Iceland is one of the primary living and breeding grounds for Atlantic Puffins (and many other species) with almost 60% of the total population migrating to the breeding grounds every year. Puffins are like an emblem to the country now and Iceland can be seen as the hub for puffin watching. While Puffins choose to spend most of their lives at sea, they travel to land in the spring and summer season for breeding which is seen as the ideal time to catch them in action while they hop around on the cliffs of the west and north coast. Puffins are sea birds so it is pretty obvious that they can swim.
The beautiful bright orange-colored beak of the Puffins creates a beautiful contrast with their black white penguin look-alike body. The interesting thing about a puffin’s beak is that it turns greyish in the winter season and gets to be all bright and colorful in spring and summer. The wobbly walk, beautiful colorful feet, and bright bills make them special in every way. Puffins mate for life like penguins and raise their kids together as a pair or as a ‘couple’.
Puffins nest in the same place they are born which makes them exclusive to a few places only. This means that some places are always going to treat you with enough sightings of these cute puffy little birds. Iceland has over six million puffins migrating over to the cliffs every year.
Be A Responsible Tourist
Puffins are very friendly and calm hence it is very easy to approach them. But there are some rules that every tourist should follow when entering the home territory of these birds. Puffin scarcely fears people and it is rather smooth to get within meters of them without causing a ruckus. But there has been a long history of Puffin hunting and egg raiding so some ethical boundaries should be maintained:
- Do not create havoc in excitement and always approach them quietly.
- Beware of the fact that all the cliffs where puffins reside are filled with burrows so keep away from the edges so that the nest is not destroyed by your feet. The soil is usually loose and hence can result in a fatal fall as well.
- Do not touch the puffins except if you see that one has wandered away from its flock then you can help it get back to the colony.
- If you are traveling in a boat that has a loud engine, keep a safe distance from the colonies so that you do not scare the birds.
- Puffins are very social and look out for the others in the colony so if they happen to scare even one of them, there is a solid chance that the others will follow along and fly off. This will result in disturbing the whole colony.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the puffin population has been on a decline across the world. So, preserving and protecting the natural habitat as well as colonies when you visit them is more than just an ethical responsibility. The recovery can speed up by peaceful breeding if tourists take care of these small yet important things.
Best Places to see Puffins: The Land Sites
Latrabjarg Puffin Watching Site - Westfjords
The western-most point of Iceland, Latrabjarg cliffs are one of the most popular attractions in the Westfjords of the country. Iceland is the western-most country of Europe and is also considered to be the westernmost part of the continent. Situated on the North American tectonic plate, these cliffs not only get huge colonies of puffins for nesting every year but also other migratory birds like northern gannets, auks, guillemots, and razorbills – about 40% of the total world population. Come summer season, the cliff is covered with fresh grass and small flowers where puffins dig their burrows and establish their colonies. While the site comes to life in summers, it is an equally beautiful landscape in the winters as well. It is a seven-hour long drive from Reykjavík – a long distance to cover but worth it.
The burrows on the edges of the cliff make the soil loose so make sure that you keep a safe distance. Maintaining the distance will also accomplish the goal of not disturbing the puffins and other birds in the area – enjoy the sight in peace. Most of the places are generally marked by defining the areas for the tourists. Tourists visiting Westfjords will not only get to spend a good amount of time with the Puffins but also wonders like Pinkish sand beach of Rauðasandur and Dynjandi waterfall which is a little further away from the beach and is one of the most beautiful waterfalls of the country.
Puffins in Dyrholaey
For the folks who do not want to travel for a long duration to get to a puffin watching site like Latrabjarg, Dyrholaey rock arch is just a few kilometers away along the south of the country. If you drive by Route 1 you will spot the landmark very easily with its unique hexagonal basalt columns formation. You can reach this arch both from the beach as well as the cliff and get to the colony of the puffins in that area. The beautiful black sand beach combined with the enormous, boisterous ocean in the front is capable of stealing the show from the puffins. You can properly combine all the elements of the landscape. If the weather is clear enough, you may also be able to spot Mýrdalsjökull glacier which houses Katla volcano.
