Puffins In Iceland

All you need to know about puffins and the best places to see puffins in Iceland

The scenic landscapes of Iceland are a paradise for all kinds of wildlife, including about 378 types of birds. Yet not many birds get as much attention and admiration as the Atlantic Puffins. Today, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about puffins in Iceland, so let’s get started…

Affectionately called “Lundi” by the locals, puffins have become the symbolic animal of Iceland because of their strong appeal. Over the years, seeing puffins in Iceland has become a must-do experience for visitors.

While Iceland is the native habitat to around 60% of the world’s population of the Atlantic puffin, the birds only pay a visit to its shores during the few months of the year and spend the rest of the year at sea.

If you’re interested in spotting a puffin in the wild, you’ll have to locate and visit their breeding colonies scattered all over the country’s rugged coastlines during puffin season.

Even though there are millions of puffins in Iceland, they are not always the easiest to find. This has led to a new crop of special puffin tours that take the guesswork out and arrange up close and personal experiences with them.

Whether you take a tour or locate the birds on your own, this comprehensive guide includes the best spots to find puffins and all the information you need to get better acquainted with these cute and cuddly birds.

What do I need to know about puffins?

These stout little black-and-white bird with their bright orange beak, large pale cheeks and webbed feet have waddled their ways into the hearts of those who know it. The puffin’s playful nature and its comical features of red and black eye-markings and bright orange legs have earned it names like “clown of the sea” and “sea parrot.”

Puffins get their name from “puff,” which refers to swollen. When puffin chicks or “pufflings” are born, they have a round, puffy look that makes them look like puffballs with feet and beak. The puffed appearance comes from a thick cover of down feathers which helps them retain body heat while the parents are fishing for food.

The Atlantic Puffin is one of the three types of puffins that exist in the world. It belongs to a species of seabirds called auk. These tiny birds weigh around 450-500g and are 26-29 cm long with a wingspan roughly 47-65 cm. They spend most of the time at sea and only head to land during the breeding season.

What makes puffins standout is their vivid and colorful, flat-sided beak. The color and size of the puffin’s beak indicate the experience and quality of potential mates. But they only sport bright shades of yellows and oranges in the summer during the breeding season. During winter, the beaks and feet turn into a dull gray color.

Puffins’ main food is small fish, such as herring, sand eel, capelin, krill and hake. During winter, they may eat crustaceans, but fish is their preferred food. These birds are excellent divers and they can dive as deep as 60 meters and spend over minute underwater when searching for food.

These birds are monogamous and will only breed with one mate during their lifetimes. Even after spending the winter alone at sea, they can find one another in the summer. Only one egg is laid per pair and the chic takes six weeks before it’s fully-fledged and ready to use its wings. Puffins live for about 20 years or more.

Puffins In Iceland

Where are puffins found in the world?

Atlantic Puffins are native to the North Atlantic Ocean. Out of the estimated global population of 14 million, around 60% of Atlantic puffins breed in Iceland. The rest can be found in other regions of Europe such as Norway, Greenland, Ireland, France, and the United Kingdom.

Puffins also fly to areas in North America such as Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northeast United States along the coast of Maine.

Why is Iceland the top puffin-watching destination?

The Westman Islands in Iceland is home to the largest puffin colonies in the world. Experts estimate that there are over 1 million puffin nests on the island. Iceland’s long, rugged coastline offers the ideal location for puffins to build their nests.

They lay their eggs in crevices in the rock face or in the burrows on top of cliffs — areas difficult for human and animal predators to reach. They also like to return to the safety of the same nesting spot where they can stick together.

How significant is the puffin in Icelandic culture?

Seabirds have always had a special place in Iceland culture. For explorers and settlers living on the coast, their presence heralds the arrival of spring and warmer days. After the long, harsh winters, their return is welcomed. There are folktales, songs, and poems that have been written about the arrival of seasonal birds like puffins.

The puffin is the official symbol of the Reykjavik International Film Festival and the festival’s grand prize is a statue of golden puffin. Visitors flock to souvenir shops to buy miniature puffins, statues and other souvenirs with their image, which shows that these birds are a major draw for tourists.

Puffin meat is considered a delicacy in Iceland. Since the Viking age, seabirds and their eggs have been a mainstay in the diet of Icelanders. Puffin hunting has historically been an accepted activity for centuries; however, with their population declining, conservationists are concerned about the practice and recommend putting an end to it.

When is puffin season in Iceland?

If puffin watching is on your travel wish list, you should travel during puffin season in Iceland between Match and September. The best time to see puffins is during the peak season between June and August to see large colonies of puffins gather together to catch fish for their newly hatched pufflings.

The best time of the day to spot them is in the evenings between 6pm and 10pm when they rest on the grass before flying out the sea where they spend the night roosting. You can also catch them during their hunting times which usually happen in the morning and evening.

Of course, they can be seen outside these time frames, but you can increase your chances by keeping their habitual routines in mind.

What other seabirds can I see in Iceland?

Puffins are not the only birds that you can see in Iceland. You can see large colonies of all kinds of seabirds native to the region. Often referred to as “birdwatchers paradise,” Iceland offers opportunities to see numerous species of birds around its coasts.

