We were on a mission…quest…thing. But unlike the Hobbits trying to destroy the one Ring, our mission was easier to achieve, although the landscape at times was quite similar. Our quest was to find puffins in Iceland. There are quite a few animals on my “would like to see in the wild” bucket list — polar bears, penguins, elephants — and puffins are one of them. So when planning our trip to Iceland, searching for puffins became one of our quests.
If you are visiting Iceland and hoping to see puffins, you will have the best luck if you visit between May and mid-August. Just keep in mind that during nesting season in June, you may be restricted from getting too close to the nesting birds for their protection.
There are many places to find puffins in Iceland so if you are wondering where to find puffins in Iceland, keep reading. But first, here are some fun facts about puffins that we learned during our trip:
Fun Facts About Puffins in Iceland
- Eight to ten million puffins live in Iceland for a portion of the year, representing 60 percent of the world’s Atlantic puffins
- Lundi is the Icelandic word for puffin and you will find this in stores throughout Reykjavik
- The best time to see puffins in Iceland is May through August, although if you visit in late August you will likely only find a few stragglers, as most others will have moved out to sea
- Puffins spend the winter on the sea, floating on the waves
- Puffins take two years to choose a mate
- Once they mate, they are monogamous and mate for life (and if the first one doesn’t come back, they find a new mate but if the first mate eventually returns, they’ll dump the second for the first)
- They choose a mate by rubbing their beaks together
- Puffins are clumsy and don’t fly well
- Puffins are the best underwater and can dive up to 200 feet and stay under for over a minute
- They use their rough tongues to catch fish
- The puffin’s jaw expands to hold up to 62 fish in its beak (and one was reported in Ireland to hold 83!)
- Puffins are sometimes called sea parrots
- Puffins live an average of 20-25 years
- Female puffins produce one egg or “puffling” a year and pufflings reach maturity after about 6 weeks, after which they need to fend for themselves
- While many people confuse puffins and penguins, puffins are actually quite small and difficult to see clearly from a distance. You actually need to be up close or have a good zoom lens on your camera to get to see their adorable faces
Where to Find Puffins in Iceland
Puffins can be found throughout the country (in season), but there are some spots that have large colonies and are well known for puffin watching. This is not a complete list but covered some of the more popular spots for tourists visiting Iceland.
1. Puffin Watching in Reykjavik
Note: We were hosted by Special Tours for the purposes of facilitating this review. All opinions are my own.
Many visitors to Iceland don’t venture far from the capital city of Reykjavik. While this region isn’t the best for seeing puffins up close, it is possible to take a puffin-watching cruise from Reykjavik’s Old Harbour. On our first visit to Iceland, we decided to take a short one-hour Puffin Express cruise from Special Tours. This one-hour tour fit in perfectly with our packed schedule, and with 100 percent guaranteed sightings, we were sold.
It was easy to find the Special Tours booth in the Old Harbour with Puffin Pete hanging out front. Unlike the whale-watching tours on larger boats that board early, you only need to arrive about 15 minutes before your tour.
Once your tour is ready to leave, your guide will bring you over to the small ship Skúlaskeid. You will want to follow right behind the guide so that you can be one of the first onboard and snag one of the outdoor seats. If it is choppy, you might get splashed a little, but you will have a much better view of the puffins. Children will also need to wear a life jacket for safety, whether they are inside or outside.
We ended up inside but luckily that once we reached the nesting grounds, we were able to move around and find a little space outside, even if it meant standing on the benches in the middle of the boat. On our short 15-minute ride out to the puffin breeding grounds, our guide filled us in on the lifecycle, mating, and breeding habits of the Atlantic puffins.
The puffin breeding ground is on a small island just off the coast of Reykjavik. We lucked out with a spectacular day of warm June weather in the 60s and perfectly calm seas. On our way out of the harbor, we were treated to amazing views of the Harpa Concert Hall and the scenery around the harbor, adding to the benefits of taking a puffin cruise.