It will only take about 3 hours drive from Reykjavík to reach the Dyrholaey rock arch if you do not stop on other tourist spots on the way. Places like Hveragerði – the geothermal town where you can stop and take a dip in the hot springs, as well as Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfall. If preferred, you can further head to Skaftafell Nature Reserve or Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon which are further ahead on the same route.
Situated in the northern part of the country, Tjornes Peninsula is a small peninsula famous for its beautiful fossils and the fantastic birdlife. The west coast of the peninsula has an abundance of fossils on it while the east coast works as the home for the migrating birds. Puffins are not the only residents you will find in this place. Rock ptarmigan, the more popular species of birds found in the Tjornes peninsula stays there for the entire year, unlike the migratory birds. So, winter or summer, you are sure to find some amazing little birds hopping around here. Along with rock ptarmigans, you will also be able to spot cormorants and black guillemots.
There are several trails you can take to reach the place populated with puffin colonies. The best place to get a proper view is either Voladalstorfa or Skeiðsöxl. Both these places will present you with a gorgeous view of the birdlife and their colonies. Looking over to the ocean beyond the colonies of puffins and the cliff, you will find an enormous ocean with whales and dolphins breaching in the backdrop as Tjornes is situated right beside the whale watching capital of Europe, Húsavík.
Located between Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón along the coast of Dyrhólaey is the cape and natural reserve of Ingolfshofdi. This site is ideally protected by high cliffs on all sides and can be accessed only by crossing the dune situated to its north-west. The hidden and protected location of this site makes it a perfect home for the birdlife. If you can cross all the hurdles and get to the site, you are sure to find a view of the colony which will not be seen at any other puffin watching site. While the journey is difficult, the destination makes it every bit worth taking. The thriving vegetation of Ingolfshofdi makes it home to several saltwater species as well as other birds like kittiwakes and guillemots.
This place is seldom visited by tourists because of the remote location and the difficulty of the track, so, you can be assured that you will get a lot of peace while you enjoy the scenery. Ingolfshofdi also holds great historical importance for the country as well. The very first inhibitors of Iceland settled in Ingolfshofdi first before moving to the capital city.
Note that it can be hard to reach this location on your own, so you might want to join a guided tour.
Westman Island – The Territory of Puffins
Ironically, the Westman Island is situated off the south coast of the country and houses the largest colony of puffins in the whole world. There are three other species of birds nesting on the island but the majority is covered by puffins. Most parts of the island are covered by puffins – even the parts with the human population.
Westman Island is easy to reach by taking a flight from the capital city of Reykjavík or ferries to leave from the southern town of Þorlákshöfn during the winter, or Bakki during the summer. If you do not want to get to the site on your own, many tour agencies make the travel arrangements for you or you can take a boat to the puffin watching site as well. The puffin population in Westman island is so huge that it has generated some traditions of its own. Many puffins get off track every year getting distracted by lights. Children often go and find the lost puffins and help them return to the sea or their nests on the land.
Westman Island could be an interesting place to be at for you if you happen to like legends of pirates or spicy stories from the history section. Westman Island has a history of runaway slaves taking shelters in there, murders are done in vengeance, pirate attacks, and volcanic eruption bad enough to destroy the main tower of the island.
Places to see Puffins from Boats
Reykjavík Puffin Watching Tours
Taking a boat from Reykjavík is the easiest way to go puffin watching in Iceland. Several small boats make regular trips taking tourists to the puffin watching spots from May to August. The good thing about boats in Reykjavík is their size – the boats are smaller in size and make very less noise so it becomes possible to get pretty close to the puffins without scaring them away. The boats are small but contain a shelter in case the weather changes and it starts to rain. So, you do not have to worry about finding a place to hide your head.