The frequently spotted birds are eiders, waders, Arctic Tern, passerine birds, Fulmar, Razorbill, gannets, and different types of gulls. You’ll be able to see many of these birds in the areas that you visit to see puffins.

What are the best places to see puffins in Iceland?

You can go puffin watching in any of these top locations in Iceland. Most of them can be covered during a one-day tour from Reykjavik.

Puffins In Iceland

Vestmannaeyjar or Westmann Islands

Home to the largest puffin colony in the world and 50% of Iceland’s puffin population, Westmann Islands is unquestionably the puffin hotspot of the county. This cluster of 15 islands has 30 species of seabirds that nest across the archipelago.

You can also see seals and whales. Over 1.1 million puffins lay their eggs on the island in the summer. You can have a good look at them on a boat tour that takes you around the coastline to watch the birds.

Lundey and Akurey

Around 100,000 puffin nest on these two islands that are situated in the Skjálfandi Bay in northern Iceland. Lundey gets its name from the Icelandic word for puffin “Lunda,” literally translating to “Puffin Island.” The birds find peace in these uninhabited islands, where they build their burrows between rocks and cliffs.

Most boat tours take you to Lundey island but can go further to Flatey island, another popular nesting spot. This region is also popular for whale watching.

Dyrhólaey

This is considered the second-best place to find puffins in Iceland after Westmann Islands. The Dyrhólaey Rock Arch, located in the southernmost point in Iceland, has dramatic volcanic landscapes that consist of hexagonal-shaped columns.

These otherworld rock formations overlook black sand beaches increase their appeal as puffin-watching spots. You can view the birds from the cliffs from two vantage points, from the top and the beach below.

Since Dyrhólaey is a protected nature reserve, access is limited during peak times to protect the birds, so it’s better to book the tour in advance and check for closures before you visit.

Puffins In Iceland

Látrabjarg

Látrabjarg, situated at the westernmost point of Iceland, is the largest seabird habitat in Europe. Its impressive cliffs are up to 441 m high and 14 km long and offer incredible views and plenty of opportunities to get close to nesting puffins.

Given the remote nature of this location, the birds are tame and are generally not bothered by photographers. While you can get reasonably close to the birds, you’ll have to watch out for steep cliffs and stand behind the markings.

Borgarfjörður Eystri

The Eastern part of Iceland, known as Eastfjords is another incredibly scenic place where you can spot puffins. Eastfjords harbor, Hafnarhólmur, is home to about 10,000 nesting pairs that’s earned it the name “Puffin Paradise.”

It’s also said to be one of the best places to take photos of puffins because of well-set-up viewing platforms that make it easier to get close to the birds without disturbing them.

Papey Island

Another puffin hotspot on the east coast of Iceland is the mystical island of Papey. An estimated 30,000 puffins pay a visit to its shores during the summertime. Believed to be formerly inhabited by monks, it was abandoned in 1948. Since then, puffins and other sea birds have taken over.

The homes that the locals once occupied are still standing, adding an eerie effect. To get there, you will need to hop on a ferry from the town Djúpivogur.

Puffins In Iceland

Vigur Island

This charming island’s tranquil and relaxed atmosphere attracts 10,000 puffin couples that return there every year to lay their eggs. Known as “Paradise Island,” visitors will enjoy the hospitality of the five permanent residents, living in a mid-19th century house, who have farmed on the lands for over six generations.

You can access this island via boat from the town of Isafjörður.

How do I watch puffins responsibly while getting the most out of my experience?

Although puffins have been hunted for their meat and eggs for many years, they are not very fearful of people. In some locations, it’s easy to get within a meter of the birds without them flying away.

While this might offer an excellent opportunity to get up close and personal with the birds, it’s important to do so safely and responsibly.

Here are some puffin sightseeing tips to help you make the most of your puffin watching experience:

  • Approach a bird slowly and quietly. Avoid doing this with a group as this might disturb them.
  • As adorable as puffins are, you should not pet or feed a puffin unless it needs rescue. Touching them destroys the special water-deflecting properties of their feathers. These are wild animals and should be shown respect when we’re in their territory.
  • If you’re on a cliff, do not walk up to the edge as puffins dig their burrows into the crevices of cliffs and you could inadvertently step on weak soil that could crush their nest. You may also want to avoid this for your own safety, as Iceland’s steep cliffs are hundreds of meters tall.
  • If you’re watching the bird from a boat, be sure to keep a distance and turn down noisy engines.
  • Puffins are now considered a threatened species mainly due to climate change and marine pollution. You can do your part in protecting the birds by avoiding purchasing their meat.
  • If you’re an avid photographer who wants to get great shots of puffins, the best way to do it is by laying on your stomach and slowly crawling on the ground. This will keep you safe as well as keep the puffin calm. Puffins are active birds that move swiftly, so your camera will need a fast shutter speed to avoid blurry pictures.

Do I need to take a guided tour to see puffins?

Since puffins are a star attraction in Iceland, you’ll find plenty of puffin-watching tours that you can choose from. These range from short boat trips from Reykjavík to multi-day tours that take you to several sites, including popular puffin habitats.

