Sunday, September 8, 2013

Iceland's Jokulsarlon Iceberg Lagoon Experience

things to see in iceland

Iceland is a nation of natural juxtapositions.  Glaciers rest next to deep green valleys, and barren lava fields are bordered by gorgeous black sand beaches.  Nothing seems to make sense, but it all comes together perfectly.  If you don't believe me, just go visit the area around Jokulsarlon.

iceland areas of interest
The beautiful "Iceberg Lagoon" in Jokulsarlon, Iceland.

Jokulsarlon is approximately a 4 1/2 hour drive east of Reykjavik: it is an easy drive on the Ring Road, if not a long one.  Of course, Joey and I didn't reach Jokulsarlon until almost halfway through our journey exploring the southern coast of Iceland, taking it low and slow. But if you were really determined, you could reach Jokulsarlon in a day from Reykjavik.  Unfortunately, there is nowhere to stay overnight out at Jokulsarlon - it is a tourist / sightseeing location and nothing more.  There is a hotel 40 minutes west in nearby Skaftafell (but only one that we saw), or you could continue driving east for another hour to Hofn, which is what we did. We actually really enjoyed Hofn, particularly their town pool.  So relaxing!

Directions to Jokulsarlon, Iceland - Google Maps rocks!

So why go to all the trouble to visit Jokulsarlon?  Because it's AMAZING - that's why.

Jokulsarlon is most famous for its beautiful "Iceberg Lagoon".  This lagoon is actually the deepest body of water located on the island nation of Iceland, connected to the highest peak in Iceland's mountain range.  So it is the highest and lowest point on the island simultaneously.  Sliding down this giant peak (giant for Iceland - I come from the Alberta Rocky Mountain region so my idea of a giant peak is slightly different from that of an Icelander's) is a massive glacier, ancient and heavy.  Once the iceberg hits the lagoon, bits and pieces of it break off and thump terrifically into the water, creating majestic and mysterious-looking icebergs.

The Iceberg Lagoon with a view of the glacial mountain range in the distance.

The lagoon is full of these icy giants.  Some are a deep, spectacular blue, while others are a dirty grey.  All of them are fascinating.  They dwarf the rest of the landscape, trapped floating inside the lagoon's borders. Eventually, the icebergs melt and break into smaller pieces, and are then capable of escaping the lagoon through a small channel that cuts out of the lagoon and down into the North Sea.

Icebergs floating in the lagoon at Jokulsarlon, Iceland. 

To see these amazing sights is easy.  There are three methods: the first way is to just walk around the edge of the lagoon and enjoy the view.  That is free to do; simply park your car and go for a walk.  But I recommend choice either 2 or 3.  There is a small building beside the parking lot that features a small restaurant, washrooms, and information about touring the lagoon.  There they offer two types of water tours: a boat tour and a zodiac tour.  The boat tour is for larger groups, where you are transported on an amphibious vehicle across the land and into the water to pass through iceberg territory.   The zodiac tour is for small groups, and you get to go much closer to the icebergs due to the size of the boat.

We opted for the boat tour as the price was much lower than the zodiac tour.  The boat tour was 7400 krona for the two of us (approximately $63 to $64 CDN) versus the zodiac price of 11,800 krona (around $101 to $102 CDN).  The boat tour wasn't really that packed, either, so we didn't feel like we'd be missing anything by not going on the zodiac.  For those of you curious, all you do is stand in line by the boat walkway and pay at the gate with your credit card.  Easy peasy.

Beginning our amphibious vehicle tour of the Iceberg Lagoon.

The boats even come with an interesting history.  The tour company, 'Glacier Lagoon Tours', uses amphibious vehicles that were active during the war in Vietnam.  These boats were originally designed to be used on land and water in the tropical and jungle-like environments of Vietnam, not the freezing, ice-infested waters of an Icelandic lagoon!  Our captain even let me flip through the on-board manual that originally came with the boat, pointing out the page with instructions on how to avoid coral reefs and what to do if you hit one!

The amphibious vehicle that toured us around the Iceberg Lagoon.

The boat ride lasted about half an hour, which was just long enough since the day wasn't the warmest.  It was great cruising around the lagoon, seeing the icebergs from different angles and up a little closer.  Never did we get close enough to reach out and touch one, but that wasn't my goal so I didn't mind.  Unfortunately, due to the weather, we didn't see any seals, which the lagoon is also well-known for.  Our guide explained that when the water is choppy due to wind and rain, the lagoon isn't ideal for fishing, so the seals tend to swim out to the sea to hunt.

