Iceland: Alarm sounds over ‘beautiful but deadly’ black sand beach and sneaker waves

Iceland’s most famous black sand beach is a draw for international visitors, but a combination of geology and the raw power of the ocean make it a killer attraction.

The black sands and roaring waves of Reynisfjara Beach are among the main attractions of Iceland’s scenic south coast. It is known for its haunting beauty, but tourists have lost their lives due to sneaker waves washing them out to sea.

Local authorities are now working on a plan to make the area safer.

So what exactly are sneaker waves?

Sneaker waves are a natural phenomenon that occurs when several smaller waves combine their energy to create a larger wave. This can happen because of ocean currents, or in the case of Reynisfjara, because of an underground cliff just offshore, which adds to the pull effect of the wave.

On Reynisfjara beach, sneaker waves reach much further than other waves, are incredibly powerful and can quickly carry an adult out to sea.

People caught in a sneaker wave find it extremely difficult to get back to shore – and with water temperatures a few degrees above freezing, hypothermia can set in quickly, leading to death.

After the latest death at Reynisfjara last month, the fifth fatality in the last seven years, heated discussion has resumed over whether to close the beach or implement new safety measures.

“Reynisfjara has it all – stunning basalt columns, beautiful lava formations, black sand and lovely views of sea spurs, glaciers and bird cliffs,” said Perla Magnúsdóttir, a Icelandic guide who regularly takes tourists to its most famous coastline.

“And if you’re lucky in the summer you might even spot puffins flying above the area.”

Indeed, the site is very popular with tourists. According to data from Visit South Iceland, around 133,000 people visited Reynisfjara in the first half of 2022.

A color-coded warning system in the works

Several signs on the way to Reynisfjara indicate the danger of the waves, which are hard to miss. But after the most recent death, authorities decided further action was needed.

The Icelandic Roads Administration will install a new lighting system next to existing signs near the car park and footpath in Reynisfjara, and a camera system will be set up to monitor the area.

Authorities have used police incident reports to determine what wave height poses a significant risk to visitors. Hazard is color coded with green, yellow and red to indicate the threat posed by the waves.

“We are optimistic that the new lighting system in addition to the signs will prevent travelers from entering dangerous areas,” said Stefán Friðrik Friðriksson, project manager at Visit South Iceland. “It is good that these measures have been taken to ensure safety in Reynisfjara.”

The guides witnessed many close calls at the beach.

“I saw hats, cameras and backpacks washed into the sea and lots of wet, cold feet,” Perla said.

“I also saw a lot of people in shock as these sneaker waves don’t give any signal until they get much closer to shore.

“A few weeks ago I managed to save a woman after she fell and a wave hit her. She started laughing because she didn’t understand the seriousness of the matter” , she added.

Some government officials have advocated for the beach to be closed when the waves are most dangerous.

“We cannot deal with this situation any longer,” said the Minister of Tourism Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir told Icelandic news outlet Vísir last month. “One of the things we can do is close Reynisfjara, but temporarily,” she said.

“No one is talking about closing Reynisfjara completely. Just when the tides are such that they can prove deadly. But we will, of course, in cooperation with landowners and the tourism industry.

Denounce the danger of sneaker waves

Tour guide Perla Magnúsdóttir hopes the new system will attract travelers’ attention, in addition to her personal warnings.

“I think it’s a good idea to try a security system instead of shutting the place down completely – as some people have suggested,” Perla said.

Guides are trained to warn their groups of travelers of dangers, and many try to reach tourists traveling alone, without a guide.

“I’m usually such an easy-going guide, but right before I take travelers to this place, I turn into this super strict person,” Perla said.

“I tell my guests to forget everything they know about how to behave on a ‘normal’ beach. I explain that they can never turn their back on the sea, and that they must always keep a few yards between them and the sea and be on the lookout for so-called sneaker waves.”

Perla also warns visitors that if she sees them getting too close to the sea, she will act as a referee and whistle loudly to warn them to back off further.

Critics of the new system argued that the lights would be distracting and that Reynisfjara would lose some of its charms.

Perla disagrees: “All of Iceland can be dangerous; the nature here is so raw and untouched,” she said.

“But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy it!” We just need to respect its power, but also try new ways to keep our travelers informed and learn to enjoy it in a safe and respectful way.

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