Puffin watching in a boat in Reykjavík comes with an added benefit of whale watching. Faxaflói bay is filled with beaked dolphins, humpbacks, and minke whales in the summer and spring season so you are sure to catch them in action during your ride.
North Iceland & Puffins
It is as easy to catch a boat from Akureyri (the capital in the north) and Húsavík (the whale-watching capital of Iceland) as it is to get one from Reykjavík. However, the northern part of Iceland is more flooded with whale watching tours in the summer and spring season. So, tours that are specifically for puffin watching activity may not be available in as much abundance as they are in the south. Although, every single whale watching tour is guaranteed to get a lot of puffin sightings so you need not worry if you are staying in North Iceland for your visit. Most tours leaving for a whale-watching session stops at Flatey island which is filled with puffins. So, you will have plenty of time to get some bird watching done from the land if you are not able to spot any from the boat.
Puffin Watching on Snaefellsnes Peninsula
The extremely fertile waters of the place combined with the small islands surrounding it makes an ideal home for puffins. Snaefellsnes peninsula is separated from the Westfjords by the fjord named Breiðafjörður. There are only a limited number of boat tours that you will be able to find that depart from Breiðafjörður for puffin watching. There are several whale watching tours that you can join which offer these two sighting experiences combined in one.
Although there are some tour agencies that still offer exclusive puffin watching tours, for example, the tour that leaves from Grundarfjörður Island. It cruises around the island, gives you a tour of the Breiðafjörður fjord, boat riding, and a tour of the peninsula. You can have your pick depending on your preference but it is recommended to not miss out on any of these two activities as Breiðafjörður is the best place to find orcas, the killer whale on the island. Combine that with cute little birds with colorful beaks and wobbly walk, you have got yourself a treat that is very difficult to find. The risk around orcas may be bigger but it is worth the excitement.
Heimaey – Westman Island
Heimaey is a part of Westman Island and is the only place with the human population on the whole island. As discussed before, Westman Island gets the greatest number of Atlantic puffins in the whole world and hence it automatically makes Heimaey an ideal place to catch a sight of them while they catch a fish. There are several tours available from Heimaey which gives you a tour of the whole island as well as a great puffin show. the excursions include visiting Vestmannaeyjar islands, caves, the ‘elephant head’ rock, etc. Most of the places that you will visit or see on this will be inhibited by puffins as there is no human habitation over there. Just like every other boat tour you take in Iceland in summer or spring, there is a good chance to spot whales on Heimaey boat tours as well.
Puffins on Papey Island
Another gem lying low on the east coast of Iceland, Papey island is like Westman island, full of puffins and low on the human population. To be precise, Papey island does not inhibit any population at all now. It was completely deserted in 1948 and has been accommodated after that. This made it ideal for wildlife and birdlife. A simple boat trip from the village of Djúpivogur is all that is going to take you to reach the island. It is very small with a total surface area of just 2 sq. km. If you are taking the ring road tour as a part of your trip then you are sure to pass by this island and come across a sky full of beautiful seabirds.
Grimsey Island Puffin Watching Tours
Two great things await you on Grimsey island, a stamp that will prove that you have visited a polar region and a huge colony of seabirds. Grimsey Island is situated in the north of the Arctic Circle and guarantees you a fabulous view of the cute little creatures we know of as puffins. Fairly easy to reach, you can get to Grimsey island by ferries that run throughout the summer season or you can take a flight from the town of Akureyri.
Some things to note about Grimsey island, since it is located far off the north, seabirds migrate back earlier from in comparison to other northern areas like Akureyri. So, if you plan to do some sight-seeing as well as catch a few puffins in their natural habitat, visit the island before mid-August.
Puffin watching in Iceland, done by either land or water, is a soulful experience and is sure to bring you a sense of tranquility and calm. It is heaven on earth for bird enthusiasts. The gorgeous backdrop of the island, beautiful sites, and nature presents you with more than enough opportunities to take some great shots for your photo albums as well. A responsible and careful trip to the home of puffins is sure going to be a fruitful addition in your travel diaries.