Why is Iceland the world’s number one puffin watching destination?
The largest puffin colony in the world can be found on the Westman Islands in Iceland where experts estimate there are more than 1 million puffin nests.
Puffins in Iceland like to build their nests in burrows on top of steep cliffs or in natural crevices in the rock face. Iceland’s long, rugged coastline, much of which is hard for human and animal predators to access, offers the perfect conditions for puffins in Iceland to nest. Puffins also tend to stick together for safety and to return to the same nesting spot each year, resulting in huge colonies.
These colonies are located all over the Icelandic coastline and can be reached by car, tour bus, bicycle or boat for a great puffin watching experience.
Iceland’s puffin species
There are three species of puffin. The horned puffin and tufted puffin are native to the North Pacific Ocean while the Atlantic puffin is native to the North Atlantic Ocean, which is the species you will find in Iceland. Affectionately known as “sea parrots” and the “clowns of the sea” for their colorful hooked beaks, puffins in Iceland are part of the Auk family.
All puffins spend the majority of their lives at sea, settling on land only to nest. You can find Atlantic puffins in Iceland on the cliffs and rocky shorelines of countries from Canada in the east to Norway, the UK and northern France in the west. As Iceland plays host to more nesting Atlantic puffins than anywhere else in the world, Puffin watching in Iceland is easy!
Puffins significance in Icelandic culture
Seabirds have always held a special place in the culture of the coastal people of the North Atlantic. To explorers and settlers in these coastal lands the discovery of a colony of seabirds meant the difference between life and death. Since at least the Viking age, seabirds and their eggs have been a staple of coastal Icelanders’ diet. But with the population of North Atlantic seabirds in decline, conservationists are rightly worried about their future.
Do they eat puffins in Iceland?
We wouldn’t recommend eating puffin in Iceland for conservation reasons but, as visitors in this land, we also respect historic local traditions. If you’re interested in what to eat in Iceland, have a look at our Iceland Travel Guide where we discuss more about Icelandic foods.
Check out: The Ultimate Food in Iceland Guide
How long do the puffins stay in Iceland?
The best months to find puffins in Iceland are the period between early April until the beginning of September. During those months 60% of the puffin population is located on Iceland for nesting.
How many puffins are there in Iceland?
Ready for a shock? During the summer months Iceland is home for 60% of the world’s entire Atlantic puffin population, which means there are 8 to 10 million puffins in Iceland flying around.
How big are Atlantic puffins?
Puffins in Iceland are from the species Atlantic Puffins, so the smallest of the puffin types. With just 18 centimeters tall and with a weight of a can of soda it’s a small little animal.
Where do Icelandic puffins go in the winter?
Puffins only come to land to mate and nest so this means 4 months a year. The other 8 months they are hunting fish on the cold sea far from the mainland or any sea cliffs.
Video: Puffins in Iceland inspiration
Five things you need to know about puffins
Puffins are incredible creatures. Although they sometimes look a bit silly, they are smart and great caretakers. Here’s 5 things you need to know about puffins:
1. Puffins are in camouflage
The puffin’s brightly-colored beak is only visible during the spring and summer months and fades to grey in the winter when the puffins’ black and white feathers are a form of camouflage. Puffins’ black backs are hard for airborne predators to see against the sea while their white fronts are hard for swimming prey to see against the brightness of the sun. Clever!
2. Puffins are excellent swimmers
Don’t let their cute waddle and amusing belly flops into the water fool you, puffins are excellent swimmers. Puffins use their webbed feet as rudders and their powerful wings to dive down to depths of up to 60 metres to catch fish. Wauw!
3. Puffins are great fliers
Puffins are also incredibly graceful in the air. Despite their small wings, puffins can reach speeds of more than 50 miles an hour. To reach these speeds, they have to flap their wings an exhausting 400 times a minute! It looks pretty funny when they fly as they don’t move so smoothly. But once again, don’t let them fool you!
4. Puffins have unusually large mouths
A puffin diet consists of small fish like sand eels and herring. Trouble is, one of these tiny fish is nowhere near a meal on its own. As a result, puffins have developed serrated beaks that allow them to hold tight onto their prey while diving in for more. Some puffins can hold dozens of fish in their mouth at any one time.
