front passenger seat, I sat in back next to an infant’s car seat (Sibbi has a two-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl), and there were miniature LCD TV screens strapped to the headrests of the front seats.

We drove half an hour, past the snack shop where we took our first break for coffee on the Golden Circle tour, and we met up with the people hosting the dive at a gas station/truck stop. There was a Burger King and a Subway here, and momentarily I wondered whether their recipes were exactly the same or if they even offered versions of local traditional dishes; didn’t check. We also met Dan, a diver originally from Perth but currently living in London with his wife. I supposed this point was a rendezvous for the diving hosts. We got some snacks, loaded back into our vehicles, and drove out to Silfra.

Lake Silfra

A fringe of tourists above a fringe of houses.

I always get these names and terms confused, but I believe that Þingvellir (“the fields where the thing happens”) is the name of the valley formed by the continental plates, the Alþing (“all-thing”) is the large rock in the valley where vikings formed parliament, and Silfra is the name of the lake in the valley. This is a huge valley and when we stopped by the lake we were hardly in sight of the area of the Alþing: far off in the distance we could see a tall, rocky cliff on which tourists intermittently appeared to take in the view.

The cars with us customers and the large truck with the diving equipment were grouped together almost like a circle of wagons. We pulled up and saw the truck already being unloaded: the guides informed us that another group had recently shown up (he indicated a much larger group of a dozen or more people on the other end of our clearing) but there were so many of them that we could suit up and get in the water well before they were ready. Crowding was apparently an issue at Silfra; Rebecca had read that this lake is one of the top ten dive spots in the world. I imagine that’s because of the novelty of its creation, being the rift between tectonic plates, because there really wasn’t much in the way of flora or fauna to observe, and under the water the scenery was even less. There are many photos, however, of divers floating in murky blueness, placing one hand on each excitingly chunky rock face, with a caption announcing that their left hand was in America and their right in Europe. There are some photo opportunities everybody is required to participate in.

Diving preparation

Unloading, gearing up, looking for chew-toys.

We spread out a tarp, stripped down to longjohns, and started assembling the dry suits. People called out sizes and tossed garments from the truck. The clearing we’d parked in was a rocky bed covered in straw, and our gear was slightly damp (whether from storage or the misty morning, impossible to tell) so the dirt and straw took every opportunity to cling to us. I struggled to pull on a glove and a guide stared at me hard from the tailgate, finally leaping down in anguish and showing me how to don a dry suit glove so that I didn’t tear off the cuff, as it seemed I was about to do. Rebecca, a licensed diver, took a moment to get reacquainted with the gear and dressed herself ably. Another staff person, a true blonde Valkyrie, strapped a knife to her calf, and my mind raced with scenarios in which she freed herself from ropy seaweed (of which there was none to be had) or occasionally murdered unpopular tourists underwater, where no one can hear you scream; I could envision severed air tubes and slits made between ribs. This did not transpire either. Also there was a large dog trotting around, whose name I didn’t catch, but he was friendly and playful. Kerchief around his neck, he wandered over to the enemy camp when no one was around and found a bottle of water for a play toy, and no amount of calling or chasing could coerce him to give it up.

Diving dress

I’m enjoying the ruggedness of it all. So rugged.

Finally we were set and marched over the road and rocky wastes to a crack in the boulders. We descended to a ramp, climbed down into the water, and floated around as we got our bearings and split into two groups. As I was not diving I was assigned my own escort—the Valkyrie—and the diver with the camera went down with the other divers. Rebecca and I split up for the time being: me, floating on the surface of the experience, while she plumbed much deeper. I belabored this analogy more than a few times.

