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Iceland: The Silfra fissure

It’s the early evening, and while the summertime sun still shines brightly in Iceland, the country’s most popular national park is decidedly empty. Despite being the busiest month on the tourist calendar, no other cars linger in the car park, the visitor centre has closed its doors and no footsteps echo along the paths.

Iceland: The Silfra fissure
Image: Chris van Hove

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I’ve come here to snorkel the Silfra fissure, which is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It’s here that the tectonic plates between the US and Eurasia tear apart from each other like an estranged couple: slowly, painfully, with the occasionally vicious eruption.

The fissure is home to one of the world’s most spectacular freshwater diving sites. Lauded by divers, the water is cold and clear, seeping up underground from a glacier over 30 miles away. It’s a spectacular filtering process that takes around a hundred years, and one that produces a surprisingly strong current.

Divers are flushed through sub-aqua highlights like Silfra Hall, Silfra Cathedral and into Silfra Lagoon. However, without a diver’s license, I’ve come to snorkel the fissure with a handful of others, through local operator Dive.Is’s Midnight Sun snorkel tour.

Silfra is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, not just because of the magnificent fissure, but also because it’s the site of the world’s first parliament, established around AD930.

It was here that people would travel each year to discuss events, catch up on news and eke out territorial agreements, but also the place where laws would be executed — along with the people who were judged to be breaking them. Our guide points to a waterfall nearby, nicknamed Axe Waterfall because that’s where male victims were supposedly decapitated.

Women, he tells us, were offered a less gory death — drowned in the small pools of water nearby us — often tied up in a sack — for alleged crimes including immorality, infanticide and witchcraft. They called them, unceremoniously, the drowning pools.

Standing above the fissure where we’ll snorkel and dive, our instructor grins.

“There were even people drowned in here — so if you hear voices underwater, ignore them.”

As we wander back to gear up in layers of thermals and quilted liners and drysuits, it’s a difficult thought to shake. Silfra means ‘the silver lady’. I muse if it’s a reference to the ghosts of its past.

Once in the water, I’m swallowed up by a surreal underwater world of deep-blue beauty. Lined with volcanic rocks illuminated sapphire blue, and decorated with neon-green tendrils of fine seaweed, I can just make out the shadow of Arctic char as they swim between the shadows.

But as much as I’m thrilled by the experience, and as much as it lives up to expectations, the water holds a chill that can’t be explained by the glacier-fed waters. I find myself listening as the current moves me along; but the only thing I hear underwater is the sound of silence.