If you prefer to see them at your own leisure, you can drive to destinations that are easily accessible like Látrabjarg, and Dyrhólaey. You can also take ferry rides to the Westman Islands, Grímsey, Papey, Vigur and Flatley on your own.

However, there are certain puffin watching locations that you can’t access, such as Hornstrandir and Ingólfshöfði, which are both situated in nature reserves. To get there, you will need to be on a guided tour or take a boat ride tour from Isafjörður.

What are the best puffin sightseeing trips in Iceland?

Taking a tour or excursion is an efficient way to see puffins. Single-day trips usually last between an hour to several hours. If you’re interested in seeing other animals like whales or famous Iceland attractions like the Golden Circle, you can take multiple-day tours that cover additional sights.

Single-day puffin tours in Iceland

Boat puffins tours in Iceland

Westman Islands RIB boat trip: This 2-hour RIB boat tour takes you around the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, where you can watch puffins and other seabirds roosting on water or along the cliffs. The tour leaves from the main island of Heimaey at Vestmannaeyjar harbor.

Westman Island boat and hiking tour: If you prefer to see the birds from land and water, consider taking this 9-hour hiking and boat tour on a nearby uninhabited island. Because this is a long day trip, you might want to stay overnight at Heimaey.

Vigur Island kayaking tour: Discover Vigur Island, the “Paradise Island”, on an 8-hour guided trip that includes a kayak boat ride. The tour leaves from Ísafjörður in the Westfjords.

Húsavík whale and puffin boat tour: During this 3-hour tour, you’ll visit Lundey, the “Puffin Island.” You’ll hop on a traditional oak boar that will take around Lundey in Skjálfandi bay. The tour starts from Húsavík harbor.

Reykjavík puffin boat tour: If you’re pressed for time, this 1-hour boat trip around Akurey Island and Lundey Island in Faxaflói bay is a great option. The boat leaves from Reykjavík’s Old Harbor.

Reykjavík half-day whale and puffin boat tour: This tour allows you to combine a 1-hour puffin tour with a 3-hour whale watching tour around Akurey Island and Lundey Island. The tour departs from Reykjavík’s Old Harbor.

Elliðaey island boat tour: If you’d like to visit a less touristy spot, Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a good choice. During the 1.5-hour tour, you’ll take a traditional oak boat ride that takes you around Elliðaey island. The boat tour leaves from Stykkishólmur.

Bus and hiking puffin tours in Iceland

Grimsey Island tour: Explore the island of Grimsey during this 3-hour tour that also includes a flight from Akureyri. On the island, you’ll have the opportunity to watch the puffins as you enjoy refreshments.

Ingolfhofdi puffin tour: In this 2.5-hour guided tour, you’ll take a hike through a nature reserve and go on a hay cart ride. The tour leaves from a check-in hut in Ingólfshöfði.

Látrabjarg cliffs tour by bus: This long day trip leaves from Patreksfjordur. During the 9-hour guided tour, you’ll be able to view puffins while hiking at Latrabjarg sea cliffs.

Diamond Circle tour with puffins: Cover two items on your Iceland must-do list by taking this 10-hour guided tour to the Diamond circle and Tjörnes peninsula, where you see puffins. The tour leaves from Akureyri and includes transport and a local guide.

Multi-day puffin tours in Iceland

There’s a lot to see in Iceland and if you only have a few days to cover the sights, a multiday puffin tour would be a good option. During these tours, you’ll be able to see puffins and cover other major landmarks.

If you go for multi-day tours, make sure that the itinerary includes at least two places where you have a strong chance of seeing puffins. You’ll also want to check whether accommodations, meals, boat and ferry trips are included in the tour.

Here are a couple of multiday puffin tours in Iceland that you can consider:

10 day Iceland grand tour: This guided tour will take you to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the magical East Fjords. You’ll also visit the South Coast of Iceland, Lake Myvatn, Skaftafell Area and the Glacial Lagoon. The tour includes all meals, accommodations and transportation.

10 Day cruise around Iceland: Explore Iceland in an immersive way on a cruise that circumnavigates the island. As you explore the diverse landscapes and iconic sites, you’ll have a chance to see plenty of seabirds, including puffins. The tour leaves from Reykjavik harbor.

3 day volcano and glacier lagoon tour: The tour begins with a trip to a volcano on a luxury jeep followed by a ferry to the Westman Islands, where you will be able to see the puffins. On the last day you’ll sail between icebergs in Jokulsarlon lagoon and drop by Diamond beach.

10 day Ring Road bus tour: This circle tour packs a lot in 10 days. You’ll visit the Snæfellsnes peninsula filled with natural phenomena like volcanos, waterfalls, glaciers, hot springs, birds cliffs and more. Later you’ll see other natural wonders like the Golden Circle and take a boat cruise for a whale and puffin watching tour.

Puffins in Iceland

A trip to Iceland would not be complete without seeing these charismatic birds that have become an integral part of Icelandic culture.

From their enchanting hues to their buzzing and fluttering as they go about their business, you will be in for a sensory treat and leave with unforgettable memories when you see puffins in Iceland.

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