The Ice Cave Beckons
Byron Conroy jumped at the chance to explore a flooded ice cave high up on a glacier in Iceland, but first he had to get there – cue Super Jeeps and snowmobiles.
Every year in Iceland during the spring, rivers begin to form deep inside the glaciers. These rivers flow steadily throughout the summer as the temperature increases, gradually carving out a network of tunnels underneath the glacier’s surface. As the water speeds up, it gradually picks up sediment and rocks and comes out at the foot of the glacier as a sediment-rich light-brown color.
Then, as winter approaches, the temperatures begin to plummet and the glaciers stop melting. Eventually, the rivers run dry and what’s left behind is one of the most-popular attractions in Iceland – an ice cave.
An ice cave can come in different colours depending on the ice age and amount of air trapped within the ice; the most intriguing of all is the ‘blue ice’.
This year, Magmadive Iceland (www.magmadive.is) heard of an ice cave high up on the second largest ice cap in the country, Langjökull Glacier. The cave is at an altitude of 840 metres above sea level and can only be accessed by snowmobile. During the spring months of April and May, Magmadive had heard of significant snow melt in the area that had led to one cave being flooded – being divers at heart, we had to check it out.
The Langjökull Glacier is situated on the west side of Iceland within the Highlands, and the literal translation means the ‘long glacier’. In order to get to the cave, though, we needed a few different modes of transport.
To get up the mountain, we used a modified Mercedes Sprinter, also known in Iceland as a Super Jeep! These vehicles have been heavily modified to take 46-inch tyres and have adjustable inflation on the tyres to enable them to tackle the tough terrain of Iceland, though loading the equipment into the Super Jeep was an adventure itself!
After a very bumpy two-hour ride from the city of Reykjavik into the Icelandic highlands, we reached the snowline at around 400 metres above sea level. This meant the switch onto the next mode of transport – the snowmobile.
We transferred all of the dive equipment onto a trailer and changed into our undersuits and drysuits and then boarded the snowmobiles. This was the first time any of us had used a snowmobile in a drysuit, and it turned out they were the perfect outfit as the air temperature gradually began to plummet as we drove higher up towards the glacier – it dropped from 15 degrees C in the city to -2 degrees C on the top of the glacier.
After 40 minutes of snowmobiling, we had reached our destination. The cave was situated at 850 metres above sea level in the base of a glacier valley, and as we approached the cave we could not see the entrance due to all the snow. Our guide Kuba, who is both a snowmobile guide and also Magmadive’s in-house ice-diving instructor, dug out the entrance and we finally got to look inside.
We shone a torch into the pitch-black entrance and about ten metres below the surface we could see the water line and the start of the cave. The dive is both an altitude and an overhead environment dive, add in the extreme cold of both the air and the water and we knew this would be a challenge.
The entrance to the cave was steep and made of snow and ice, so we decided the best thing to do was to lower the twinsets into the water and put them on inside the cave before descending under the water line. After lowering both the twinsets, cameras and lights into the cave, we went down and shone a torch under the water’s surface. To our amazement, the water was crystal clear. For anyone who has dived the famous Silfra fissure, this glacier is actually the water source for Silfra and the water itself was just as clear as this famous site.
The tension and excitement in the small space began to build as we could not wait to get inside the cave and check it out. In order to conduct the dive safely, we used ice diving protocols and connected both divers together vis a piece of rope that could be adjusted by the main line tender. The rope was then held by a surface support, so via a line tugging communication method we always had surface contact.
As we then began the decent, we first had to pass a narrow chamber approximately one metre wide in single file. Having only our canister lights on at this point, the cave was still very dark and claustrophobic. We swam through the narrow opening, then the cave opened up into its main chamber.
At this point I decided to turn on two Keldan video lights and the whole cave came to life. We could see the whole cave lit up and the texture and colours of the ice popped out at us – it was hard to maintain a calmness as the cave was one of the most-beautiful things I have ever seen. It had a feeling of the Mexican Cenotes with the clarity of the water, but the textures and colours of the ice were something else.
As we headed over to the left side of the cave, we found the first of two frozen waterfalls. This waterfall had built up throughout the winter months while the cave was dry. The water which had been slowly leaking into the cave after rain and warmer days had been freezing instantly as it entered the cave and left behind a giant frozen pillar in the middle of the cave.
I decided to use the video lights to light up the cave and began taking photographs. To have the opportunity to photograph something so unique was incredible, and there was also the sense of exploration, knowing we were the first people ever to dive this cave and see what we were seeing.
While returning to the main entrance I was able to capture the sense of blue in the ice on the ceiling. The ice is blue due to the air trapped inside as the glacier was formed over hundreds of years of snow fall being compressed.
As we came to the surface, we were greeted by the rest of the team and they immediately asked what it was like. They could tell by the look on my face that they just had to go in and see it for themselves. For me having been lucky enough to dive all over the world, this was one of the most-challenging and exciting dives I had ever done.
To be able to see things that nobody else had ever seen before, and to dive in an environment I have never seen anyone else dive before, was an unbelievable experience. Let’s hope there are many more ice caves for us to find next spring!
This was the first time any of us had used a snowmobile in a drysuit, and it turned out they were the perfect outfit as the air temperature gradually began to plummet as we drove higher up towards the glacier
The water which had been slowly leaking into the cave after rain and warmer days had been freezing instantly as it entered the cave and left behind a giant frozen pillar in the middle of the cave
Photographs by Byron Conroy