A Beginner’s Guide to Icelandic Puffins
- Iceland is home to 60% of the world’s Atlantic Puffin population. There are over 16 times more puffins than resident humans during the summer months!
- The puffins come to our cliffs and beaches in their millions to raise their families. After the summer, they head back out to sea, where they spend the rest of the year hunting for fish and even sleeping on the surface of the ocean!
- These colorful little birds are full of character and make bonds for life with their mate and form special friendships within the colony. Unfortunately, Atlantic Puffins are now considered an endangered species.
- In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about visiting the lovely birds, including the top 8 spots to see puffins in Iceland!
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Where to see Puffins in the South of Iceland
There are lots of different places to see Puffins in the South of Iceland. These locations are closer to Reykjavik than those in the West, North, and East. They are also located right by the Ring Road, which makes them easier to access in a rental a car.
Dyrholaey Rock Arch
Dyrholaey Rock Arch is a very unique destination.
The rock bridge is 120 meters high and juts out over the ocean, a perfect door has been weathered into the cliff face by the action of the sea.
In the summer, access to the bridge is limited to protect the puffins. It is still possible to see the colorful birds, but you can’t walk all the way up to the edge.
Dyrholaey Rock Arch has some rare hexagonal rock formations that look they can’t possibly be natural. Believe us, they were not made by man!
These amazing hexagonal basalt columns were formed by rapidly cooling lava after an ancient volcanic eruption.
As well as getting close to the puffin colony, you will enjoy panoramic views of the glaciers and volcanoes that formed this remarkable landscape. You will find that there is less variety in birdlife at the rock arch, which is almost exclusively made up of puffins.
Insider Tip: Don’t forget your bathing suit along with you, as there are also plenty of hot springs in the area.
How to get to Dyrholaey Rock Arch
This puffin watching location is much closer to the capital than the Western locations that we mentioned.
It takes around 3 hours to drive there from Reykjavik, near the small village of Vik. If you are thinking of visiting Skaftafell, it is a great place to stop off along the way.
Ingólfshöfði Cape and Nature Reserve.
Photo by Guillaume Baviere
You can also see puffins at the nearby Ingólfshöfði Cape and Nature Reserve.
For this particular location, you should go on a guided tour. This is because the tracks that lead up to the headline are not suitable for a 2 wheel drive. They are more suited to offroad vehicles and tractors.
Although it is more difficult to access, this has helped preserve the cape in all its natural beauty. The grassy headland is home to thousands of seabirds, as well as saltwater ducks which feed on the rich plant life in the area.
What’s more, Ingólfshöfði Cape was once home to the first-ever settler of Iceland. Back in 874 AD, Ingólfur Arnarson survived his first harsh winter on the same land that you will walk across!
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How to get to Ingólfshöfði Cape and Nature Reserve.
This is a private nature reserve, so you need to go with the guided tour.
After arriving at the meeting point, you will jump into an old cart pulled by a tractor. The meeting point is right between Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, so there’s plenty to do after your tour!
After 6 km in the hay cart, there is a 1-2 hour walk to get to the puffins.
Insider tip: The beginning of the walk is quite steep, so it’s not suitable for people that aren’t reasonably fit and healthy. Once on the headland, the walk is much easier!
The Westman Islands
Photo By Bruce McAdam
Don’t be fooled by the name. The Westman islands or ‘Vestmannaeyjar’ are actually off the South Coast of Iceland.
The Westman Islands are a total paradise for birds. Over 30 different species can be found here, including puffins of course!
There are so many puffins in fact, that local children can often be found helping the inexperienced fledglings find their way back to the coast during the summer months.
There are over 14 small islands in the Westmann archipelago, but only the biggest of these (Heimaey) is currently inhabited.
Some of the first settlers of the islands were Irish slaves who killed and escaped their owner on the South Coast of Iceland. These Irish slaves were locally known as the ‘west men’, hence the islands’ name.
How to get to the Westman Islands
It is possible to get to the Westman Islands via a 20-minute flight from Reykjavik airport.
