How and Where to Spot Puffins in Iceland
One of the reasons to head north is the adorable puffin. These delightful birds are known for their clown-like beaks and splashing antics. Iceland has a healthy puffin population, but actually seeing them requires a bit of planning.
What Are Puffins?
Puffins, sometimes called sea parrots, are small seagoing birds in the Alcidae (auk) family. Specifically, Iceland is home to the Atlantic puffin or common puffin, which is the only puffin found in the Atlantic (two other species, the horned and tufted puffins, make their home in the north Pacific, especially Alaska, and British Columbia). The rhinoceros auklet, another Pacific bird, is also considered a puffin, although it lacks a large beak.
Sixty percent of the world's population of puffins breed in Iceland! It's literally puffin central.
Puffins eat small fish, catching whatever they can find. Their large beaks are for carrying fish to the nest during the breeding season, and puffins can typically carry about ten fish in their bill, depending on the size of the fish.
While puffins spend most of their lives at sea, like all seabirds they have to nest on the ground. However, puffins have a different way of nesting than most; they dig burrows. They primarily nest on small islands that have no ground predators that might dig up and eat their eggs but sometimes nest near cliffs or on peninsulas. They lay one egg a year and they mate for an extended period of time, sometimes for life.
They only have extremely colorful beaks during the breeding season; the rest of the year they fade to a duller shade. This is believed to be to help attract a mate and show their strength and experience.
Baby puffins, called pufflings, are basically round balls of grey down until they fledge. Later in the season, you may see them exploring the colony; early in the season, they stay safe in the nesting burrow. However, if you get the right angle and a zoom lens you can sometimes get a picture of the nest.
Traditionally, puffins have been eaten, but most Icelanders no longer eat puffins as they are gamey and briny. You can sometimes find it on the menu in tourist-oriented restaurants. Due to how plentiful the birds are here, it is legal to hunt them, just not as popular as it once was. Puffins are now much more of a tourist attraction than a menu item.
When Can You See Puffins?
Puffins spend most of the year way out at sea, resting on the water and diving for fish. It's nearly impossible to find them at these times, although people on boats might get lucky.
The time to see puffins in Iceland is when they are nesting. In Iceland, "puffin season" lasts from late April until sometime in August. They leave when their chicks are fledged and able to fly and swim. Thankfully, this overlaps with Iceland's best weather.
Can You Spot Puffins in Iceland?
Puffins rarely nest in Iceland properly due to the presence of arctic foxes, but there are some places where they do, or where the islands on which they nest are accessible by ferry. Here are some great places to see puffins without needing sea legs.
Dyrhólaey is a reasonable 2-and-a-half-hour drive from Reykjavik on the south coast of Iceland. It's near the village of Vik.
Dyrhólaey is actually a peninsula that used to be an island (Volcanoes). Access to the peninsula is restricted during puffin mating season so people don't disturb the birds or step on nesting burrows. You can still get to the lower part of the island, however, and hike up to fairly close to the puffins.
Watch out for arctic terns, however. They also nest on the peninsula and will attack anyone who gets too close to their nest. While they are small birds, they are very aggressive. Wearing a solid hat will help protect you from claws. You should not approach any nesting birds.
Also called "Westman Islands," Vestmannaeyjar is an archipelago of 15 islands and 30 rock stacks off the South Coast. These islands have the highest population of puffins in Iceland, making it easy to see them. There are other nesting birds to watch too.
At the end of nesting season, lost pufflings often find their way into the town of Helmsley. Local children catch the confused chicks and put them back in the ocean. You can get there by ferry from Landeyjahöfn. Or if you are preferring not to drive, you can fly from Reykjavik. However, having a car can help you really experience Iceland's south coast.
In addition to puffin watching, Helmaey is worth visiting for the volcanic crater in the center of town and the local museum.
If you don't want to have to hike and hunt for your puffins, a great destination is the village of Borgarfjörður Eystri The villagers have built a hide that lets you get very close to the puffins without disturbing them. You can also get close views of fulmars, kittiwakes, and common eiders. (And you can get your eiderdown here too).
You can also watch the fishing boats come in, often with a fulmar and kittiwake escort. The birdwatching facilities here are great and there are also some fun hiking trails in the area.
Látrabjarg has the largest seabird cliff in Iceland as well as lots of puffins. It's also the westernmost point of Iceland and has the westernmost lighthouse in Europe.
The puffins here have not historically been hunted, so they are not afraid of people, meaning you can often get close without disturbing them. However, you still should not harass the birds, especially as they have been known to bite. Do not go past the white line painted at the edge of the cliff, which shows where it is safe to stay without risking falling over the edge or putting your foot in a puffin burrow.
Tjörnes peninsula on the north coast of Iceland is another great place to go if Hüsavik is part of your itinerary. A 15-minute hike to the tip of the peninsular gives good views of a puffin colony as well as black guillemot. If you can't or don't want to walk that far, stop at the parking lot at Skeiðsöxl where the road goes close to the cliff. There's a large colony under the cliffs.
This is a long way from Reykjavik, but a great stop if you are driving the ring road or visiting Húsavik.
A group of Puffins
Seeing Puffins in Iceland from The Water
In many of these locations, you can also take a boat trip to get close to island colonies. It's worth looking into boat trips in the Westman Islands, but you can also take a trip from Reykjavik out to Akurey. This is a fairly short ride and you will have a good view of the colony.
Some whale-watching trips from Reykjavik also swing by Akurey to see the puffins, which are often a more guaranteed sight than the whales. This can be a good "twofer" though if you have limited time in Reykjavik.
Getting A Good Puffin Photograph
While it is possible to get very close to puffins in Helmaey and Látrabjarg, we do recommend a zoom lens (which is also good for getting pictures of other wildlife in Iceland).
Some tips for getting that perfect shot:
Stay at the edge of the colony. People have been injured by putting their feet in a puffin burrow. Later in the season you also risk potentially stepping on a puffling.
Approach the birds slowly and back off if they appear to show any sign of distress. A cornered puffin can give you a nasty bite and if they think you are threatening their nest, they will get quite upset.
If using a DSLR, set your aperture to maximum and turn ISO to 400 or so.
Consider a tripod or monopod. Test the ground before using it, as it has been known for camera supports to also find puffin burrows the hard way.
Go in the morning to get the best light, or at a time when light shines directly on cliffs.
Above all, do not harass the birds. They live here, you are only visiting.
If seeing puffins is part of your Icelandic goal, consider a self-driving tour that covers some of these areas, such as this one. Our self-drive tours include car rental, accommodation, breakfast, and any necessary ferry transfers. All you have to buy is your flights and the fuel.
If, on the other hand, you are staying in Reykjavik or have a short stopover, the best way to see puffins is on a Puffin Islands Cruise to Akurey and Lundey. You can fit in this 1 to 1.5-hour cruise even if you only have one day in Iceland and may also see other wild birds, and even whales, porpoises, and seals.Puffins in Iceland are not the only reason to go to Iceland, but they are definitely one of the cutest reasons to go there. Include puffin watching in your itinerary and appreciate these adorable, quirky birds. To find out more about how to see puffins in Iceland and our great self-driving tours, contact Tour.is today.