Egla just finished explaining that the dazzling sapphire blue icebergs afloat in Fjallsarlon lagoon are the newest chunks to have broken off from the adjacent Skaftafel glacier. Then we hear a mighty boom, like Thor’s rolling thunder, and another slash of brilliant blue appears in the mighty 20-metre high glacier face before us. A new iceberg had just crashed into the water.
We see Egla’s eyes widen, and suddenly she turns our Zodiac raft about face, to beat a hasty retreat across the lagoon. The sudden collapse has brought an additional dangerous thrill to this wondrous tour on Iceland’s south coast, as the wave emitted from the crashing ice upsets the balance of everything in the lagoon.
Suddenly, the water around us is alive. A massive translucent ice boulder rears up and bursts through the lagoon’s surface. It bobs and rolls with unexpected force, like a large, surly creature roused from a slumber. Then another berg surfaces, its weight having been upset by the rippling waves. Because 70 per cent of an iceberg’s bulk is concealed beneath the surface, and the surface is highly agitated, the whole lagoon is now in motion.
It’s a fitting metaphor for Iceland. The entire landscape across this raw, primal country is constantly changing. It’s the meeting place of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, and the gap between them is widening by three millimetres a year. It causes all sorts of activity. There are gushing steam geysers, eerie grey lava plains, bubbling sulphur pools and active volcanoes. The land is alive, and the signs are all around us.
We can see deep scars gouged into the high mountain walls that surround the vast Skaftafel glacier, although now they ride far above the current ice surface – a telling reminder that a warming climate is shrinking the glacier at an accelerating rate. This change has been noted by Egla, a student from Reykjavik who has worked at the lagoon hosting tour groups in Zodiac cruises for four summer seasons. She says the ice sheets crashing off the face of the glacier are becoming more frequent.
This year, she’s joined at Skaftafel by Tom, an Australian gaining experience driving boats in an icy environment, in the hope of eventually securing an Antarctic position. They agree that it’s an amazing workplace. They find the brilliant blue icebergs mesmerising, but note that the colour fades to white within about 10 hours. They also make friends with seals that regularly swim into the lagoon from the nearby ocean, feeding on Arctic trout that spawn in the 200-metre deep frigid water.
This spectacle is a highlight along Iceland’s south coast, which registers a constant buzz of traffic along Highway 1 throughout summer – a ring route that takes travellers on a complete 1300-kilometre circuit of the island. It attracts people from every country, curious and eager to see Iceland’s splendor – and this includes surprisingly large numbers of aged Americans who are clearly not fit enough to be trekking through this rugged terrain.
Despite this, Skaftafel lagoon is a peaceful haven at 10.30am, with only two Zodiac craft out among the icebergs. It’s a much smaller body of water than the more famous Jokulsarlon Glacier lagoon, located about 5km further along the road, which attracts big crowds aboard large ferries, along with kayaking excursions, amphibious craft and speedboats and Zodiacs all buzzing about. So, with fewer visitors and a more contained area framed by a closer circle of mountains, Skaftafel’s visual impact is more dramatic – grand enough to serve as a film set. And indeed it has.
Egla pulls out her smartphone to show candid pictures of Jon Snow and his wildling lover Ygritte preparing to be filmed for episodes during season three of Game of Thrones. They came with a large film crew during the depths of an Icelandic winter, to capture footage when the lagoon was frozen.
There have been plenty of other memorable cinematic features shot here, too – an epic sword fight between Christian Bale’s Batman and Liam Neeson’s character Ra’s Al Ghru in Batman Begins (2005), and James Bond’s Die Another Day in 2002, where four Aston Martin cars were wrecked while filming a wild car chase on the frozen lagoon (actor Pierce Brosnan wasn’t on location, only stunt drivers). Further along the coast are spooky lava plains that feature in the opening scenes of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It’s no surprise that Hollywood keeps coming back to this part of Iceland as a preferred movie location. The look and feel of this landscape is truly fantastic.
All photos by David Sly – All Rights Reserved