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Sneaker Waves & Black Sand Beaches in Iceland

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Sneaker Waves and Black Sand Beaches in Iceland
Sneaker Waves and Black Sand Beaches in Iceland

Before I travelled to Iceland, I’d heard about its famous black sand beaches, but I didn’t know much about them. And I’d never heard of sneaker waves before. If you don’t know much either, read on. This post might literally save your life…

A photographer gets dangerously close to sneaker waves in Iceland
A photographer gets dangerously close to sneaker waves in Iceland

It might not come as much of a surprise to learn that Iceland was one of the last places in Europe to be inhabited by humans. Early settlers would have had to navigate the treacherous North Atlantic Ocean in little wooden boats, and many would have died or given up in the attempt. I can imagine young Snorri Einarsson or Thora Jónsdóttirfull of adventure and wanderlust, standing on the shores of Norway or Scotland, gazing out over the water and thinking, ‘Nah, not today…’

And when you look at the shores and waters around Iceland, you can understand why. The black sand beaches are dark and threatening, and the waves are furiously bonkers. Fall in, and you wouldn’t last ten minutes.

Powerful waves break over a rock in Iceland
Powerful waves break over a rock

Black sand beaches and sneaker waves

Being an island, Iceland has a lot of coast (well, duh…). I explored some of it driving along the Iceland Ring Road – both south from Reykjavik as far as Jokulsarlon, and north up to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. If Iceland is a clock face, that’s from nine round to about four, going anticlockwise. Along the way I saw Icelandic horses, did a glacier hike, and I also saw several black sand beaches and a lot of sea. Even on a calm day, the views are spectacular.

Iceland's churning seas are powerfully atmospheric
Iceland’s churning seas are powerfully atmospheric

Enormous waves crashing furiously onto the rocks, seething foam, spouts shooting up through blow holes, forbidding black sand, the whole shebang. You could watch for hours and not get bored.

With all this violent watery activity going on, it’s no surprise that Iceland has more than its fair share of weird and wonderful rock formations, that have been blasted out of the cliffs by the epic might of the sea.

Rock formations and black volcanic rock in Iceland
Rock formations and black volcanic rock in Iceland

Vik black sand beach and basalt stacks

One of those amazing formations is the basalt stacks near the town of Vik, on the south coast.  The cliff line used to be much longer here, but it’s been battered to pieces because there is literally no landmass at all from here all the way south to Antarctica so the Atlantic rollers can attack with full force.

Black sand beach and basalt stacks at Vik, Iceland
Black sand beach and basalt stacks at Vik, Iceland

When you stand and watch them crashing ashore, it really does make you feel small and insignificant. This is definitely not the sort of beach where you might be remotely tempted to take off your shoes for a quick paddle. Instead, for me, it was all about trying to get that perfectly-timed shot of a powerful breaker smashing onto the black sand beach.

Where did the black sand beaches in Iceland come from?

The black sand beaches in Iceland are formed from volcanic activity. Iceland has around 130 volcanos, many of which are still active and erupt from time to time. Over millions of years, these volcanoes have erupted over and over, throwing scalding molten lava into the sea.

When the boiling lava hits the near-freezing water, it immediately solidifies into tiny pieces of rock and black sand. The eruption from single volcano could create a whole new black sand beach in just a few hours.

Black sand beach in Iceland and powerful sneaker waves on Iceland's south coast
Black sand beach and powerful sneaker waves on Iceland’s south coast

Reynisfjara black sand beach

One of the most famous black sand beaches in Iceland is Reynisfjara. Its name is said to come from a Norwegian Viking called Reynir, who was the first settler brave enough to come here. The name, translated, means ‘Reynir’s beach’. Nearby you will also find his mountain, Reynisfjall, and his pillars, the Reynisdrangar.

Just like other black sand beaches in Iceland, Reynisfjara was formed by a volcanic eruption. It’s situated close to the volcano Katla, which is one of the most active volcanoes in the country and has erupted nearly 20 times in the last 1000 years. The last major eruption was in 1918, and apparently another is overdue. At some point in its history, Katla spilled molten lava into the sea, forming the black sand beach we see at Reynisfjara today.

Reynisfjara black sand beach and basalt columns with sneaker wave
A sneaker wave pounds Reynisfjara black sand beach and basalt columns

The beach at Reynisfjara is blacker than at almost any other black sand beach in the world because it’s almost always wet. At other black sand beaches, the sand sometimes dries out and fades to a light grey. But this area is one of the rainiest parts of Iceland, which, together with the force of the sneaker waves constantly smashing on the shore, means the black sand never has a chance to dry out. It remains damp, and therefore a deep, dark black, almost all the time.

