Home to stunning tundra landscapes, glaciers, mountains, volcanos, hot springs, waterfalls, as well as arguably the best cold water diving in the world, Iceland is a small island nation that punches well above its weight in regards to outdoor activities. Iceland is a slightly unusual destination for a diving holiday, in that it is not necessarily about spotting marine life – although it is one of the best places in Europe to spot marine mammals on whale watching tours. Diving in Iceland is more about experiencing dives that are completely unique, such as diving between tectonic plates, getting close to hydrothermal chimneys, or experiencing visibility in excess of one hundred metres!
The smallest and least populated of the Nordic nations, Iceland is located in the North Atlantic, just below the Arctic Circle. The capital and largest city, Reykjavik, is home to two-thirds of the nations population – which is just under 350,000 people.
Iceland’s currency is the Icelandic króna.
Cash machines and banks are found in all urban areas, and credit / debit card is widely accepted at restaurants, hotels, and shops.
Iceland’s official language is Icelandic – a North Germanic language that descends from Old Norse. While it is closely related to other Nordic languages, it has retained more elements of Old Norse than Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian, and therefore is very distinctive.
English and Danish are both compulsory subjects at school, and English is widely understood and spoken throughout the country.
Freedom of religion guaranteed under the Icelandic constitution, although the state church is the ‘Church of Iceland’ - a Lutheran branch of Christianity of which nearly 70% of the population are members. A further 10% of the population follow other forms of Christianity, and seven percent are unaffiliated with any religion.
Iceland is a very secular country, and as with other Nordic nations, church attendance is quite low throughout the year, with more people turning up for major religious holidays. Despite many people being members of the church, over 40% of the population consider themselves non-religious or atheist -placing Iceland in the top ten countries with the highest population of atheists in the world.
Iceland is a member state of the EEA (European Economic Area), and therefore British Citizens do not require a visa for stays of up to three months.
Detailed information regarding visa information for Iceland can be found on the UK foreign travel advice page for Iceland.
Best Things to do in Iceland (Non-Diving)
The Blue Lagoon
Roughly 40 kilometres from Reykjavik is the Blue Lagoon – one of Iceland’s most visited tourist attractions. The Blue Lagoon is a large lake and geothermal spa set in one of the most beautiful and awe inspiring back drops imaginable.
Despite the volcanic nature of the Blue Lagoon, it is not a natural feature, rather the remnants of plugholes from a nearby geothermal power plant. The warm blue waters are rich in silica and sulphur meaning they can possibly help people with certain skin diseases, and with an average water temperature of 38°C, it is an amazing place to relax and take in the stunning tundra views.
Iceland is home to many stunning waterfalls, but Gullfoss is arguably the most impressive. It is located in the canyon of the Hvita river in south west Iceland, so another easy day trip from Reykjavik.
The falls are considered as one of the most dramatic multi step waterfalls in the world. The river before the waterfall is relatively benign, however after a quick turning the water begins rushing down a steep slope over several jagged rocks before plummeting over 32 metres into a crevice which gives the impression that it is disappearing into the earth. The vast amount of mist caused by the falls often results in stunning rainbows from every angle you view it from.
If you like hiking and exploring national parks, make sure to add Landmannalaugar to your Icelandic itinerary. It is found in Iceland’s famous Fjallabak Nature Reserve, and has everything an outdoor enthusiast could possibly want.
There are stunning hiking trails around the entire region, and you can can camp right in the middle of the Landmannalaugar – using it as a base to hike any of the surrounding mountains. From here you can easily access bubbling volcanic hot springs, ice caves, mountain ridges, crystal clear lakes, and even obsidian lava sheets.
No trip to Iceland could be complete without spending at least a day in the northernmost capital city on the planet. Even those who don’t really enjoy city trips will probably find themselves falling in love with this quaint and quirky city.
From the colourful painted houses in the suburbs, traditional Scandinavian vodka bars, and picturesque fishing harbours, Reykjavik feels more like an oversized fishing village than a city of more than 150,000 residents.
Because the country is small and quite easy to get around, you may find you spend most of your holiday using Reykjavik as a base, giving you plenty of opportunities to experience a wild night out in any of Reykjavik’s many interesting, if not slightly odd, nightclubs and bars. Make sure to try some traditional Icelandic cuisine while you are there too – dried fish is a popular choice.