For those who are hoping to reduce their carbon footprint, it is also possible to reach the islands via ferry from Vestmannaeyjar. This is also a great option for people hoping to bring cars or caravans.
Where to see Puffins in the West of Iceland
The West of Iceland is famous for its black sand beaches and magnificent lava caves. It is also home to the longest cliffs in the European community, making it a spectacular location to get close and personal with Iceland’s puffins.
Latrabjarg is one of the best places to see puffins in the whole of Iceland.
It is also a wonderful place to see white-tailed eagles, auks, razorbills, guillemots, and northern gannets. The cliffs are pulsating with the energy of millions of birds. You can hear their cries and the flapping of their wings from quite a distance!
These amazing cliffs are 14 kilometers long and 400 meters high.
Such an incredible location has inspired local folk tales of magic and mythical creatures. It was widely believed that a naughty troll lived in the cliffs, which would cut the ropes of farmers hunting the meat, eggs, and feathers of puffins.
Icelanders are less likely to believe in trolls and fairies now, but many people still eat puffin meat and gather their eggs for eating. You might be able to spot some people abseiling down the cliffs to do this.
Icelandic people are very fond of their puffins, so the practice is regulated carefully to ensure that the puffin colonies can continue to thrive.
How to get to Latrabjarg
Latrabjarg is situated in the Westfjords. The cliffs are the most western point of Iceland, and the entire European community.
You can get there by car, but it’s a long drive from Reykjavik.
Latrabjarg is a 7-hour drive from the capital, and the last gas station is at Flokalundur, nearly 100 km away from the cliffs. Make sure you buy gas when you can, and come prepared with plenty of food and drinks.
Due to ice and heavy snowfall, it is difficult to access the cliff outside of summer. However, the puffin season at Latrabjarg runs from Mid May to September, so this shouldn’t be a problem!
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Photo by Bromr
Once in the Westfjords, you could also take a trip to see the puffins at Vigur Island.
At the time of writing, there are just three human inhabitants of Vigur Island. However, there are over 30,000 visiting puffins, 5.000 eider ducks, and 100,000 arctic terns. There is a thriving colony of seals to the South of the Island, and more and more whales are visiting the nearby waters every year.
Insider Tip: To protect the pristine island, dogs, drones, and smoking are not allowed on the island.
How to get to Vigur Island
You can get to Vigur Island by boat from the Westfjords.
Depending on where you set off from, the journey can take between 15 and 45 minutes. For the most spectacular views, we recommend that you catch the boat from Ísafjörður.
Where to see Puffins in the North of Iceland
If you would prefer to see puffins up at the Arctic circle, you only need to head North.
Puffin watching in Northern Iceland can be combined with whale watching or a visit to the North Pole. Remember that the climate is colder in the Northern region, so the puffin season is a little shorter than in the rest of the country.
Photo by Hedwig Storch
The Tjornes Peninsula is home to Rock Ptarmigans all year round. In the summer, this snowy white bird is rejoined by its friend, the Atlantic Puffin.
As well as its birdlife, this peninsula is famous for its incredible fossils. They can be found on the West of the peninsula, whereas the birds tend to hang out on the East.
If you are a serious bird watcher, you can’t leave the area without a visit to the nearby Viking Lake, or ‘Víkingavatn.’ You won’t find any puffins here, but this special location is home to thousands of freshwater birds.
How to get to Tjornes Peninsula
Tjornes Peninsula is right next to Husavik. This small town is traditionally a whaling village and remains the best place to see whales and dolphins in Iceland.
From Reykjavik, the drive would take about 8 hours. With this in mind, you should plan to spend a few days in the area. For more ideas about what to do in the North of Iceland, check out this article.
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Photo by MosheA
If you want to set foot in a polar region, you should visit the puffins of Grimsey Island.
This small island is around 40 km off the coast. It is home to a small but thriving community of 100 people, and over 1 million seabirds!
As it is North of the Arctic Circle, the puffins will migrate earlier here. Don’t expect to see them here any later than mid-August!
