Tourist Dies at Reynisfjara, Group Caught by Waves in the Same Spot the Next Day

Reynisfjara black sand beach

A tourist died on Friday after being swept out to sea by a wave at Reynisfjara beach, just outside Vík í Mýrdal in South Iceland. RÚV reports that the man, who was in his eighties, was in the ocean for about an hour before he could be rescued and was dead by the time the Coast Guard helicopter was able to reach him.

The victim was from Canada and part of a larger tour group with his wife, who was also caught by the same wave. The tour guide was able to grab the woman and drag her to safety, but her husband was not so lucky. Rescue teams from South Iceland and the Westman Islands were called to the scene, as well as the Coast Guard. Conditions at sea were quite dangerous, however, with very high winds that prevented the Coast Guard helicopter from reaching the man for an hour.

The Red Cross’ trauma team was called in to provide services for the woman and her travel companions.

Believed they could swim ashore

Only a day later, a group of foreign tourists, including a family from Germany, were swept up in a wave in the same spot where the Canadian couple was caught on Friday. No one was seriously injured, but apparently, the group believed they could swim back to land if they were caught by the waves.

The upsetting incident was witnessed by tour guide Hrafnhildur Faulk.

Hrafnhildur saw six people get swept off their feet. Five managed to pull themselves to safety quickly; the last man lingered. “I was waiting for him to get up and run,” recounted Hrafnhildur, but the man stayed in the surf, looking for his glasses in the sand.

“He seemed pretty unphased, considering,” she continued. “I think I would have been more alarmed.”

Hrafnhildur said that she frequently sees people putting themselves in harm’s way on the shore at Reynisfjara, even running into the waves with small children. “Naturally, you run over and intervene,” she said. “But unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

An all-too common occurrence

There have been many drownings at Reynisfjara over the years when visitors, generally foreign tourists, are swept into the ocean by powerful “sneaker waves.” In May, a Spanish tourist nearly drowned after intentionally wading into the surf to have photos taken, but thankfully, he was able to pull himself to shore. Last November, a young Chinese woman was not so lucky. Between 2007 and 2019, three people drowned at the popular beach.

That year, the government began to conduct a risk assessment and closed part of the beach, although many visitors ignored the closure. Much of the beach remains open, although with prominent warnings and explanations of the very real danger posed by the sneaker waves are posted in several languages.

Wind and Wave Warning This Weekend

A low-pressure area off the southwest coast of Iceland will bring gale-force winds in that region and will likely trigger waves of up to 13 m [43 ft], Vísir reports.

These waves will not merely be out at sea but will also be in evidence along the southern and western coastlines, particularly in the later part of the day and evening on Friday. As much of Route 1 and other main roadways travel along the coast in these regions, travellers are advised to be cautious.

Alerts posted on safetravel.is similarly advise that “very strong and hazardous” waves at Reynisfjara beach on the South Coast are expected for the whole weekend. Visitors should “[u]se extra caution, stay WELL back from the water, and [not] leave children unattended.” No one should attempt to enter the cave at Reynisfjara during this time, either.

Safetravel.is also notes that Friday evening will being high winds of up to 40m/s [144 km/h;  90 mph] “in the north and east from Hvammstangi to Egilsstaðir and in the highlands.” Drivers are advised to reduce their speed when driving in these areas.

You can check Safetravel.is for weather alerts in Icelandic. English, French, German, and Chinese.

Video Shows Tourists Swept Off Their Feet at Reynisfjara Beach

No amount of signage or posted warnings seem to be able to convince tourists on Reynisfjara beach to stay well clear of its dangerous and powerful waves. An Instagram video posted five days ago by American photographer Erica Mengouchian shows dozens of tourists getting swept off their feet by a wave on the shore, while others – including the photographer herself – rush to get out of the reach of the surf.

“WAIT FOR IT…” reads the video caption. “[I]nsane waves/weather! This place is no joke and these people don’t pay attention to the warning signs…Thankfully everyone got back up safely and they are ok.”

Reynisfjara beach, notorious for its “sneaker waves,” has been the site of numerous accidents over the years – some of them even fatal. An American woman died in May 2007 when caught by a wave, and a Chinese man lost his life when he was swept out to sea in February 2016. There have been many close calls besides, as tourists often disbelieve or choose to ignore the posted signage which states, among other things, “Very Dangerous Sea Currents,” “Deadly Sneaker Waves,” and “Never Turn Your Back On the Ocean.”

See Erica’s video on Instagram.