Scuba Diving in Iceland
Iceland’s most famous dive site is frequently plastered around social media and diving magazines due to its crystal clear waters and unique geological features. It is an inland dive site found 45 minutes north east of Reykjavik, in the Thingvellir National Park. It is probably one of the most famous dive sites in the world for a couple of reasons. It is the only place in the world you can dive between two tectonic plates – the North American and Eurasian plates – as they drift further apart. The other reason it is so famous is because it has the clearest water in the world, with year round visibility of over 100 metres. This is because the lake is supplied with water from a glacier that is 50 kilometres away, and to reach the lake it has been through deep underground cave networks and filtered through lava rock. The lava rock filtering process takes many years, and when the water finally reaches Silfra it is exceptionally pure, but also very cold. The year round temperatures are between two and four degrees Celsius, meaning you will need dry suit experience to make this dive.
Iceland is home to a number of completely unique dive sites – Strytan is no exception. This dive site will take you north of Iceland’s second largest town, Akureyri, to a point where the sea bed is around 70 metres deep. Here you will find the only place in the world where you can dive alongside a hydrothermal vent – which are usually found miles underwater.
For the last 11,000 years, a hot spring has been releasing hot water into the ocean, and the dissolved minerals coagulate as soon as they touch the icy ocean waters, resulting in a 55 metre tall limestone chimney that comes within 15 metres of the surface. The warm waters being ejected by the vent attracts life that you would normally need a submarine to see.
Around Strytan you can see all marine life that Iceland has to offer – including schooling cod, and a plethora of macro life – so if you make only one ocean dive in Iceland, this is the one you should do. Currents can be very powerful here, and perfect buoyancy control is a must so you don’t come into contact with the extremely delicate limestone chimney.
Another unique dive, Kleifarvtatn Lake is the largest lake on the Reykjanes peninsula, and with a maximum depth of 90 metres, it is one of the deepest lakes in the country.
Here you will find yourself in a lunar landscape- both above and below the water. Upon entering the water, you will quickly find hot springs, and at the centre of these hots springs is a large crater that constantly emits warm water and bubbling gasses. As these gases are forced though the lake floor, the surrounding environment vibrates, which you can actually feel underwater.
The lake can reach as warm as 14C in the summer, and obviously it gets much warmer as you approach the hot springs – you can even boil an egg during your dive if you so wish.
SS El Grillo
Seyðisfjörður is a small fishing town on the east coast of Iceland, and the village is named after the fjord where the village is found.
During World War II, German fighter planes attacked a British oil tanker, the SS El Grillo, in the fjord. Luckily, all the sailors escaped with their lives, but the ship took too much damage and sank to the bottom of the fjord, where it had been slowly leaking oil into the water until 2002 when all the remaining oil was successfully removed.
Today, the SS El Grillo is Iceland’s most famous and iconic wreck dive – although this 150 metre long wreck is not a dive for beginners. She sits upright on the bottom at 45 metres, and her shallowest point is 28 metres, meaning you will need at least advanced open water just to see the top of her. If you want to properly explore this wreck, you will need to be at least deep diver certified and due to her depth and size, you will need to make several dives just to scratch the surface.
When to Visit Iceland
As much of Iceland’s diving is done in inland lakes, Iceland can be a year round diving destination, however the winter months are long and dark – with December only seeing a couple of hours of sunlight per day. On the other side, the summer days are very long, and for a couple of weeks you can even make a day dive under the midnight sun.
The gulf stream does a relatively good job of keeping Iceland’s southern coast warm (by Arctic standards). Air temperate rarely dips far below zero in the winter, and summer months can reach into the early twenties, although 10-13C is more the norm. Once you begin heading further north, the temperatures can become more extreme, with the highlands having the most extreme temperatures (an average of -10C during the winter).
The winter months can bring strong Atlantic storms making ocean dives almost impossible, and many of the inland lakes will freeze over. The aurora borealis is frequently visible throughout the winter, and may also be seen during spring and autumn – so if you would like a chance of spotting this incredible light display and make a few dives, spring or autumn may be your best bet.
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