I dream with my eyes open– Jules Verne, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”
The ice caves of Iceland have been on my bucket list for years. Few things in my travels have left me with a childish wonderment more than the unique nature of our planet. There is something inspiring about a landscape more at home on a distant planet than Mother Earth. For a photographer, Iceland is an amazing playground.
On my third trip there, I got the chance to explore the caves of blue and black ice hidden under the world’s largest glacier, Vatnajokull. This visit was in early March, one of the best times to see the Aurora Borealis. I had no luck on this trip seeing the ever-elusive Northern Lights but have photographed them previously. The highlight of my winter trip would be exploring the astonishing ice caves.
Sapphire “Blue Ice” Caves Wonder
Before heading back to Iceland I studied the caves and sought advice from fellow adventurers who had experienced Sapphire Caves first hand. I learned it would be cold, to expect some hiking, and to bring a tripod to deal with low light conditions. The caves are quite popular with tourists and can get extremely crowded if you go with a group at the peak time for tours.
As a photographer, I wanted to experience nature in as pure a state as possible. That meant requesting a special private tour to reach the caves before the other groups arrived. You must go with a guide to the caves because they are hard to find and can be extremely dangerous. I found a tour company named ‘Glacier Journeys’ willing to take me to the caves before sunrise so I could have it all to myself. It cost more money but it was worth it as I would later realize.
Exploring Iceland’s Glacial Caves
At 6 am, I met my guide Andrei in the parking lot at Jokulsarlon, the famous glacier lagoon in southeast Iceland. During the drive, he discussed what to expect, and what to watch out for when exploring the caves. Soon we were turning off of the famous Ring Road that circles the island and off-roading through an extremely uneven make-shift road covered in snow. After 40 minutes, I was feeling nauseous from the extreme movement of the vehicle. Finally, we reached an open area where we parked. I put on crampons for better traction and a helmet to protect from the low ceilings in the caves. Getting my nausea settled after the wild car ride we set off for another 30-minute hike to the caves.
The trek went quickly with stunning scenery all around me and a conversation with Andrei about his native Romania which is now on my bucket list. Soon we were in an area at the base of the glacier that was hidden until we reached the enormous wall of ice.
Sapphire Ice Caves in Iceland
A narrow passage provided us our first glimpse of the deep blue color. Before taking any images with my camera I stood and stared wide-eyed at the sight of this natural beauty. Before us was a frozen waterfall. Next to us was another cave opening that was much larger than the narrow passage we entered. The ceiling was brilliant blue wind-carved ice. The name Sapphire Cave was accurate.
I would later flip some of my photographs of this area upside down, turning them into abstract images that could have been of a tumbling sea. The color was stunning. After taking some time to enjoy and photograph this area, I went further into the cave. I noticed a light coming from above and looking up I saw a high spiraling chimney of ice leading to an open sky. The visual treasures of the cave were everywhere you looked.
Getting Deeper Into Sapphire Caves
As we ventured deeper into the caves we came to what seemed to be a window in the solid wall. The only way to proceed was under the thick blue ice. Andrei crawled on his stomach under the frozen wall and I followed dragging my backpack behind me. What I saw was other-worldly. The daylight was shining through the brilliant sapphire blue ice surrounding me. The illumination from daylight exposed trails of volcanic ash, dirt, and rock trapped for thousands of years in the ice.
Remnants of the past created swirls of definition that showed the movement of the glacier frozen in time. I stood in amazement and took in all I could with my eyes before turning back to the camera. I worked my way to the farthest reaches of the cave where I had to sit on rocky ground to take photographs. The ceiling dropped to little more than a few feet. Behind me was darkness, in front of me was a glorious cave of surreal blue.
Another Surprise – Black Ice Cave
Andrei told me about another cave we could explore nearby. After a 20 minute hike, we found ourselves at another spot along the base of the glacier. This time the opening to the cave was only a few feet high and crawling was the only way to get inside. What we found was a cave full of swirling black ice that led to an area opening up to the Icelandic sky. The black ice was almost as impressive as the deep blue of the first cave but it was much harder to photograph. The photographs don’t begin to capture what I saw first hand.
Black Wave of Ice
Walking deeper into the cave I noticed an amazing formation to my right. The wind whipping through the cave created a huge black wave of ice. It seemed surreal even for this place. The cave then opened to a circular area that featured more wind-formed black ice and frozen waterfalls. I took some more time to enjoy and capture the landscape before calling it a day and heading back to the car.
We left at the right time. On our walk back to the car we passed what I estimate to be 200 people headed to the caves. It would have been impossible to experience, much less photograph the caves with so many people. I felt incredibly lucky to have had the caves to myself to enjoy…even if it meant paying extra for the opportunity.
The Formation of Ice Caves in Iceland
These phenomena of Ice Caves are only found deep inside of glaciers. They formed by the power of meltwater as it travels through the crevasse channels of a glacier. Both air temperature and geothermal activity can cause significant glacial melting. When you are in an Icelandic ice cave you are literally standing inside a glacier; it is all around you. They are transient in nature and perishable.
The warmth of summer will bring rapid melting, and the winter will stabilize newly formed caverns and tunnels. You never know how new precious’s ice cave will look like, each time it is a different wonder but always spectacular.
The ice caves in Iceland vary in color, from crystal clear ice which light can pass through easily, to more unexpected black and blue colors and opaque compositions. When a glacier has been compressed beneath its own weight for hundreds or even thousands of years, this forces the air bubbles out and enlarges the ice crystals, creating areas of blue ice.
In a time where climate change is altering our planet daily, these sites are more important to see than ever. Glaciers grow and recede normally over time. In the time of the Vikings, the glaciers on Iceland were smaller than they are today. A mini-ice age in the 14th century expanded the glaciers to the ocean shores. Now they sit approximately 9 miles from the ocean. It is normal for the glaciers to shrink but they are doing so faster than natural due to climate change. Will there be a future without glaciers and ice caves in Iceland? Only time will tell. I am glad I got to experience them in my lifetime. I found ice caves to be a photographers playground…a playground I would go to over and over again.
About the Author
Colin S. Johnson is a professional photographer based in Washington, D.C. His photographs have been published in various publications including The Washington Post, Smithsonian, and the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art magazine where he spent 8 years as an event photographer.
A Word from the Founder, Zest & Curiosity
In Singapore, I met Colin, a talented photographer who travels the world looking for unique experiences. Even though my long overdue photo essay about Singapore needs to be written, I wanted to share one of my favorite Singapore images taken by Colin. I loved his nature photography and have been following his world-wide adventures. Once I saw his Ice Cave images I knew instantly that I have to publish it. What he captured is the world we often don’t see. It brings me joy to experience the beauty and wonder we are surrounded with. Through essays like this, we are closer to the world around us, no matter where we are. I appreciate Colin for sharing it with Zest & Curiosity readers. I could feel his passion for his art, too. It matched my passion to share unique and uplifting experiences in Zest & Curiosity. Thank you, Colin!
Enjoy exploring Iceland’s Ice Caves, dear reader.
Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director
Zest & Curiosity
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