I enjoyed snorkeling about the lake. The shock of the experience quickly passed: I detected a small leak around one wrist, and the lower half of my face was exposed to the frigid water, but my body was constantly active and mostly dry so I kept my temperature up easily. I just floated along over the landscape, watching where the rocky rifts ran down into the depths. The water was quite clear and visibility was almost complete. The guides pointed out interesting features, like natural “bridges” formed by huge boulders having tumbled from the underwater cliffs and lodging at some narrow point in the crevasse (a crack in your teeth is a “crevice;” a crack in the lithosphere is a “crevasse”), and sometimes the divers would try to swim through these, though they were not daredevils looking for every risk to take. I swam over shallower areas and dragged my gloved hands through sand and silica, watching the dust kick up in my wake. I touched the rockiest rocks, the most savagely cleaved mineral formations, trying to imprint the realness of where I was into my mind. I was in the volcanic land of vikings, formed of frigid water and super-heated rock, in the place where two continental plates shouldered roughly against each other. I was staring down into a gap in an erose, rocky barrier, beyond which was nothing until you reached the core of the earth itself. I breathed quietly and floated very slowly in the icy water, trying to feel all the way down, feel through these shattered and tumbled boulders, tune into the land.

We swam out in one direction, hooked a sharp left in a shallow area, swam out to a dead end and sat on a shoal of broad, flat rock, worn smooth with time, time, and more time, and we swam back the way we came. We had started out mostly together, the divers going lower directly beneath us but mostly as a group, but on the way back the divers went ahead and the Valkyrie and I went our own way. We swam around the pool at the dead end, started wending our way back; she indicated where we were headed next and I followed her. At one point we were crawling on hands and knees over a large flagstone of boulder that I didn’t recognize from the previous trip. I saw her sit up in the water, and the sand was so shallow that I knelt and lifted my mask. “What’s up?” I asked.

She looked to the left, looked to the right, and said, “Where the hell are we?”

We laughed very hard at this, as she was a little embarrassed. I pointed to the tourists at the top of the cliff off in the distance and we reoriented ourselves. We crawled back over the flagstone—I told her I’d get to brag to my friends about our vacation with diving, snorkeling, and underwater rock climbing. We laughed all the way back to the landing where the other divers were waiting for us, and she got to explain to them what happened.

Diving gear

Protection from icy-frigid waters.

We unbuckled our fins and climbed up onto the landing and walked back to the cars. At this point the other, larger group had caught up and formed a crowd we had to fight through; two wide-eyed teenage girls stared at us as we climbed out. They were inadequately dressed in light tops and denim shorts, shivering as they watched people they knew climb into the water for a swim. We walked back to the cars but this was only for a rest: when we started to undress it was explained that we had paid for two dives. I was quite keen on going out again (especially if we’d paid for it). We took off our gloves and poured boiling water into them, made instant coffee and passed cups of cider around. We soon dusted off and headed back out. I needed someone to help me layer my cuffs as I pulled my gloves back on, as it was somehow harder the second time.

Our group split up in a different division this time: the man with the camera would be following Dan down to the very bottom, where Dan would spend most of his time but could still take a few shots of me dinking around on the surface of the lake. I tried not to feel inadequate. Aside from the massive rock formations there wasn’t much to see, as I said, there being no form of kelp or algae at all; however, despite the fish being of nocturnal inclination, I did manage to peek through a natural tunnel in the rock and catch the profile of a small, pale golden fish drift across the small circle of light at the other end of the tunnel. It was there and gone again. We swam to the dead end and simply crawled out there, hiking back to the cars from there.

It came time to pay. We weren’t carrying several hundred dollars of cash on us, but they had a credit card machine at their main office so Sibbi drove us to Hafnarfjorđur. We felt awkward about the extra trip but he assured us it was perfectly fine. I was on the defensive, expecting a little conflict over the confusion, but everyone was very businesslike about the matter.

At their main office, a large, burly redheaded guy in Crocs came out to meet us. His mood seemed a little dark but when he learned that we’d been touring in Hafnarfjordhur before he brightened up considerably. Apparently he had a lot of pride about his town and was delighted we were enjoying it, so we really played that part up. We charged the fees, made our farewells. One of the guides told us a CD with pictures from the dive would be mailed to us, and Sibbi drove us back to Reykjavik. Rebecca pressed a 1,000 kronur tip into his hand, which he was surprisingly modest about receiving. He just didn’t see it as necessary!

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