"Never Turn Your Back on the Waves:" Tourists Swallowed by Sneaker Waves in Iceland Beach

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Dec. 26 2023, Published 11:08 a.m. ET

Tourists at Iceland's Black Sand Beach begin taking photos of the waves before running away from them and eventually falling from the force of the waves.
Source: kelseystarlight/TikTok

Known to Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and Star Trek fans as the site of some of the most iconic filming locations, Black Sand Beach naturally attracts people of all ages and abilities. According to a Reykjavik Excursions blog, the area got its trademark black sand through nearby volcanic activity.

However, many well-intentioned tourists may not have read about how to stay safe amid what Visit Iceland describes as sneaker waves, which can appear suddenly and rise rapidly.

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TikTok user @kelseystarlight shared a now-viral video of a scary scene when tourists at Reynisfjara Beach in Iceland experienced devastating waves and struggled to regain their footing. Here's what to know about sneaker waves and how to stay safe on your next trip.

Reynisfjara Beach as seen in April 2023 with its trademark black sand, a large hill and cave to the left of the photo, and waves crashing to the shore on the right side of the photo.
Source: Getty Images
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Black sand beaches in Iceland are extremely dangerous.

In @kelseystarlight's video, two tourists happily raise their arms while a third tourist raises their phone to capture the scene, blissfully unaware that moments later, rapidly-approaching sneaker waves will have them running away for their safety.

One tourist, still with phone in hand, appears to film the scene of two other tourists being swallowed by the waves while a previously unseen tourist retreats to safety. One of the two tourists struggles to regain their footing while attempting to help the other tourist back up to their feet.

The roaring waves threaten to bring the tourists to their knees as they struggle to make it past the shoreline, and the video pans to the angry waters crashing upon the sand.

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According to the U.S. travel website Black Tomato, black sand beaches result from sediment deposits from the country's slew of volcanoes. As lava cools in the frigid Icelandic waters and travels to the beach, erosion occurs over time, creating smaller, finer black sand.

Aside from the world-famous Reynisfjara Beach, Black Tomato recommends travelers seeking black sand beaches in Iceland to visit Diamond Beach on the south coast and Djúpalónssandur Beach to the west.

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What are sneaker waves? Unpredictable in nature, they're a force to be aware of at all times.

According to Visit Iceland, the tallest waves in Black Sand Beach have approached the height of roughly a 10-story building. Also known as "sleeper waves," their size, frequency, how quickly they rise before reaching the shore, and powerful currents behind them contribute to the unpredictable nature.

Sneaker waves cannot always be predicted when looking out upon the shore, per Guide to Iceland, so tourists are advisedto never turn their back against the ocean, always remaining a safe distance to avoid being tossed into the icy waters.

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As other videos from user @kelseystarlight show, it isn't always obvious that violent waves are preparing to crash upon the shore, no matter the vantage point upon which you're standing. Internet comments being what they are, users inevitably cite how tourists should have known that life-threatening waves were impending.

Nevertheless, as the U.S.-based National Weather Service (NWS) advises, sneaker waves are an oft-unpredictable force that can carry heavy objects with ease, and survivors of sneaker waves have described their clothes as feeling "heavy as concrete" once the ocean water and sand mix to further weigh them down.

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Tourists in winter clothing walk and take photos on the black sand of Reynisfjara Beach in January 2023.
Source: Getty Images

Here's how to keep yourself safe while visiting black sand beaches:

As the Reykjavik Excursions blog explains, water temperatures in Iceland's black sand beaches are freezing year-round, so swimming is impossible. Even for experienced beachgoers and worldwide travelers, it's best to stay far back from the shore when the tide can change at a moment's notice.

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“Growing up, we were always taught to respect the ocean, as it does not discriminate," native Hawaiian Courtney McDermott, PA, tells Green Matters. "Strong swimmer or not, once you enter, you are at its mercy. Of course I always encourage fun, but also advise caution, especially if you are not familiar with the tide and current of that particular beach."

While the NWS recommends studying the wave patterns at any black sand beach for at least 20 minutes, the unpredictable nature of sneaker waves extending further beyond the shore than anticipated means even the most well-intentioned and prudent beachgoer may fall victim to the roaring waves of Iceland's black sand beaches.

"Check your surroundings and see what other beachgoers are doing," McDermott says. "The tide and current can change in the blink of an eye. Also listen to the lifeguards. If they say don’t go in, it probably means you shouldn’t go in!”

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And while George Costanza can joke about the sea being angry with waves hoisting one up and tossing them around like a cork, the enjoyment of any beach day should be preceded by research, safety precautions, and the requisite respect for the powerful nature of the ocean.

This article was updated to include a quote from Courtney McDermott.

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