Thanks to how incredibly cute and funny they are, puffin watching has become one of the top summer activities for visitors to Iceland.
The country is home to more than 60% of the Earth's entire Atlantic puffin population, with anywhere from 8–10 million puffins inhabiting the island. Iceland is the world's puffin capital for sure!
When is the best time and where are the best places to find puffins in Iceland? Is it possible to pet them? Are they endangered? Read on to find out the answers to these questions and more!
The Atlantic puffin is a seabird from the auk family. Also known as the common puffin, the species has breeding grounds all over the Arctic Circle and the North Atlantic. They can be found in Iceland, Norway, Greenland, Newfoundland, the Faroe Islands, as far south as Maine in North America, the west coast of Ireland, and parts of the UK as well.
While Atlantic puffins have a relatively large population and a large range, the species has recently been rated as vulnerable with populations declining rapidly, at least in parts of its range.
Puffins have earned the nicknames “sea parrots” or “clowns of the sea” thanks to their funny appearance! They change color throughout the year, developing their brighter colors in the spring. At the end of the breeding season, their feathers will change color from white to dark grey.
Puffins spend most of the year out at sea, resting on the waves. They can dive to depths of about 197 ft. (60 m) and can propel themselves through the water at 55 mph (88 km/h). They achieve this by flapping their wings up to 400 times per minute!
The birds spread out across the North Atlantic Ocean, coming ashore in spring only to breed and raise their young. Puffins are monogamous and usually mate for life. A couple can stay together for over 20 years!
Puffins nest in clifftop colonies. To create their nests, they burrow down into the turf or soil before laying their single egg. They will return to this same burrow every year.
It usually takes from 36-45 days for the baby puffling to hatch. During the incubation period, the parents share responsibilities and take turns sitting on the egg.
The Best Time to See Puffins in Iceland
Summer, between May and August, is the best time to see puffins. They arrive in Iceland in late-April or May and stick around until late August. During the day, they are often out fishing, so it is best to try to see them in the evening when they are most active.
The Best Locations to See Puffins in Iceland
You can find guided puffin watching tours all over Iceland. There are a number of places on the island where plenty of Atlantic puffins can be seen. Following are the spots which enjoy 100% sighting rates in summer.
Two small, uninhabited islands -named Akurey and Lundey or the ‘Puffin Islands - are home to a large puffin colony. The birds breed on these islands, just a few hundred meters off the coast of Reykjavík and a few minutes from the city center by boat. In summer, there are puffin tours in operation which visit these islands multiple times daily and have a 100% puffin sighting guarantee.
While on your way to the most popular tourist sights on the South Coast of Iceland, there are also plenty of amazing opportunities to stop and see puffins.
Vestmannaeyjar (The Westman Islands)
About six miles (10 km) off of Iceland’s south coast is the home of Iceland’s largest puffin colony. Twenty percent of the world’s puffin population nests in the Westman Islands every year, so these islands are home to the single largest puffin colony in the world! An additional thirty bird species nest around the islands as well, making these islands a bird lover’s paradise.
Heimaey, meaning "Home Island”, is the largest island in the archipelago. Here, puffins and humans live so closely together that there is a tradition of rescuing the baby puffins when they inevitably fail their first solo hunting attempt. The junior puffins find themselves distracted by the city lights and end up on the asphalt or in gardens. For this reason, local children will patrol the streets in their neighborhood with boxes to collect any lost birds so that they be returned to the wild.
There are domestic flights to the Westman Islands all through the summer, departing from Reykjavík airport, and public ferries from Landeyjahöfn, a lonely harbor which lies near Hvolsvöllur and Seljalandsfoss on the South Coast.
About 2,5 hours drive from Reykjavík, near the village of Vík, lies the famous black sand beach which is one of the highlights of South Iceland. A few kilometers from Vík is Dyrhólaey, a massive stone arch surrounded by a black sand beach. This destination is a must-visit, regardless of the season.
Dyrhólaey is also a popular summer nesting area for puffins. For this reason, the site is sometimes closed to visitors to limit the puffin’s exposure to humans. If the site is closed when you try to visit, please respect the closure and the puffins’ privacy. Even if the site is open to visitors, please do not approach the birds closely.
Their nesting area, made up of deep burrows dug in the grass close to the edge of the cliff, is fenced off both for their peace and for the safety of visitors. Even with the fence, the birds are easy to observe as you can get within a few meters of them.
Ingólfshöfði Nature Reserve
Ingólfshöfði is the next location on the South Coast which offers a remarkable opportunity to see puffins. It is an isolated headland surrounded by black sand dunes. The bird cliff can be found at the end of the headland. The site’s isolation makes it the perfect shelter for thousands of birds, especially puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots, and skua.
The bird watching spot is not accessible for those who drive a normal car. Guided tours are offered twice daily at the location during the summer. The meeting point is 1.24 mi. (2 km) from the nature reserve, you will see the signs from the Ring Road once you are there.
