Sneaker Waves and Black Sand Beaches 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…’

Iceland waves

And when you look at the waters around Iceland, you can understand why.  They’re bonkers.

Iceland sea

The Power of Iceland’s Seas

Being an island, Iceland has a lot of coast (well, duh…).  I travelled along some of it – both south from Reykjavik as far as Jokulsarlon, and north up to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  If Iceland is a clock face, that’s from 9 round to about 4.  So I saw quite a lot of sea, and even on a calm day, it’s spectacular.

Iceland waves

Enormous waves crashing furiously onto the rocks, seething foam, spouts shooting up through blow holes, 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.

Iceland coast

The Wreck of the Epine

A very poignant reminder of the power of Iceland’s waters lies 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.  5 men survived but 14 died, either from exposure or drowning.

Epine Grimsby shipwreck

Bits of the wrecked vessel are still scattered across the beach as a memorial.

Epine Grimsby shipwreck

Vik Black Sand Beach and Basalt Stacks

The image below is of 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.

Vik basalt stacks 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,  it’s all about trying to get that perfectly-timed shot of a powerful breaker.

Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach Iceland

It’s very easy, when you’re peering down the lens, to stop noticing what’s around you.  But those waves can be sneaky!

Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach Iceland

Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

These photos were taken at Reynisfjara, known as Black Sand Beach.  It’s one of the most famous beaches in Iceland because of its pure black beach and stunning cliff of basalt columns.  People love climbing on the columns to have their picture taken.

Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach Iceland

And it makes for a pretty dramatic photo.

Basalt stacks Iceland

But you really do need to be careful of those waves.

Sneaker waves Iceland

Sneaker Waves in Iceland

As you arrive at the 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.

Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach Iceland

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 Iceland

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

Sneaker waves Iceland

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

Iceland waves

I’ll leave you with 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 bite you…


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