How to get to Grimsey Island
In the summer months, you can get a ferry to Grimsey Island direct from Akureyri. The drive from Reykjavik to Akureyri would take around 5 hours.
Where to see Puffins in the East of Iceland
When in the East of Iceland, you can take a trip to Papey Island to visit the puffins. This Island is just 2 kilometers squared and has no human inhabitants.
Papey Island (or ‘friars island’) is named after the two Irish monks that lived there in 900 AD. This comes from the Old Irish word for father or monk, ‘Papar.’ The 2 Christian monks of Papey managed to escape the settling Norsemen, where they lived hidden on the tiny Island.
It’s not just Papey that is named after monks, though!
The scientific name for the Atlantic Puffin is Fratercula Arctica. This translates as ‘little brother’ or ‘little priest’ and refers to the black and white feathers, which reminded the scientists of monastic robes.
As well as puffins, you can see guillemots and a colony of seals during the visit.
How to get to Papey Island
In the summer months, you can take a boat trip to Papey Island from Djúpivogur village. There is a trip every day in June, July, and August.
Once there you can get close to the little puffins and visit the oldest wooden church in Iceland.
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What’s the best way to see puffins from Reykjavik?
The closest puffin colonies to Reykjavik live in the small islands of Akurey and Engey.
Although the Islands are small, up to 15,000 breeding pairs of puffins nest on them every year. They are reachable in 15 minutes by one of the small boats found in Reykjavik harbor.
How close can I get to a puffin?
Puffins are not afraid of people, so it is quite easy to get close to them.
Lots of visitors love coming to see the puffins, so it’s important that you do so quietly and don’t disturb them. You should never attempt to touch a puffin unless they are under immediate threat of harm.
Every year, some of the young puffins get confused by the city’s lights and fly into town instead of out to sea. In this case, the local children go to great efforts to help them. They run out with cardboard boxes to safely collect any confused babies and take them back to the sea.
When visiting the puffin colonies, you should maintain an absolute minimum distance of 1 meter from the birds. Be careful not to stand on any nests, and make sure you keep a safe distance from the edge of the cliff.
Walking on the edge of the cliff is dangerous. It also can weaken the cliff edges and destroy the puffins breeding grounds over time.
What does puffin meat taste like?
Puffin has been part of Icelandic cuisine since the time of the first settlers.
Icelanders could not choose to be picky about what they ate – they had to survive in the harshest of conditions, separated from the rest of the world by a huge ocean and extreme weather.
Puffin meat is normally smoked or grilled. People say it tastes like something between dried beef and smoked fish.
Although geothermal greenhouses have now made it possible to grow more fresh fruit and vegetables, many Iceland people still eat traditional puffin dishes.
Some people are calling for puffins to come off the menu until the species is no longer threatened. In some places, hunting has been suspended to try and protect future generations.
This is a very emotive subject from local people. On one hand, the puffins face a serious threat and must be protected to preserve the species. On the other hand, puffin hunting is deeply ingrained into Icelandic culture and identity.
Can I see puffins without a boat tour?
You can see puffins without joining a tour.
All you have to do is rent a car, and put yourself in the right place at the right time. However, taking a boat tour can also be a lot of fun! You can get to some of the more remote islands, and visit other animals like seals.
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Why are puffins a threatened species?
Many combining factors threaten the puffin.
- climate change causing a decline in the fish that puffins eat
- overfishing disrupting the food web
- birds getting trapped in plastic pollution like ghost fishing nets
- overhunting for meat or trophies
Although there are currently millions of puffins in Iceland, the puffins are an aging population. Nests are failing, and many of the younger birds are not surviving past the age of 5.
Puffins can live until the age of 30, so the outcome isn’t as obvious now. If more isn’t done, there will be a lack of fertile pairs to replace the birds which are currently breeding.
See you soon!
We hope you enjoyed this article about seeing puffins in Iceland. For more ideas about what to do during your Icelandic adventure, check out some of our other articles!