Iceland: Day 5

What a day. I hardly know where to begin! We damaged more gear today than we’ve ever damaged in a single day. Not much of an accomplishment!

We returned to Jökulsárlón for sunrise. Jay was shooting on the beach, when a rogue wave came in. It came up past his waist, shifted his balance, and pulled him under water… along with his tripod, camera, and backpack. He says he flipped around under water three times before he could get himself back on his feet. Somehow, he managed to hang onto his gear… but the camera and lens are done for. Amazingly, not a single drop of water touched the lenses and back-up camera inside his Loka bag from F-Stop. As far as I’m concerned, that’s incredible. The bag was completely under water for at least 15 seconds… and nothing inside is damaged. His down jacket was inside that bag, too… dry as a bone. A good thing, too… since freezing winds make it tough to get warm after a dunking like that. He got a single shot before he went down…

And that was just the beginning.

After checking to make sure Jay was ok, I returned to the beach to shoot. I watched one iceberg for a while… but decided it was too far in. I didn’t want to end up taking a swim, so I chose another berg. (Of course, the guy who decided to shoot that berg after I abandoned it is just fine! Go figure!) I watched the waves for a while, and then set up to shoot. I took a few shots before another big wave came in. No problem… I was far enough up the beach that even a rogue wave couldn’t do much to me without trying harder. My feet were wet, but I was ready for that – I wear neoprene water shoes when I’m shooting in water. A second wave added to the momentum of the first one – and as it came in, I started to back off. I wasn’t at all worried at that point – I’ve withstood much larger waves before. But then a third wave came in. Normally, one wave pulls out as the next rolls in – and the backwards momentum reduces the power of the incoming wave. This time, the first two waves came one upon the other… building momentum as they merged. They were still pushing forward as the third wave came in… and the momentum of the triple wave picked up all the icebergs scattered on the beach and pushed them past me.

At that point, the water was about at my waist. I stopped trying to outrun the wave and braced myself as I’ve done so many times before. But the water wasn’t the problem. All that forward momentum suddenly reversed as three waves pulled back toward the sea as one, and the sudden rush pulled all those lovely bergs back towards me in a rush. The one that hit my knee took me down, and several others slammed into me as I tried to regain my balance. My camera was underwater for just a moment… enough to make it pretty much useless for the rest of the trip. The lens survived, and my fabulous F-Stop bag saved the rest of my gear. But I was in extreme pain.

I pulled myself up the beach, somehow, and ended up lying on the sand – blacking out over and over again as I fought the pain in my knee. After a few minutes (and some help from a good friend – thanks, Neal!) I pulled myself up and headed back to the car. My rain gear and several layers of clothes had actually kept me relatively dry – and the water was surprisingly warm despite the ice floating in it. I got pretty cold as I removed the wet layers, but luckily, my spare set of gloves were still dry inside my camera bag (WOW!), and my dry boots and socks were waiting for me in the car. Dry clothes never felt so good!

I’ll have to get some x-rays when I return to the US – but for now, I’m doing ok. The bruises are getting nasty fast – it looks like I was hit by four bergs. The knee is the worst, but I have a stunning bruise high on my right leg, an odd collection of deep black marks on my left ankle, and a small bruise on my right foot. I’m glad I was wearing so many layers of clothes! Cushioning!

And all that before breakfast!

We returned to the hotel after shooting (and swimming involuntarily) at Jökulsárlón. Today’s plan was a “Super Jeep” tour! The trip was incredible! The road to Laki is unpaved – and the Super Jeeps were equipped with giant tires to get us across rivers and over the rough terrain. The views were breathtaking – moss-covered rocks, giant volcanic craters, huge waterfalls… and then the view from the top. Wow! We could see a string of craters stretching into the distance. A shining lake glowing with reflected sunlight. Yes! Sunlight! Did I mention that it was a beautiful day? Only a few drops of rain in between gloriously beautiful clouds… and a lovely sunset for a finale. It was icy cold at the top – and the winds were strong – but it was great to see the sun!

Afterward, they took us back to the hotel. Jay and I were both exhausted after our morning ordeals – and we were relieved to finally crawl into bed. I slept like the dead. What a day!

25 replies
  1. Iratxe
    Iratxe says:

    Thanks that at least you bouth are all right. An spanish photographer suffered the power of the icelandic sea in the same place few weeks ago, but in this case the current carried her camera and lens out to sea.
    I’m really enjoying your story and wonderful pictures, They remember me last trip to Iceland two years ago.
    Best regards and take care

    • Varina Patel
      Varina Patel says:

      Oh no! It’s amazing that we didn’t lose any gear! I can’t believe Jay kept his tripod and camera in hand while he was rolling under water! Pretty amazing! Thanks for your kind words!

  2. Tri H. Nguyen
    Tri H. Nguyen says:

    Glad to hear that you are both okay now… what an adventure!!! How’s your ankles and knees doing? Hope they are getting better.