The vibrant colors of Jokulsarlon's Iceberg Lagoon.

During our ride, a helpful zodiac driver navigated to a nearby iceberg and chipped off a piece of ice the size of a human head.  He brought it over to our captain, and we learned a little history and information about the icebergs in the lagoon.  For example, the ice in the glacier is approximately 800 to 1000 years old, depending on the depth of the layer of ice.  Once the icebergs enter the lagoon, they make it their home for an average of 7 years before they can melt to a small enough size to enter the channel to the North Sea and float away to freedom.  The mixture of salt water coming up the channel from the sea prevents the lagoon from ever freezing over, while the temperature of the ice-ridden lagoon prevents the icebergs from melting quickly.  It is a natural phenomenon that is really quite fascinating.

Our entertaining and friendly captain holds a chunk of 800-year-old ice.

To slow the melting process even further, the icebergs are made of very compacted ice (they are, after all, glacial icebergs).  The lack of air bubbles inside the ice means that the icebergs can only melt from the outside in, not the inside out like an ice cube in your glass.

When our captain was done teaching us about the lagoon's history, he passed around the giant chunk of ice so we could all take turns holding it.  When everybody had had a chance to test its weight, the captain smashed the chunk of ice into small bits and handed them out.  I popped it in my mouth - 800-year-old ice cubes taste amazingly fresh and pure!  Hopefully it also does great things for your body health!  After this, the captain navigated the boat back onto land and we disembarked.

I hold the 800-year-old ice before eating a chunk of it!

But don't leave Jokulsarlon just yet! Before you are done exploring the area, head to the other side of the Ring Road, where the icebergs escape the lagoon and enter the North Sea.  The black sand beach stretches out before you, glittering in the sun.  The sand is actually crushed volcanic lava, bits of obsidian that have eroded into sand particles through the action of ocean waves.  It looks like someone poured black glitter all over the beach.  I've never seen anything like it.

Jokulsarlon's icebergs pile up on the beach before being washed out to sea.

Littering the beach like so many stranded sea creatures are remnants of the lagoon's iceberg giants.  Some pieces visibly rush out to sea, straight out in the great beyond without even a pause.  Some, however, get caught in the oncoming waves and are deposited on the beach to melt in the sun.  Some chunks are huge, some are small enough to kick around like a beach ball.  Everywhere, people are peering through the ice chunks, crawling on them, posing with them. It is a really unusual sight.

I climb aboard an iceberg on the black sand beach of the North Sea.

Remember to bundle up though - the wind that careens off the North Sea is far from balmy!  My eyes were streaming with tears as the wind stung them and whipped my hair into my face.  I was bundled up from head to toe, toque on my head and hood tied up tight, and I was still freezing.  Just a word of warning.  But definitely do not let the weather stop you from stopping by the Iceberg Lagoon in Jokulsarlon!

8 comments:

  1. I've never heard of this lagoon in Iceland, but it looks incredible, and the boat ride sounds like a lot of fun too. There's a direct flight now from Edmonton to Reykjavik, which makes it so incredibly tempting to go to Iceland (if I didn't have school).

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    1. Go! Go! And when you do, I'll tag along! I want to go back and tour the northern section of the island. We definitely didn't fly direct, and it was a LOOOONG flight. Good to hear there's a nice alternative! :)

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  2. This sounds like a fun, albeit freezing side trip. Iceland looks so beautiful and otherworldly. I can't wait to make it there someday!

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    1. Yes, it was a tad cold, but worth it all the way! If you go, I can't wait to hear your side of things! :)

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  3. What an amazing trip and your photos are stunning too! Great post...

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    1. Excited to hear about your impending trip! Good luck and have fun! :)

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  4. Love your video! :) I find it interesting that the lagoon didn't get the official title of being the deepest lake in Iceland until 2010 and apparently it gets deeper all the time! (and bigger). You can read more about it here:
    http://www.rent.is/blog/jokulsarlon---the-glacier-lake
    Safe travels!

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    1. When you are there, you don't even think of it as a lake, really, since the icebergs steal all the thunder! Interesting how it keeps getting deeper. Thanks for the info! :)

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