The Diamond Beach called Breiðamerkursandur is located between Höfn and Vík in the south east of Iceland. Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon is filled with ice blocks from the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier which float down the short Jökulsá á Breiðamerkursandi river and washed onto the black sand beach at the mouth of the river. This black beach is spectacular with an ever changing collection of ice blocks and is the perfect location for photography.
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Breiðamerkursandur (Diamond Beach)
The Ring Road 1 seperates the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon from the Atlantic Ocean and just below the road is a black sand beach. This is formed from ash and small pebbles like many of the other black sand beaches, but this one has a large difference. It is covered in sparking icebergs.
The icebergs from the glacial lagoon are washed down the river and out to sea where they are tumbled and smoothed by the action of the waves. Like any other iceberg they will float and are many are washed up onto the beach. This is a never ending cycle of change as some are washed in on the tide while others are taken from the beach.
The beach is split into two by the river leaving the lagoon and depending on the tide and wind direction one or the other will have more icebergs. A small tidal island just off the beach to the east or the river is home to arctic skua and arctic terns that swirl in the sky above the beaches, sparring and tumbling when not tending to their young.
Wildlife at Breiðamerkursandur
The lagoon is full of wildlife and even from the car parks you will have amazing encounters. Seals fish in the river and are commonly seen in the winter months lazing on ice bergs and hunting in the flowing water. In the summer months they are less common, but there are always a few buzzing around.
The east beach is where the arctic tern colony can be found. Just sitting on the beach and watching will allow you to see their acrobatics and defence tactics against the arctic skua who are bullies and known as the ‘Pirates of the Sea’.
This is not the place to look for puffins as the habitat is not ideal. They favour cliffs with a sandy coating where they can dig their burrows. The closest place to see puffins is at Dyrhólaey Lighthouse and the cliffs overlooking Reynisfjara Beach.
While whale watching is not the main reason for visiting this beach it is a known spot to look out for passing orca (killer whales). These large mammals will patrol looking for seals and fish which are abundant around the beach and this coastline.
Photography at Breiðamerkursandur – How to Photograph the Diamond Beach
At first glance the beach is a jumble of ice and black pebbles but taking time to explore can start to show the beauty of the beach and its jewels. The further you walk from the parking area the less people you will find making composition much easier. There will be a range of sizes of the ice from huge icebergs through to tiny pebble sized nuggets that glisten in the sunlight. Even on an overcast day the beach is fantastic for photography and in the winter months it is even better!
The ideal icebergs for photography are deep blue and turquoise. These will contrast with the sky whereas the murky grey ash filled icebergs will merge with the white surf on the beach. If you see the perfect iceberg then take a picture. It may be gone on the next wave or moved and changed appearance.
Depending on the weather conditions you may be looking for icebergs in the surf line but in bad weather it may be necessary to photograph the ice that has been washed up higher onto the beach. Also look for interesting patterns and shapes in the icebergs that have been shaped by the waves during their journey from the lagoon.
This is the easiest photograph to take at the beach and will give a sense of the scale of the ice and the sheer amount washed up. If conditions allow getting into the edge of the surf will allow you to show the beach and ocean but this is not safe a lot of the time. Remember to look in both directions, especially if you have walked to the west. Looking back along the beach will provide a different perspective and scale with people in the distance.
Using a longer exposure time it is possible to get the beautiful silky smooth retreat of the waves that form patterns in the surf. This is only possible is the sea is calm. If the waves of breaking this is not going to be possible as the ice will be tumbled and constantly moving. During the day it may require a ND filter to allow the exposure time to be extend enough to get the movement in the image. On days where there is more movement of the water streaks of the waves can be achieved in a similar way.
On days when the waves are slightly bigger capturing the waves breaking over the icebergs can give beautiful effects. This can be done by using either a longer exposure and having the wave as a smooth wash over the iceberg or having a faster shutter speed and capturing the droplets of the wave as it breaks. On these days it is essential to remember your own safety while taking these photographs.
All along the beach are small pieces of ice. Look for diamond shapes that are hand sized. These make for fun shots of glistening diamonds in your hand and are great at sunrise or sunset when you can move to have the sunlight through the ice.