  3. Jack
    Jack says:

    I’m really sorry that Jay and You ended up int he drink but what an adventure. You’ll be talking about that day for some time to come. The photos that you’v shared are just beautiful. Keep fighting that weather. As you know some of the best photos come from extreme weather conditions. I’m sure some great surprises are headed your way…

    • Varina Patel
      Varina Patel says:

      As long as those “great surprises” don’t have anything to do with being hit by more icebergs, I’m game! :) It really was quite an adventure – and no lasting harm was done. Thank goodness! Next time, we’ll be much more careful, too!

  4. Etienne
    Etienne says:

    Hello Jay and Varina,

    I also made a trip in Iceland a few years ago, and I was excited when I saw that you’re writing a diary of your trip in this beautiful country.
    As I see, you already had problems with the wind (lens broken), and now with the see. I am glad to hear that you wasn’t hurt.
    However, it looks like you really seem unaware of the power of the nature in Iceland. How did you prepare your travel? How far are you ready to go to bring back “the” pic of the day?
    Of course I don’t know in details how theses accidents during Day 5 occured, and perhaps you took far more precautions than I could think about. But when I read your story, I can’t think anything else than “What are they going to do next time? Go alone with a small rental car on the tracks in the middle of the country, try to climb on the highest mountain, and only there realize that they don’t have enough time to come back to the car before night falls? And only there realize that there is no cell phone coverage? And all of that only because they wanted to take “the” pic of the day? …”.

    Just take care. Open your eyes. Take first time to appreciate and to respect this country, and only afterwards to take pictures …

    I sincerely hope that weather will be better and that you will enjoy your trip; and despite all what I could think about your behavior during Day 5, I will continue to read your posts and admire the beauty of this country through your photos!

    Thanks for sharing

    • Varina Patel
      Varina Patel says:

      Thanks for your comments, Etienne. You bring up a very important point. I hope others will see your comment and take it to heart. This is an essential part of nature travel and photography… and too often, photographers and adventurers ignore the advice you give.

      I assure you that Jay and I take great pains to be prepared for any eventuality when we travel. When we travel with students, we also try to make sure that they are aware of the dangers they may encounter in wild places. We travel very frequently, and we take nature very seriously. However, even the most prepared traveler will run into trouble now and then… as we did on this trip. We check weather conditions in advance, make sure we know the terrain, pack warm clothing and food in case we are stuck overnight… and so on. We are fully aware of the power of the ocean, having seen it first hand.

      It’s important for me to point out that the entire situation could have been much worse if Jay and I had not been prepared. We might have gone much further into the water to get a photo – other photographers on the beach that morning were doing just that. We might have been alone in a dangerous location with no way to get help. We might not have had dry clothing to change into after getting wet – and being wet in those conditions can lead to hypothermia… and even death. There were a thousand ways for this situation to end very badly.

      We post our photographs on our blog so that others can learn. We could easily be embarrassed by the difficulties we had on day 5 of our trip to Iceland – instead, we believe that it’s important to share our experiences so that others can learn from them. We want others to understand that the ocean is incredibly unpredictable… and that even when you are careful, things can go terribly wrong. The fact is – Nature is unpredictable and extremely powerful. A human being has NO chance if natural forces get the upper hand. No matter where you go – PLEASE be prepared. Rather than bruised and wet – Jay and I could easily have ended up dead. We know that. And we want each and every person who faces natural forces to know it, too. Nature can and will beat you. Don’t try to beat it.

      Jay and I do not travel alone in the back country. We always travel together – and we make sure the vehicle we choose is appropriate for the roads we’ll be driving. We also make sure we have a spare tire… and other gear in case of problems. We don’t go to extremes when we shoot – it’s not about climbing the highest mountain or going past the point of no return. We are fully aware that many locations we visit will not have cell phone service – and we are prepared to survive for a week or more on our own in the wilderness if necessary. I only hope that others who visit this beautiful place – and any of the wilderness locations we visit – will be able to enjoy them without putting themselves in harms way.

  5. Tony Prower
    Tony Prower says:

    Hi Guys,
    great pics! but at a price. I work on this beach often and so I have seen events like this all the time. I have seen photographers dunking their Hasselblads in the sea.

    In my opinion, it is actually best to be less protected! If you have waterproof boots and neoprene gear, you are more likely to take chances in deep water. This is such a dangerous sense of security. The sand disappearing under your feet and the basketball sized bergs smashing into you are just some of the dangers.

    I prefer to go down there with regular sneakers, this makes me avoid every wave… sometimes I get wet feet, but never get into trouble.

    Wet feet, always go prepared with spare socks and 2 plastic bags. If you get a soaking, just put your dry socks on, then put your feet into the plastic bags then put your wet shoes back on (better if you have spare shoes).

    Fact is, the best pictures are achieved when you take the risks, but ultimately there is only one person to blame if you do!

