Travel Tips for Iceland

How to See the Puffins in Iceland


How to See the Puffins in Iceland

When you think of Iceland's wildlife, you might imagine whales swimming off the coast, or the famous Icelandic horses, but did you know that Iceland is the world’s puffin-watching capital? About 10 million puffins call Iceland home, meaning Iceland can account for more than half of all the puffins in the world.

Want to travel to see the puffins in Iceland for yourself? We don’t blame you. These adorable birds are sure to make any traveller smile, regardless of whether you’re an avid birder or not. 

So, grab your binoculars and get ready to head out on a birding excursion. We’re covering everything you’ll need to know about how to see the puffins in Iceland, from where to go to how to get there to the best times of year to visit.

 

Puffins in Iceland

If you’re not familiar with puffins they’re small seabirds that feature unique white and black markings, along with a yellow, orange or black beak. Puffins, due to this appearance, are sometimes called sea parrots, or “the clown of the sea.”

There are three types of puffins: tufted puffins, horned puffins and Atlantic puffins. Iceland is home to Atlantic puffins. You can also see Atlantic puffins in other countries with north Atlantic coasts; the other types of puffins are more likely to be spotted along the Pacific.

Puffins live in the nooks and crannies of cliffsides near the sea, splitting their time between the open ocean and these nesting grounds. Puffins eat plankton, fish and crabs, and can even hunt for their food beneath the water, diving below the waves to seek out their next meal.

puffins in Iceland are cute and small birds

As mentioned, Iceland is home to the largest portion of the world’s Atlantic puffin population, and, most specifically, Iceland’s Westman Islands boast the largest population overall.

It’s estimated that there are about 12–14 million puffins in the world, but the population is declining and puffins are considered “vulnerable.” Puffins often live on islands that do not house any other natural predators, but they do sometimes face threats from other sea birds, as well as from domesticated animals like cats and dogs. They also sometimes face dwindling food, dangers from fishing operations at sea and pollution.

Historically, one of the puffins’ predators was actually humans! People would catch and eat puffins, and even use their feathers in their beds. While it’s still legal to eat puffins in Iceland, most choose not to, to protect the puffins’ numbers — and many report that puffins don’t taste all that great, anyway!

 

When to See the Puffins in Iceland 

If you’re coming to see the puffins in Iceland, you’ll want to plan your trip for the right time of year. Puffins don’t always live in Iceland, or even always on land. Puffins can spend months at sea. They’re not spending all that time flying, of course; they’ll rest in the water, on the waves, but they don’t need to come back to land if they don’t want to.

Puffins leave Iceland for the water in the winter months, so if you travel to Iceland from about September to April, you’ll unfortunately not be able to see them. It’s not until May, and the summer months, that the puffins return to their Iceland nests, where they stay through August.

Luckily, summer is a great time to visit Iceland in general, so if you come to see the puffins in Iceland, you’ll have plenty more to do while you’re here. From celebrating Iceland's summer holidays to taking a long road trip made possible via the extended daylight of the midnight sun, a full itinerary of fun adventure awaits.

 

Where to See the Puffins in Iceland

Once you arrive in Iceland, where do you need to go to see the puffins? It’s not as if they’re hanging out on every beach.

There are two primary places to seek the puffins out — either along the cliffs or at sea. If you’re looking for puffins along the cliff sides, you can often drive or hike out to see them. If you’d like to see them at sea, you can do so via a boat tour. 

Whichever options you choose, here are the spots where it will be most likely to see the puffins in Iceland.

Puffins in Iceland

 

The Westman Islands

The Westman Islands are, hands-down, a top spot to go to see puffins in Iceland, as this archipelago is home to quite a large number of the country’s puffins. To give you an idea, Iceland is home to about 60% of the world’s total Atlantic puffins, but then the Westman Islands specifically are home to about 20% of the world’s total Atlantic puffins. That’s a lot of puffins!

There are more than a dozen islands within the Westman Islands archipelago, with the largest, inhabited island being Heimaey, where about 4,300 people live. If you want to see the puffins in the Westman Islands, you’ll go to Heimaey, where you can then see the puffins up close and personal — even on the streets or in peoples’ yards!

Reaching Heimaey requires you to take a ferry from mainland Iceland. The ferry trip takes about an hour, each way, and leaves from near Seljalandsfoss, in South Iceland. The trip is well worth it, even if it will take you an afternoon or a whole day. There are so many other things to do on Heimaey beyond just seeing the puffins. There are plenty of other bird-watching experiences to be had here, plus hiking, and boat tours.

 

Dyrhólaey

Not keen on taking a ferry? If you have less time, or maybe you’re in the middle of a South Iceland road trip, stop at Iceland’s black sand beaches and look for Dyrhólaey.

Dyrhólaey is a large stone arch that juts out from the land, into the ocean, forming massive rock cliff sides that go straight down into the water — in other words, it’s the perfect puffin nesting spot.

Dyrholaey is a great spot in Iceland to see puffins

Because Atlantic puffins frequently nest here, sometimes, the nesting area is closed off to visitors if it’s deemed necessary for the puffins’ protection. However, even when the nesting area is closed, you can usually still see the puffins. Just be sure to give them their space!

While you’re in the area, be sure to fully enjoy the black sand beach and visit nearby Vik, a charming village that’s a must-stop on any South Coast road trip.