Sunrise and Sunset at Diamond Beach
As the beach is south facing it is perfect for sunrise and sunset. In the summer months this is very short and one will almost roll into the other with a long overnight session. In the winter months the sunrise and sunset are also close together but across the middle of the day. The ice glistens in the golden hour light and is perfect for combining with longer exposures for silky smooth sea or sunbursts by using a higher ‘f’ number to get the sunburst effect. This is the ideal time to photograph the beach if you have to time to spend in the area.with sunrise being the perfect time.
Aurora Borealis at Diamond Beach
If you visit during the winter months then this beach is one of the places to watch the northern lights. The beach faces south so you will be looking back towards the lagoon if the display is not directly overhead. General landscapes of the beach work best in this situation but extra care is needed when navigating the beach in the dark and colder winter conditions.
Safety at Breiðamerkursandur
- As with all of the beaches in Iceland the sea can be unpredictable and ‘sneaker waves’ can come from nowhere and knock you from your feet into the freezing ocean. Make sure you know what the tide is doing as the icebergs will behave differently depending on the state of the tide. It takes less than a second for a wave to take your camera, tripod and even you, not an experience that needs to happen.
- Photography at the beach can be a cold experience and even in the summer months waterproofs, wellies or waders and warm layers are essential to make the time on the beach comfortable. It is exposed and the wind will howl through chilling you quickly.
- Be aware of where the big chucks of ice are at all times, especially as the tide is turning. New icebergs arrive with each wave and the waves can take icebergs from the beach catching you and your camera on their way out. You really do need to be aware of your surroundings and move with the tide and ice.
- Hopefully it goes without saying but you should never stand on the ice. Ice can be slippery and some of these icebergs are incredibly unstable and large. There is also a chance that freak waves (known as sneaker waves) will catch icebergs further up the beach and take them back out to sea. Not good if you are stood on it at the time. This goes for those in the water as well. An easy thing to remember is not to stand on the ice!
Getting to the Diamond Beach
The Diamond Beach is located by Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon between Skaftafell and Höfn. Coming from the lagoon turn right onto the bridge and then take the track on the left at the end of the bridge. This will take you down a rutted road with a large parking area and direct access onto the beach.
If the ice is on the east side of the beach leave the glacier lagoon car park and turn left away from the bridge. After a short distance you will see a turning on the right and a number of information boards on the edge of beach car park.
To get to Jökulsárlón and the black sand beach from Reykjavík it is 370km and at least 5hours driving without stops and will be longer in the winter months. With shorter daylight hours in the winter months it is not an ideal day trip and staying close by will make the journey worthwhile. It is just 60km from Höfn, about an hours drive and if you want to stay in a town this is the nearest.
READ MORE: HOW TO HIRE A CAR IN ICELAND
Best time of Year to Visit the Diamond beach
This beach is a year round destination and despite what your instincts tell you, the ice at the Diamond Beach is there year round. In the summer months the beach can be busy, but longer days mean that you can visit late into the evening and avoid the main visitors during the day.
In the winter months the beach can be quieter, although the trip to get here can be more complicated with wind and snow making driving conditions hard. It can also be extremely cold and exposed on this small black sand beach so warm clothing and your own health comes before a visit. During the winter though the short days mean that sunrise and sunset when the beach is at its best happen at a sensible time and are fairly continuous making it perfect for a day of exploring and photography.
Staying at Breiðamerkursandur
The best places to stay for visiting the Diamond Beach are in Höfn or the hotels that have been built close to the lagoon itself. These are especially useful if you want to capture sunrise, sunset or the northern lights.
As well as hotels there are a number of cottages close to the beach but these book well in advance so planning is needed. There are a few campsites near to the Diamond Beach including the isolated Haukafell Campsite close to Höfn.
Tours to the Diamond Beach
If you want to visit the beach without the worry of driving then a tour is the best option. There are lots of options with glacier tours, boat trips and all sorts included. Many of these book up early so it is better to book in advance.
If photography is your main reason for visiting then there are a number of tours that are focussed on photographing the diamond beach. These will give you more time for photography as well as support to get the perfect image.
Places To Visit Close To Diamond Beach
- Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon – a deep glacial lagoon with large icebergs flowing out to sea
- Fjallsárlón Glacial Lagoon – a short distance from Jökulsárlón is this much small but equally beautiful lagoon
- Hofskirkja – A pretty little church in the shadow of a mountain
- Haukafell – A remote location with a hike to the glacier edge