Iceland to Make Its ‘Hauntingly Beautiful’ Black Sand Beach Safer [Video]

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Courtesy of Serge (Flickr CCO)

Reyisfjara, the most famous black sand beach in South Iceland, is hauntingly beautiful. The ocean’s glory and fascinating geology attracted about 1.3 thousand visitors in the first six months of 2022. Unfortunately, the thing that brings thousands to “The Black Sand Beach” also makes it a deadly attraction. After the most recent death at Reyisfjara last month, local authorities worked to create a plan to make the beach a safer place to visit.

Despite warnings, people flock to the beach to videotape or photograph the legendary waves; many appear to challenge nature. Guide to Iceland travel website author reminds readers of three essential facts: The current is strong at Reyisfjara, and “if the waves sweep you off your feet, it is most likely that you will be carried out to sea. This beach is not a place to let kids or adults go and play close to the waves.”

Courtesy of Marco Nürnberger (Flickr CC0)

Beachgoers have lost their lives when sneaker waves carry them out to sea.

Officials use the term “sneaker waves because they often appear with no warning after long periods of quiet surf and much smaller waves, lulls that can last for 10 to 20 minutes,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

People caught in a sneaker wave have great difficulty getting back to shore. The water temperature is barely above freezing, and hypothermia can set in quickly, which results in fatalities.

They are a natural phenomenon, and in Reynisfjara, an offshore cliff is a source contributing to the manifestation of large “sneaker waves” that also flow farther up the shore than the other waves.

As a result of the quick and steep decline, the undertow is more robust than people might expect. Moreover, sneaker waves “are incredibly powerful and can quickly sweep an adult out to sea,” explained Jenna Gottlieb for Euronews.

Iceland Government Officials and Community Members Discuss Reynisfjara Beach’s Future

The death last month, the fifth in the past seven years, prompted heated discussion over the beach’s future. Should it be closed, or should there be new safety measures implemented?

A guide who regularly takes tourists to Reynisfjara, Perla Magnúsdóttir, defended the beach. It offers visitors the “whole package — stunning basalt columns, beautiful lava formations, the black sands, and lovely views of sea stacks, glaciers and bird cliffs. And if you’re lucky in the summer, you could even spot puffins flying over the area.”

Closing the beach when the waves are the most dangerous is a suggested option. The Minister of Tourism, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, told an Icelandic news outlet last month: “We can’t [ignore] the situation for much longer. One of the things we can do is close Reynisfjara, but temporarily.” However, she cautioned listeners that no one was thinking about closing the beach completely, “just when the tides are at such a point that they prove deadly.”

Despite several apparent signs warning of the dangerous waves on the path to the beach, some guides acknowledged tourists did not grasp the seriousness of sneaker waves. Perla said she had seen hats, cameras, backpacks swept out to sea, and many people with unexpected cold, wet feet. Most people express shock when sneaker waves continue moving inshore closer than expected. Perla recalled:

A few weeks ago, I managed to rescue one woman after she fell and a wave got to her. She started laughing since she didn’t understand the seriousness of the matter.

Authorities decided to add a color-coded warning lights system. As a result, the Icelandic Road Administration will install the lights next to existing signs by the parking lot and footpath. They will also install a camera system to monitor the area.

Written by Cathy Milne-Ware


Euronews: Iceland: Alarm sounded over ‘beautiful but deadly’ black sand beach and sneaker waves; by Jenna Gottlieb
Guide to Iceland: Extremely dangerous Waves by Reynisfjara and Kirkjufjara black Beaches in South Iceland! By Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
NOAA: Sneaker/High Waves and Log Rolls Can Be Deadly; by Patrick Durkin

Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Serge’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image Courtesy of Marco Nürnberger’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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