Every summer in Borgarfjörður, about 10,000 puffin couples nest alongside about 20 other species of bird. The ability to see so many different types of birds in one spot is highly unusual. There is even a live bird video stream available from Borgarfjarðarhöfn.
Even though it is quite a long drive to Borgarfjörður, it is probably the place where you will be able to see the puffins with most ease and safety. Wooden platforms and shelter have been built to allow you to get really close to the puffins without risking falling into a burrow or down a cliff.
In North Iceland, there is a route called “the Birding Trail” which provides bird lovers with plenty of great puffin watching points. The remote Rauðinúpur Cape in the northwesternmost point of the island, Tjörnes Peninsula to the north of Húsavík, and two beautiful islands, Grímsey and Lundey, are the best spots to go puffin watching.
West Iceland and the Westfjords
Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
Hornbjarg and Hælavíkurbjarg, in the eastern part of the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, are another famous puffin nesting place. The nature reserve is located on the northernmost tongue of the Westfjords. These birds here trust humans more than in other places, perhaps because they don’t meet many humans and have been pestered by them less.
This beautiful spot is known as one of the world’s most unique nature reserves. No roads lead there as it’s virgin land, closed to any kind of motor vehicle. The nature reserve can only be accessed by first taking a boat and then exploring on foot.
The sheer quiet and solitude of the nature reserve is the ideal location to combine hiking with bird watching. Guided hiking tours to Hornstrandir are offered with a departure from Ísafjördur town.
Between the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the Westfjords lies Breiðafjörður, home to countless tiny islands. Every summer, these islands are bursting with a flourishing bird population. Among these islands, Þórishólmur and Steinaklettar are known for their great puffin spotting opportunities. Regular boats travel to these islands from the town of Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
The Látrabjarg Cliffs
Finally, we have come to the spectacular Látrabjarg, which may be one of the most exciting locations for bird watching in all of Iceland. These bird cliffs are 8.75 mi. (14 km) long and rise up to 1447 ft. (441 m) in height.
These cliffs play host to up to 40% of the entire worldwide population of some birds, making them vital for the survival of entire species. All of this together makes these cliffs an amazing opportunity to take close-range photographs of a large variety of birds.
Látrabjarg is the most visited attraction in the Westfjords and deserves all of the recognition it receives. But, this also makes this spot more dangerous than some of the other spots we have mentioned.
The ground is often very unstable close to the edges of the cliffs where the puffins dig their burrows. Many visitors are not aware that they are standing on top of the homes of the puffins they have come to visit. When there are many tourists gathered together, they can sometimes stray onto the dangerous ground without knowing it. So, please take care if you visit Látrabjarg and do not get too close to the edges, for your own safety and for the safety of the puffins.
Responsible Puffin Watching
Puffins developed their unique appearance over millions of years of evolution. They do not often seem to fear humans and can sometimes allow humans to get close to them. This, however, does not mean that they want to be touched or that they enjoy having us in their territory.
Petting or feeding a puffin is the worst things you can do to them. Touching them destroys the special water-deflecting properties of their feathers. Please always show the birds respect and remember that they are wild animals, not pets.
Keep in mind that approaching the edges of cliffs can be very dangerous. A network of tunnels is hidden below the grassy turf where the puffins have dug tunnels for their eggs. When we step on them, these tunnels can easily collapse. This is even more dangerous when you are so close to the thrilling edges of cliffs.
Puffin couples usually return to the same burrow year after year. Therefore, if you step on their nest and it collapses, you will have ruined a home that they may have been using for years or even decades.
When at the bird cliffs, emulating a nature photographer is your best bet. This will cause the least harm to the animals you are observing. The safest behavior is to lay down quietly in the grass, approaching the puffins very slowly and carefully. Watch them motionlessly and enjoy.
Puffin Hunting in Iceland
Puffins have been hunted by man for centuries. The birds were killed for meat and their eggs were collected while their feathers were plucked and used in bedding. Puffins served as a vital food source for locals in this harsh climate throughout the centuries.
Due to overhunting, Iceland’s largest puffin colony in the Westman Islands was almost completely eradicated around the year 1900. The colony has thankfully recovered fully since then thanks to hunting bans.
Today, the Atlantic puffins in most countries are protected by law. Iceland and the Faroe Islands, on the other hand, do allow puffin hunting but have strict laws to prevent over hunting and to maintain the populations at sustainable levels.
Puffin Watching Tours in Iceland
Puffin tours are offered by various companies all over Iceland. Among these are short boat tours, day trips, and multi-day tours that include puffin watching along with visits to other sights, often including additional exciting activities as well.
Some places are easily accessible and you could simply drive yourself to the destination without the need to take a tour. Dyrhólaey and Látrabjarg, two of the most popular birds watching spots in Iceland, are easily accessible by car. The Westman Islands can also be reached by using the regularly scheduled ferry.
While most puffin watching places on the mainland are accessible by car, Ingólfshöfði and Hornstrandir, which are located in nature reserves, are notable exceptions.
A close encounter with Iceland’s wildlife could be one of the highlights of your trip. Do not skip the possibility of meeting these cute animals but enjoy the moment responsibly once you are there!