    Be safe in Iceland.

    • Varina Patel
      Varina Patel says:

      You make an excellent point, Tony. A false sense of security can be very dangerous, and overconfidence can mean the difference between avoiding danger and putting yourself in harms way. Both of us will be far more cautious when we return to this beach… and anywhere else we shoot – and we hope others can learn from our experience!

  6. Steve
    Steve says:

    Hey Jay and Varina,

    Sounds like quite the adventure you two are up to up there in Iceland. A place I dream of visiting some day. Glad to hear you both are OK all bite a little banged up. Thanks for sharing the amazing images. Hope the rest of the trip is less eventful.

  7. Diana Michales
    Diana Michales says:

    Thanks for telling us the story, Varina.

    I live here in Iceland, my home. It’s true, oh so true, that nature can do away with you before you even have time to react.

    The worst happens when you don’t even know that something can happen. You can’t see it coming, and there shouldn’t be anything to take special care of.

    I must mention that even if there is no mobile coverage, you can still call number 112 (police, etc) in most cases. It works, even without coverage.

    A German photographer died last year. He fell off the cliffs of Látrabjarg. The news are here:

    Afterwards, it was talked about that his camera bag might have had something to do with the accident. The weight might have pulled him down when he moved his foot a little too far (he was apparently using a telephoto at that moment, not watching the ground). No bad wind, good visibility… and nobody who had died before in that dangerous place.

    The news I quoted link to this informative site on safe travel in Iceland:

    Great pictures you guys are taking :)

    • Varina Patel
      Varina Patel says:

      So sad, Diana! Thanks so much for sharing this! Thanks for mentioning that this man’s bag might have been part of the problem. When you are wearing heavy gear, it can shift your balance unexpectedly – and high winds can contribute to that! Jay feels that his camera bag helped to pull him off balance because the waves came up high enough to push against it. We both agree that it’s best to leave your bag behind – in a safe, dry place of course – when shooting in the sea. This is something we’ve done many times before – and we feel that we need to change that habit. We’ll also keep this in mind when we are shooting on cliffs or other places where a shift in balance could be dangerous. Thanks so much for sharing this story. I hope everyone will learn from it!

      And thanks for the tip about calling 112 on the island. It’s so important to know the appropriate emergency numbers when you are traveling!

  8. Samantha
    Samantha says:

    Wow, Varina, I’m glad you guys are ok. That’s good advance warning of the power of nature! Especially for landlubbers like Darwin and me. Hope you’re all safe and sound at home now.

    • Varina Patel
      Varina Patel says:

      Hi Sam! Great to hear from you! It was one heck of a trip – but methinks we’ll have to go back again in order to prove to ourselves that Iceland isn’t out to get us. ;) Who knew that Icebergs were an occupational hazard!?

  9. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    It’s always amazing how quickly the sea can come up. While your situation was way worse and I’ve never experienced floating objects as heavy as an iceberg, I remember like yesterday standing high on dry sand on what felt very safe only to be waist deep in water minutes later.

    Not to make light of a dangerous situation and the lose of equipment – it does make for an interesting story to remember and tell.

    • Varina Patel
      Varina Patel says:

      It’s definitely a conversation-starter, Stephen! :) We’re laughing about it now – but at the same time, keeping in mind that we need to be even more careful in the future. It was one heck of a day. I still feel completely exhausted when I think about it!

  10. Nitin Kansal
    Nitin Kansal says:

    Thanks for sharing this story Varina and Jay …
    Your story and some of the comments bring up some excellent points such as: Importance of due diligence before going to a trip, back up plans if something goes bad, remain motivated and focused to get shots and always have some fear of natural forces. I strongly believe, no matter how much preparation we do, mother nature will always has something to teach. Every now of then, when i get too excited by too gore-tex/protective layers and push my limits, i get my lessons from nature :)

    I’d similar incident shooting a waterfall at Vermont this fall season where i trusted my “FiveTen Canyoner -2” shoes and gore-tex too much that i push limits on slippery rocks and endup loosing my balance . Results were broken D800 and 24-120 lens. Important lesson was much worse could have happened with long lasting injury to my knee.. glad only replaceable things got damaged :)

    I’m so glad that Jay was holding onto his gear, you had friend to help you out and you guys continue with your day plans…

    • Varina Patel
      Varina Patel says:

      Oh no! I’m glad you were ok, Nitin… but I’m sorry about your equipment! I hope others can learn from our experiences and stay safe. Nature can be a formidable opponent! Better to avoid the fight if you can. ;)

  11. Nick Oman Photography
    Nick Oman Photography says:

    Luckily it was only the gear that got ruined. Sometimes a safe distance isn’t all that safe. It reminds me of Yellowstone and the tourists inching closer and closer to the wildlife. What I think is a safe distance and what they think is a safe distance are two completely different things. Great post and glad you guys are OK.


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