Iceland does not have many animals. No, the country floating alone in the North Atlantic is not considered the most hospitable of places and in turn, does not welcome wildlife watchers with a bounty of animals to drool over.
However, if you are a birder, you are in luck! Iceland might have one of the richest concentrations of birds on the planet, and one bird in particular seems to beckon to anyone that visits this tiny island nation: the Atlantic puffin. Ah yes, the puffin, otherwise known as the “Sea Parrot” for its colorful beak. These charismatic birds are the faces of Iceland and you will be welcomed by thousands of images, stuffed animals, magnets, and all sorts of puffin memorabilia. What you may notice are the actual birds themselves won’t welcome you. This is because they hang out in very concentrated areas, many of which are only accessible by boat. However, there are a few places in Iceland that one can find the tiny bird without having to leave land and down below we will talk about where these secret and elusive places are!
Before we dive into where to find puffins, let’s talk a little about their natural history so we have a better idea about their lives. Puffins are a sea bird and this is evident as they spend nearly 8 months a year out to sea, without touching land! They only return to their select breeding colonies, which are scattered across the North Atlantic, to find their mate, lay an egg, and raise a young “Puffling”. In Iceland, they arrive at the colonies around mid-April and leave around early August. During that period, puffins will spend the majority of their day out at sea, spending the time between sunset and sunrise, on land. There are usually a handful of puffins throughout any given colony, at any time of day, but if you are looking at doing some serious puffin viewing, you’ll have to adjust your schedule.
Now that we talked a little about the birds, let’s talk about where to see them!
Borgarfjordur Eystri (Hafnarholmi)
During my last visit to Iceland, this was without a doubt my favorite spot to watch puffins. Located in the remote Northeast corner of Iceland, Borgarfjordur Eystri is everything you could hope for in terms of Iceland scenery. Bright blue ocean waters, glimmering snow-covered peaks, houses covered with grass, and thousands of puffins. The road to get here isn’t exactly easy, but Borgarfjordur Eystri should take up one of your nights when visiting Iceland. To get there you have to navigate over a steep mountain pass while traversing a sea cliff route, but the road is doable as long as you take your time and forget the fact that there are no guard rails (yikes!). The colony is located on a small island that is now connected by a small new harbor that houses a handful of boats. While you cannot access the entire colony, they have built a wooden boardwalk that allows you to get around a fair amount with the addition of a “puffin viewing house”, which is a perfect place to watch the birds if the weather turns sour. Even from the boardwalk, you are sure to see puffins within a couple of feet if you are slow and quiet enough to not spook them.
They say if you ignore the Azores, Latrabjarg is the furthest most western point on the European continent. On top of that, it is also the largest bird cliff in all of Europe, with millions of sea birds nesting on the 440-meter high cliffs throughout the spring and summer. These two factors are what draw a fair number of visitors to this remote location along the southern end of the Westfjords. The drive to Latrabjarg is fairly out of the way and the last 30 miles or so are along a bumpy gravel road, which can take up a good amount of time. Once you arrive, the cliffs are spectacular, filled with breathtaking views over the Greenland Sea. If you are afraid of heights, Latrabjarg might not be the best spot to venture as the cliffs rise hundreds of feet straight out of the sea and you will be forced to peer over the edge if you are to see any birds. However, if you can muster up enough bravery to peer over the sides, you will be rewarded with millions of birds from razorbills, kittiwakes, guillemots, and more. Luckily, the puffins hang mostly near the top as they prefer to live in their grassy burrows. You will not find the same number or concentration of puffins here as you would in Hafnarholmi, but there are no guard rails or fences at Latrabjarg, and the puffins here are world famous for being extremely tame and easy to approach. When I visited, we did not find a huge array of puffins, but we did manage to creep within a few inches to some, putting us well within “selfie” range! Another plus for Latrabjarg is the opportunity to see arctic fox. We knew going in this would be our best chance to see Iceland’s only native mammal, and we ended up seeing four during our evening and morning visit!
Compared to the first two puffin colonies, this is by far the easiest to get to. Dyrholaey lies right on the very southern tip of Iceland, just around a 2.5-hour drive east of Reykjavik. Since this area is close to other attractions such as Skogafoss, Reynisfjara, Skaftafell National Park, and many more, you will likely encounter a good grouping of visitors here. You actually cannot access Dyrholaey 24 hours a day like you can with most other attractions in Iceland since they close the area off with a gate every night. It does, however, open at 8 am every morning, but at this point, most of the puffins will already be at sea, making this area a little less preferable if your sole intention is to see puffins. Some puffins may be hanging around, but they are more likely to be out at sea fishing during the day. When you get to Dyrholaey, the road forks in two directions, with no signs telling you where to go. If you continue to the right, you will head up a VERY steep and rocky road to the top where the lighthouse is located. This is where you will find viewpoints of the famous rock arch with the possibility of seeing a few puffins. If you continue left, it will lead to a lower viewpoint where you will be more likely to run into some puffins along the short trail through their burrows. If you are road tripping around Iceland, this is an easy spot to check out with a decent chance to spot some birds.
Since the three areas above are the only areas that one can easily see puffins while not having to take a boat or plane to get to, I highly recommend making the effort to visit at least one or two of them during your stay in Iceland. If you only have a handful of days and will not be traveling very far from the capital, Dyrholaey might be your best bet. If you have some more days to spend, then venturing off the beaten track to either Latrabjarg or Borgarfjodur Eystri will reward you with fantastic puffin viewing. Not to mention, the three areas I listed are all free to access, which might give you a little extra incentive to visit one. Below, I have listed the other areas in Iceland where you can see puffins. Do note that the areas below all involve taking a ferry to get to an island or paying a tour operator to take you out. These options may be a good choice if you have no other means of getting around. Good luck and happy puffin viewing!
Westmann Islands – Great puffin viewing on grassy cliffs, must take short ferry on south end of Iceland to get there.
Flatey Island – Good puffin viewing on tiny island located between Snaefellsnes Peninsula and Westfjords. Can be accessed on ferry connecting Stykksholmur and Brjanslaekur.
Grimsey Island – Located on the Arctic Circle, this island has one of Iceland’s biggest puffin colonies. Ferries from Dalvik leave 3 times a week and there are also flights on Air Iceland.
Lundery/Akurey Island – These islands are located just outside Reykjavik and can be reached with a handful of tour companies in the city. Easy boat ride, but puffin viewing is done from the water and not on land.
Ingolfshofdi – A private nature reserve accessed by a tour operator located halfway between Skaftafell and Jokulsarlon. Accessed by tractor ride then the tour spends around 1.5 hours hiking around the puffin colony.
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Hey, I'm Chase Dekker, a wildlife and nature photographer looking to share my stories and expertise with as many people as possible. My blog gives you a glimpse into my life as a photographer - whether it be stories from my travels, or guides on how to make your own trips as successful and special as possible.
I hope to give you valuable insight on everything from travel, to animals, to photography tips and more!