The puffins arrive in Iceland in late April and stay until around August, so if you are visiting during that timeframe you should be in luck to find puffins. Thousands of puffins nest just outside of Reykjavik and the small craft used by Special Tours gets as close as you can to the breeding grounds without disturbing them.
The thing that surprised us all at first was how small the puffins were. You are so used to seeing them in close-up pictures that you don’t realize that they are only about 10 inches (18 cm) tall. So even through the zoom lens of our camera or by borrowing one of the ship’s few binoculars, it was still hard to see them in much detail. After about 30 minutes of puffin-watching on both sides of the island, we headed back to the harbor.
While we were excited to get to see so many puffins on our tour, it was a little disappointing that it was still hard to see them in detail. But we couldn’t have asked for a better day to explore Reykjavik. We were thrilled with the tour just for the amazing views and the perspective of being out on the water.
If you are staying in Iceland for just a short time and you won’t have time to get out to some of the other puffin nesting places, then a Puffin Express cruise with Special Tours is worth the time and cost, especially if it is a nice day. Otherwise, you might want to save your time for some other puffin viewing.
2. Puffins at Dyrhólaey
If you are there at the right time of year, another great place for finding puffins is on the peninsula of Dyrhólaey between Skogar and Vík. To find Dyrhólaey, take Highway 1 toward Vík to Rt 218. Before you get to the end of the peninsula, with its view of the sea stacks at Reynisfjara, you’ll need to take a right onto a small, steep dirt road that leads up to the promontory, with views of the natural sea arch.
This area is closed off in the spring from about mid-May until sometime in June to protect the puffins during mating. Luckily, it was open when we visited in late June.
Honestly, it is so beautiful from this vantage point that it is easy to forget all about looking for puffins. You can see the black sand beach below, the sea stacks at Reynisfjara, the mountains and glaciers in the distance, and of course the arch that forms at the end of the promontory.
However, if you peer over the edge of the cliff, you will see that you are actually standing above the nesting grounds of puffins and you will finally get those close-up views that you are looking for. Just be very careful near the cliff edges!
We spent so much time admiring these cute little creatures that we ended up having to shelve our stop at Reynisfjara until very late in the day. But when we did finally make it there, we also found more puffins nesting above the spectacular basalt columns that adorn this nearby beach.
3. Westmann Islands
Vestmannaeyjar or the Westman Islands is home to the largest puffin colony in Iceland. This group of islands is 10 kilometers off the south coast of Iceland and reachable by ferry (reservations must be made in advance.) Heimaey is the largest of the islands and has the largest bird population.
You can take a RIB boat tour around the islands and during the summer months, you will get to see plenty of puffins.
4. Borgarfjörður Eystri
I have not yet made it this far east in Iceland, but I have friends that have visited Borgarfjörður Eystri and found it the best place to see puffins up close in Iceland. Approximately 10,000 pairs of puffins nest in Borgarfjörður during the summer. There is a bird-watching shelter and platforms to allow you to get up close to the puffins without risk to yourself or the birds.
5. Látrabjarg Cliffs
The Látrabjarg Cliffs in the Westfjords, as well as Hornbjarg and the Nature Reserve Park of Hornstrandir in the northwest of Iceland are other well-known puffin nesting locations. Unfortunately, when I visited the Látrabjarg cliffs in very early September, the last puffins had flown away just the week before. However, these dramatic cliffs are still worth a visit, even if you don’t spy any puffins!
6. Vigur Island
Vigur Island in the West Fjords is home to another large colony of puffins as well as Eider ducks. In fact, the few people that call this island home make a living collecting Eider down for products like Eiderdown comforters.
You need to take a boat tour out to the island from Isafjörður, and after I visited there was talk of the island being sold and tours no longer being offered, but that is subject to change. By the way, one of the best fish meals I’ve ever had was in a small cafe in Isafjörður.
For us, our mission was accomplished and the quest was fulfilled. We got our close-up look at dozens of puffins. I hope you have similar luck on your visit to Iceland!
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