THE LAND OF FIRE AND ICE

Div­ing in Ice­land is un­like any other dive trip. Here, hot and cold wa­ter col­lide, cre­at­ing pil­lars of life from the depths of the sea; ice freezes to a blue hue, trap­ping frozen wa­ter­falls within. Wel­come to the land of fire and ice!

Scuba Diver Australasia + Ocean Planet - - Contents - By By­ron Con­roy

Six­teen mil­lion years ago, in the north­ern-most re­gion of the Earth, a land of fire and ice first ap­peared af­ter a fis­sure in the Mid-At­lantic Ridge cre­ated a vol­canic hotspot that gave birth to this land­mass. Here, the North Amer­i­can and Eurasian tec­tonic plates meet, con­tin­u­ously di­verg­ing and ex­pand­ing the land area by five cen­time­tres each year. Ac­tive volcanoes, gey­sers, glaciers and geo­ther­mal ar­eas pop­u­late the is­land. Be­cause of its dra­matic to­pog­ra­phy and ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion, al­most 80 per­cent of the coun­try is un­in­hab­ited, with only 330,000 peo­ple liv­ing in Ice­land today.

In­spir­ingly, all of Ice­land’s en­ergy is pro­duced via geo­ther­mal and hy­dro­elec­tric power, with 90 per­cent of house­holds heated by geo­ther­mal wa­ter. The land of­fers plen­ti­ful nat­u­ral re­sources that Ice­landers have har­nessed to pro­duce re­new­able en­ergy.

Ice­land’s un­der­wa­ter sights are no less en­chant­ing than its top­side scenery. Flooded ice caves and hy­dro­ther­mal un­der­wa­ter cones are just some of the unique dive sites that the land of fire and ice of­fers.

ICE

One-third of Ice­land is cov­ered with glaciers – bod­ies of densely-packed ice that ac­cu­mu­late over cen­turies from snow­fall. Ev­ery sum­mer, the glaciers un­dergo melt­ing, and the melt­wa­ter forms rivers on the glacier sur­face that flow into the glacier it­self. Th­ese rivers usu­ally run from around April and freeze when the cold win­ter ar­rives in Novem­ber. This leaves be­hind large caves un­der the glacier sur­face. In re­cent years, th­ese caves have be­come a pop­u­lar at­trac­tion for ad­ven­tur­ous tourists, as their blue ice roofs are a mes­meris­ing sight to see, es­pe­cially when light en­ters.

Last April, when the glaciers be­gan to melt and the rivers started flow­ing, Mag­madive heard of a cave found high on the Langjökull glacier that had be­gun to flood, so we set off to see if it could be dived. The ex­pe­di­tion it­self would be dif­fi­cult, with the cave at an al­ti­tude of 840 me­tres that was very dif­fi­cult to ac­cess, es­pe­cially with all of our dive equip­ment.

Stage one of the ex­pe­di­tion in­volved get­ting from Reyk­javik, the cap­i­tal of Ice­land – which is lo­cated

200 kilo­me­tres in­land – to a snow­mo­bile base el­e­vated at 400 me­tres. To get there, we needed to use a “su­per jeep”, a mod­i­fied ve­hi­cle with one-me­tre tyres that can be in­flated and de­flated while rid­ing the rough ter­rain. We loaded the jeep and drove un­til we ar­rived at the foot of the glacier.

At this point, we un­loaded all of the dive equip­ment onto sleds and strapped them in for the fi­nal leg of the jour­ney. The sleds were at­tached to high-per­for­mance snow­mo­biles that al­lowed us to travel a fur­ther 10 kilo­me­tres up to an el­e­va­tion of

840 me­tres, where we found our­selves at the top of the glacier.

We looked down into the en­trance of the ice cave, where the wa­ter level could be seen 10 me­tres be­low. With no time to waste, we donned our dry­suits and de­scended down to in­ves­ti­gate be­fore the ac­tual dive. When we reached the wa­ter­line, we shone a torch into the wa­ter and were amazed to find it crys­tal clear. With the ex­cite­ment build­ing, we quickly re­turned to the sur­face to pre­pare for the dive.

To per­form the dive, we adopted the stan­dard ice div­ing prac­tice of having a sur­face team and an un­der­wa­ter team. A sur­face line con­nected to the first diver’s har­ness was used, which was looped through and tied to the sec­ond diver. This al­lows the divers to de­cide how much line to let out and the max­i­mum dis­tance be­tween them. The line is also used as a tool for com­mu­ni­ca­tion: The diver feed­ing the line can com­mu­ni­cate with the sur­face team through a se­ries of dif­fer­ent tugs.

Mag­madive lead guide Kuba and I were the first to en­ter. As an un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­pher, I was keen to be the first to see the cave in all its glory. As Kuba and I de­scended into the wa­ter, we were met by a tight pas­sage that could only be passed sin­gle file. As we reached the end, the cave opened up and we could see straight into the clear wa­ter.

At the start of spring, the snow on the glacier be­gins to melt and then freezes. Over time, this repet­i­tive cy­cle cre­ates a frozen wa­ter­fall in­side the cave. It was in­cred­i­ble to see: the pure-white frozen col­umn of ice sur­rounded by the blue ceil­ing of the cave

I had brought some pretty pow­er­ful, wide video lights, so I switched one on to light up the cave. Once on, I was blown away by the shear blue ceil­ing of the ice roof. We continued to swim to the widest and most open part of the cave, and reached the far end to find a frozen wa­ter­fall. At the start of spring, the snow on the glacier be­gins to melt and then freezes. Over time, this repet­i­tive cy­cle cre­ates a frozen wa­ter­fall in­side the cave. It was in­cred­i­ble to see: the pure-white frozen col­umn of ice sur­rounded by the blue ceil­ing of the cave.

Af­ter the sec­ond team had their turn, we packed the kit up onto the snow­mo­bile and had a fun ride back to the su­per jeep. It turns out that dry­suits are the per­fect out­fit for snow­mo­bil­ing!

FIRE

In the far north of Ice­land lies a small vil­lage called Hjalteyri. The vil­lage is lo­cated on the shore of Ey­jafjörður and is home to the fa­mous dive site Strý­tan, the world’s only hy­dro­ther­mal cone that is within recre­ational dive lim­its. The Strý­tan dive site was formed when warm, min­eral-rich fresh wa­ter was heated un­der­neath the ocean floor and seeped into the ocean. As the min­eral-rich fresh wa­ter wells up from the ground at a tem­per­a­ture of 80 de­grees Cel­sius, the min­er­als co­ag­u­late upon con­tact with the cold ocean wa­ter, grad­u­ally build­ing a tall cone of frag­ile lime­stone over the last 11,000 years. The cone it­self starts at a depth of 65 me­tres and rises up­wards to 15 me­tres be­low the sur­face. Thou­sands of litres of warm fresh wa­ter are still pour­ing out of the cone and you can even take off your gloves to warm your hands.

The Strý­tan dive site was formed when warm, min­eral-rich fresh wa­ter was heated un­der­neath the ocean floor and seeped into the ocean

ABOVE A view of Hjalteyri vil­lage

RIGHT A jel­ly­fish swim­ming in the wa­ters of Strý­tan

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