Basalt columns at Reynisfjara

Reynisfjara is popular not only because of its pure black beach, but also its stunning cliff of basalt columns.  These are the Reynisdrangar, or the pillars of Reynir, and they’re one of the most photographed places in the whole of Iceland. People love climbing on the columns to have their picture taken. As you can see they are very scenic, and make a great background for a photo!

Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and basalt columns in Iceland
Basalt columns at Reynisfjara

The basalt columns are also the result of Katla’s volcanic activity. They were formed when molten hot lava from an eruption cooled down quickly. The rock contracted and cracked, creating these vertical, geometric fractures in parallel lines. The columns here at Reynisfjara black sand beach measure about half to one metre across, and up to 20 metres tall.

According to legend, these individual stones used to be trolls, which tried to drown some sailors by dragging their ship onto the rocks. But the sun came up, and as it did so it turned them all to stone, and here they stand for ever more.

A tourist poses on top of the basalt columns at Reynisfjara
A tourist poses on top of the basalt columns

Or at least, for now. Because thanks to their exposed position on the shoreline, they’re constantly battered by the wind and waves. They are being eroded, and over time pieces fall off into the sea. One day, millions of years into the future, they may be washed away entirely.

As well as the basalt columns, visitors also love photographing the powerful waves as they crash onto the black sand beach. But it’s very easy, when you’re peering down the lens, to stop noticing what’s around you.  

And those waves can be sneaky…

Tourists take photos of the sneaker waves at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in Iceland
Tourists take photos of the sneaker waves at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in Iceland

What are sneaker waves?

As you arrive at Reynisfjara black sand beach there are several warning signs reminding people to take care and especially to beware of ‘sneaker waves’.

A sneaker wave (sometimes they’re referred to as sleeper or king waves) is a disproportionately large wave that appears without warning. They seem to come about every 5-7 waves, and they’re not just a bit bigger than the other waves, they’re colossal.  You can be standing well back at a safe distance from the tideline, but when that sneaky sneaker wave arrives, you suddenly find yourself having to turn and run.

Warning signs at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in Iceland
Warning signs at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in Iceland

Beware the dangerous sneaker waves

We were reminded several times of the dangers of standing too close. An Icelandic sneaker wave can come up and grab you without warning, and once you’re in the water, you don’t stand a chance. It’s icy cold, the waves are unbelievably powerful, and the floor shelves sharply so once you’re in the water you won’t be able to stand up. About two weeks before I was there a Chinese tourist died in this exact spot because he got caught by a wave.

Nevertheless, plenty of people totally ignored the warnings and happily posed for photos with their backs to the boiling sea.

Sneaker waves Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in Iceland
Tourists take photos at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in Iceland

I saw a couple of people stand too close and end up with wet feet, though fortunately nothing more serious than that.

It is very easy to get carried away though.  The scenery and the waves are simply spectacular. If I hadn’t been on a group trip I could have stayed and photographed the cliffs, the rocks, and the sea for hours.

Sneaker waves at Re Iceland
It’s not wise to turn your back on the sneaker waves!

Shipwreck on the beach

A very poignant reminder of the power of Iceland’s waters lies on another black sand beach at Djúpalónssandur on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Here you can see the remains of a British fishing trawler from Grimsby named Epine that ran aground just offshore in March 1948. The conditions were so bad it took rescuers over 2 hours to get a line out to the wreck. Five men survived but 14 died, either from exposure or drowning.

Wreck of the Epine at Djúpalónssandur on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Wreck of the Epine at Djúpalónssandur on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Bits of the wrecked vessel are still scattered across the shore as a memorial, their rusty orange bones standing out against the gravely black sand of the beach.

Wreck of the Epine at Djúpalónssandur on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Parts of the shipwreck lie scattered across the beach

So remember, while you enjoy the black sand beaches of Iceland, to stay alert and beware the sneaker waves.

If you still need convincing, here’s a short video that demonstrates perfectly how, even when you’ve been watching the waves all day, and you KNOW they can be tricky, a monster sneaker wave can still leap up and try to grab you…

Have you been to one of the black sand beaches in Iceland? What did you think? Which one was your favourite? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Further reading

If you liked this post, why not try one of my other Iceland posts, such as…

Icelandic Horses And Where To See Them

Iceland’s falls and springs

A Hike on the Svínafellsjökull Glacier, Iceland

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