In recent years the puffin has become the surprising breakthrough star of Iceland. And no wonder, this beautiful bird seems to capture the hearts of those who get to know it. Did you know that Iceland is one of the best places on Earth to spot puffins?
Sometimes known as “the clown of the sea” this small bird is such a big part of our life here that we sometimes forget how remarkable it really is. Iceland has the largest puffin population in the world and there are puffin colonies all over the country where you can visit and observe the birds in their natural habitat. Here are the best places to see puffins in Iceland.
Vestmannaeyjar – Largest puffin colony in the world!
This cluster of 15 islands south of Iceland is the ideal place to spot some cute puffins. In fact the Vestmannaeyjar islands are so synonymous with the small seabird that it’s the community‘s official emblem. The birds arrive in summer to mate and form the world’s biggest puffin colony with over 1.1 million puffins laying their eggs there. A boat tour will take you around the coastline of the island where you can observe the birds.
When the nights start getting dark again in August the young puffin chicks, or pufflings (aww!), will start leaving the nest and head out to sea. However, like many youngsters before them, they are seduced by the bright lights of the city and so fly there instead. The local children will head out and save the confused pufflings and give them a place to stay overnight before releasing them back out to the ocean the next day.
Lundey – Akurey
You don’t have to venture far from the capital Reykjavik to find puffins in Iceland. A short boat ride from the old harbour will take you to the neighbouring islands of Lundey (literally “Puffin Island”) and Akurey.
The islands are uninhabited which gives the rich birdlife there some much needed peace and quiet. While you won’t be able to go onshore to look for puffins, you’ll see where they make their burrows. Puffins dig their burrows using their bills and their feet, shovelling dirt out behind themselves like dogs do (seriously, awwww!) The burrows are around 70-110 cm long, or about as long as an adult human’s arm. They prefer digging them between rocks or steep cliffs, making the islands the perfect construction site.
Speaking of steep cliffs, the Látrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords are also an excellent puffin spotting spot. The birds there are exceptionally tame given the remote nature of the area and therefore offer great photographing opportunities. Just be careful because the cliffs are very, very steep.
The opportunity to get close to the birds is a welcome one for most photographers since the tiny birds can be hard to capture on film from far away. An adult puffin is only about 18 cm tall and weighs around 500 grams, or about as much as a can of soda. It’s strange that no one has thought of putting puffins on Icelandic soda cans. Seems like a great business idea. You heard it here first folks!
If you’re in the Westfjords why not take the opportunity to sail out to Vigur Island and visit the puffins there. While the island only has one human family as permanent residents, the island is the home of around 100.000 puffin couples that come back there every year to lay their eggs. Puffins are monogamous creatures and will come back to the same burrow every year to lay their single egg. They also do their part to keep Iceland in the top spot as the country with the most gender equality in the world, so the male and the female share the duties of incubating the egg and rearing the puffling.
The south coast is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland and the black sand beaches around Vík are a big part of that popularity. The massive stone arch of Dyrholaey is surrounded by black beaches and green meadows. It’s also full of birdlife including, you guessed it, puffins. The interesting structure of Dyrhólaey is reflected in the puffins’ burrows. Quite the little architect, the puffin will design its burrow to accommodate its pufflings perfectly. At the back they build a nest out of feathers and grass where they incubate the egg. There will also be a toilet area at the first bend in the burrow so the puffling can do its business without soiling its waterproof feathers. As the chick gets older, the toilet is moved closer to the entrance to accommodate its size. Super efficient!
Off the east coast of Iceland is the mystical Papey. The island is believed to have been settled by Irish monks before mainland Iceland was settled. Whether or not they were the ones who attracted the puffin population to the island (the puffin belief system has unfortunately still not been researched thoroughly) is not known, but the puffin shares some visual similarities with the monks. The Puffin’s scientific name is Fratercula arctica. Fratercula, literally means “little priest” or “little brother,” and the bird’s eccentric ways and upright posture remind people of the holy men who once habited this island.
The Tjörnes peninsula in north Iceland is one of the best geological localities in Iceland since you can see the multi-coloured layers of 4 million years of volcanic activity in the sea cliffs there. The peninsula is also home to a large puffin colony. No doubt the little birds want their surroundings to match their own colourful beaks, for which they are so well known. Every spring during mating season the puffin’s beaks and feet turn bright orange. The size and colour of puffin beaks may serve as badges of experience and help the birds assess the eligibility of potential mates. The beak increases in size as the puffin becomes older.
Grimsey Island is the northernmost part of Iceland and the Arctic Circle cuts right across it. It should come as no surprise then that the Arctic Puffin likes to nest there. A ferry connects the island to the mainland three times a week, but the puffins needn’t worry about getting where they want to go as they are very strong flyers and their 400 wing beats a minute can propel them to up to speeds of 90 km/h. Puffins are also excellent swimmers and can dive to depths of up to sixty metres to reach the fish they feed on. Puffins can carry up to ten fish at a time in their beaks. This clearly proves that the old saying of “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is true. But they are still very cute though!