The Bucket List: Snorkeling in Iceland

The coolest must-do things to try before you kick it

We stand around the Icelandic marsh in silence. The chill wind picks up, carrying the guides' words away—something about how to properly pull on the drysuit and copious other gear. 

None of us say it, but it’s clear from the looks we exchange that no one really wants to get into the water. It's cold. Hell, it's Iceland.

Just a few hundred meters away is Thingvellir, the ancient Viking parliament site located within Thingvellir National Park, where tourists in puffy down jackets and hats saunter about—the smart ones visiting the lone café to wrap their hands around a warm drink…and for the heat.

But there in the spitting rain, we silently contemplate the drysuits before us. None ballsy enough to actually raise a complaint, we silently, slowly don the suits, then the neoprene booties, hoods and mittens, then finally the fins, mask and snorkel, as our guide runs about, ensuring that everything is fitted and properly secured.

Eventually—begrudgingly—we enter the water, climbing slowly down a metal ladder, passing strata of compacted Iceland sod into the blue waters. The cold seeps into your booties, then wraps itself around your body, through the dry suit and up your torso as you slowly slip deeper. But none of that prepares you for the shock of a hundred pins and needles on your face, the only part of your body actually exposed, as you finally fully submerge completely into the icy blue. 

First the cold takes your breath away. Then, the view as you gaze out into the stunning beauty of what’s before you. The water is turquoise clear, so very clear that visibility is virtually unlimited—or at least it feels that way. Muted sunlight refracts through the clear clean water to illuminate every corner of every crevasse below.  

We slowly flipper along through the channels of the bog as our onshore guide runs alongside, seeming out of place—even foolish—in his jeans, boots and jacket, issuing suggestions down to us and pointing out where to look next. One by one our group begins to issue exclamations from behind (or sometimes through) snorkels: 'Oh wow!' and, 'Hey, look at this!' and the simple, but oft-heard, 'Amazing!'

We bobble above magnificent rock formations, dappled in broken sunlight. We explore sea grasses so green it seems surreal, literally fantastic. We flipper on, forgetting the rain, forgetting the cold, forgetting our own trepidations from just 20 minutes ago—totally lost in the beauty and majesty of the incredible compilation of black lava rock, shocking green grasses, muted tan rippling sand and brilliant blue water. 

Too quickly, our land-locked guide tells us to turn around, and we do so only as begrudgingly as when we had first put on our drysuits, slowly revisiting the formations and submerged meadows we'd just passed. Back at our start point (and after one last, celebratory jump back into the water from atop the ladder), we start to strip off our gear. 

But now, the volume of my comrades has been turned up, substantially. Whereas we were all quietly moping about earlier, now we laugh and joke and remark on what an amazing experience we just took part in. We share it all, reviewing the highlights (and will review again later), reveling in something new, something unexpected, something surprising. 

Later, both that night in a warm bar around cold beer and later still, years later even, my comrades all slowly revealed, one by one, that none of them actually wanted to try snorkeling in Iceland. But each one, in turn, confessed that this once most dreaded activity was actually the best experience of that particular trip—and one of the most memorable of their lives. 

Your Turn: Fly into Reykjavík via Icelandair, then connect with Arctic Adventures for a variety of adventures, including half-day snorkeling trips and multisport trips (snorkeling included) that include a variety of other—drier—activities.

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