 

Ingólfshöfði Nature Reserve

Also on the South Coast, Ingólfshöfði Nature Reserve is a popular spot for bird-watching, as the remote area near Skaftafell is home to a cliff that thousands of birds flock to, including puffins. The reserve is about a five-hour drive from Reykjavik, so consider visiting when you’re in South Iceland anyway, such as on a road trip.

Do note that you can only visit the nature reserve when you book a tour. Oraefaferdir offers puffin tours from mid-May to mid-August, during which you’ll take a tractor-drawn hay cart ride until you get to an easy hike through the nature reserve. The tour provider promises that you’ll see puffins on its tour 99% of the time. 

The tour is available every day of the week except Sundays, and tour tickets are 10,000 ISK per person, or USD 71, or 66 EUR.

 

Borgarfjörður Eystri

If you travel to Iceland in the summer you can see the adorable puffins

In the east of Iceland, Borgarfjörður Eystri, a fjord destination with just about a hundred residents, claims it is the easiest and safest place to go to watch the puffins. While the puffin colony here might not be as large as some that you’ll find elsewhere, it’s still impressive, with tens of thousands of birds.

While Borgarfjörður Eystri is a hiking destination, you won’t need to do any strenuous hikes to see the puffins. A series of wooden platforms have been built so that you can go out and see the puffins along the cliff sides, safely.

 

Tjörnes Peninsula 

In North Iceland, there are several great spots for puffin watching. Tjornes Peninsula is easy to access from Husavik, but other top spots include Raudinupur Cape, Grimsey island and Lundey island. You can also make a full birding trip out of it, when you plan a North Iceland road trip along the region’s Birding Trail.

 

The Látrabjarg Cliffs

The Latrabjarg Cliffs are one of the most renowned spots for puffin watching, where you can find about 40% of all the world’s puffins, in one, singular spot. The cliffs are located in the Westfjords, and the destination is popular with birders, hikers, photographers and others. However, do note that the Westfjords contain some of the rougher terrain in Iceland, so keep that in mind when getting to the cliffs and then hiking around the area.

 

Hornstrandir Nature Reserve 

Also in the Westfjords, the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve features two puffin nesting grounds, known as Hornbjarg and Hælavíkurbjarg. Do note that this nature reserve takes quite the journey, and you’ll need to be prepared for first a boat ride, and then a lot of hiking. The reserve is closed off to all motor traffic, and is completely uninhabited by people. You’ll find lots of wildlife, though. Beyond puffins, other inhabitants include the arctic fox.

Quiet, remote and completely untarnished by human development, a trip to this reserve is unlike anything you’ll ever experience.

Hornstrandir is a great place to see puffins in Iceland

 

Breiðafjörður

Breiðafjörður is a bay with many islands between the Westfjords and Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Puffins call these islands home, and you can catch a boat that will take you out to view the puffins in their habitats. You can find boats leaving from Stykkisholmur regularly.

While you’re there, be sure to check out the rest of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, often called “Iceland in miniature,” due to how well it displays so many of the country’s versatile landscapes and features.

 

Reykjavik

Thought you couldn’t see wildlife if you stuck around the city? Think again. You can take a quick boat ride — as in, just a few minutes’ ride — from Reykjavik and find what’s known as the Puffin Islands, or, more formally, Akurey and Lundey. These islands are very close to the city and Reykjavik tour providers will take you out to see the puffins nearly every day. During the summer, you’re guaranteed to see puffins.

 

How to See the Puffins in Iceland 

Have a few puffin nesting locations in mind, that you’d like to see during your trip to Iceland? You have two options for ways to see the puffins.

You can drive yourself around to the most popular and most easily accessible spots, such as Latrabjarg or Dyrholaey. If you’re willing to go on a little bit more of a road trip, you can take the ferry to the Westman Islands, to see the puffins there. If you decide to go this route, and drive yourself to the top puffin-watching spots, you’ll need a rental car. Lava Car Rental offers a wide selection of rental cars suitable for such a trip.

Your second option is to join a tour. Many tour operators specifically offer puffin-watching tours, and many by boat.

 

Puffin Watching Tips

Puffins in cliffs in Iceland

No matter where you go to see the puffins in Iceland, no matter how you get there, be sure that you watch any of Iceland’s wildlife responsibly. 

Puffins are especially friendly and do not typically fear people, but you should still behave appropriately around them. This means not touching the puffins, or approaching them loudly. You do not want to disturb the colony.

Additionally, watch out for your own safety while puffin watching. In some areas, puffins burrow into the ground and, if you step on the burrow, it may collapse, causing you to fall and potentially injuring a puffin. Many puffin nests are also in rocky areas or along cliffsides; if you happen to be birding in such a location, be careful and watch your step, as well as for rockslides.

Whatever you do, do not disturb any puffin nests, as this is illegal.

 

Come See the Puffins in Iceland — Here’s How to Get Started

The first thing you have to do if you want to see the puffins in Iceland? You’ll need to book all your travel, including your rental car, so you can drive between all our favourite, top puffin-watching spots.

Lava Car Rental offers a great selection of rental cars perfect for the summer season, from affordable 2WD vehicles to large SUVs that can fit the entire family. You can even rent a campervan, if you want to camp your way around Iceland and never be more than just a few steps from the breathtaking natural surroundings.

See all our rental car options and book your trip today.

 Rent your Car in Iceland 

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