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Near death between tectonic plates

Ever get the feeling that you are in a place where humans are just not meant to go? I spent the morning diving in the ice-cold glacier water that fills up the Almannagjá fissure, the crack that has been created by the tectonic plates of Eurasia and North America pulling apart. It is this primordial activity that has created Iceland, by allowing the upwelling of magma from below the surface of the earth. The enormous forces have created both the volcanoes and this rift valley that cleaves Iceland in two. Part of the rift valley is filled with water, forming Lake Þingvallavatn, while the rest of the rift is a scenic valley of massive fissures and soft green moss. Our destination was the Almannagjá fissure. When I saw it I thought "is this it?", just a narrow crack in the rock, only 2-3 metres wide but kilometres and kilometres long. Yet this narrow crack goes down 60 metres and is the site of nearly daily earthquakes - it is the exact epicentre of the rifting between tectonic plates, on one side you are in Europe on the other side you are in America.

The fissure is filled by glacial meltwater filtered through volcanic rock. The slow seep of glacial water keeps it at a constant 2 degrees Celsius, so unlike the lake it never freezes in winter. British troops stationed in Iceland during WWII thought the water itself was special and used it to fill their radiators instead of anti-freeze, which of course ended in destroying their engines. We suited up in dry suits to descend down, my first (and now probably only) experience in a dry suit. It is incredibly constricting, layer upon layer tightly wrapped around your body to stop you dying of hypothermia in the freezing waters.

I could hardly move in the ill-fitting suit and it was so hot that it was a relief to step into the freezing waters - until they hit my head and hands (due to small tears), when I felt coldness so severe it seemed like I was burning. The pain numbed as we prepared to dive, and underneath the water we could see the startling blue of crystal clear waters - visibility 100+ metres, the best of anywhere in the world with perfectly pure water.

Oddly, after successfully getting down, my suit started to self-inflate and I bobbed up to the surface. The guide said it was normal on the first dry suit experience and stuffed more lead weights into my vest. I went down, then a few minutes later the same happened - over and over again I was frustrated as I rose to the surface and was just given more lead weight, until finally I sunk well, straight to the bottom of the rift.

The happiness lasted only a minute as I worked out why I was now sinking - a faulty tube had leaked my entire oxygen tank into my suit until it ran out, leaving me with lead weights at the bottom of a tectonic right without any oxygen!

It could have been a lot worse, the rift was only 10 metres deep at that point and I didn't have so much weight on that I couldn't swim up to the surface (the lead vest was impossible to take off wearing the dry suit mittens), but I was fairly oxygen-deprived when I did make it there. My tour operator finally recognised the faulty tube and offered to change it for the second dive, but I instead decided to indulge in oxygen and watch the goslings graze of the green grasses of the rift.

For our last evening with Icepedition, Chris organised an amazing traditional Icelandic meal in the house of some good friend of his, with great food and drinks and a delightful end to a perfect holiday.


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