5. Puffins mate for life
Once a puffin has chosen a mate they tend to breed for life. Puffins couple up when they’re between 3 and 5 years old then return to the same patch of land each year to nest.
Best time to see puffins in iceland
Puffins arrive in Iceland between late March and early April and leave between late August and early September. It’s possible to take a puffin tour in Iceland any time between March and September but the summer months are best. Ideally, go puffin watching between June and August for the best chance of seeing colonies of puffins catching fish for their recently-hatched, fledgling babies.
So, if puffin watching in Iceland is high on your dream itinerary then you should travel during puffin season in Iceland which lasts between March and September. When you’re planning a trip to Iceland but aren’t sure when to go yet, take a look at our article on the best time to travel to Iceland.
Best time of day to see puffins in Iceland
If you are on your own and you want the biggest change to catch an active puffin colony, go by night to have the biggest change. But keep in mind during the summer there are between 8 and 10 million puffins in Iceland so also during the day you can catch them. When you book a puffin tour Iceland, the guide can tell you all about the puffins.
Must Read: 21 Things to do in North Iceland
A year in the life of a Puffin
Puffins spend the majority of their lives at sea. Puffins even roost on the surface of the water and only settle on the land to nest and raise their chicks until they’re able to fly.
Adult puffins tend to return to their colonies on the coast of Iceland around early April each year. Immediately, they get to work on making a burrow in the soil or finding a cozy cavity in a cliff. Puffins usually lay their eggs in early May and incubate the eggs for up to 45 days. Both parents spend time keeping the eggs warm!
Once the egg hatches, the new baby puffin takes between 35 and 60 days to fledge. During this time the parent puffins fly out to sea to collect fish and bring them back to the nest to feed their baby. Once the baby puffin is strong enough, the parent puffins head back to sea in one big synchronized departure. Over the next few days, the baby puffins leave their nests and make their own way into the sea. This exciting part of the puffin’s life cycle happens at night to avoid predators.
So, then, where do Icelandic Puffins go in the winter? Good question! As the winter months close in, Icelandic puffins head out into the North Atlantic Ocean. The puffins travel so far from land that scientists have struggled to find out exactly where they go. A 2016 study found that Atlantic puffins nesting on the coast of Maine traveled north as far as Canada’s Gulf of St Lawrence then to the open ocean around 200 miles from Cape Cod. As for Icelandic puffins, where they go in the winter is still a bit of a mystery!
Photographing puffins in iceland
Whenever we travelers interact with nature we must do so responsibly. Every visitor to Iceland must do what they can to conserve the Atlantic puffin species. Especially, as according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), they are a “threatened” species. The main threat to the puffin’s existence is marine pollution and climate change.
The best way to protect puffins in Iceland is to avoid disturbing puffin nests. Nesting puffins will rarely take flight when humans approach if you follow a few simple rules:
- Never approach puffins in a large group
- Be quiet and move slowly as you approach
- Never try to touch a puffin or feed it
- If approaching puffins from the water turn off noisy engines and keep your distance
- Be careful when walking on cliffs. Puffins often dig burrows into cliffs so the ground beneath your feet may not be as sturdy as it looks!
Where is the best place to see puffins in iceland – Top 6
From the Westman Islands, Dyrhólaey and Ingólfshöfði Cape in the south to Skjálfandi Bay in the north and back round to the Látrabjarg Cliffs in the west. You can go puffin watching in Iceland at any point of the compass. Here we explore a few of the best places to see puffins in Iceland. Even if you only have one day to explore from Reykjavik.
Puffins in Iceland map
1. The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar Iceland puffins)
- Located in south-west Iceland
- A 2hr 45min drive from Reykyavik
Known as Iceland’s best-kept secret, the Westmann Islands are home to the largest Atlantic Puffin colony in the world. It is an archipelago of 16 islands surrounded by smaller rock islets. Only one of these islands is inhabited, Heimay, and has a population of 4300. Up to 30 species of sea birds nest across the archipelago but it is the puffins that take center stage.
Visit during peak puffin season in Iceland, between August and September, and you may see some baby puffins take flight for the first time. Up to 5,000 of these baby puffins are confused each year by the lights of Heimaey town and get lost on their first foray into the world. Local children have made a tradition out of picking them up and returning them to the water. Besides Puffins, you can also see whales and seals.
You can take a domestic flight from Reykjavik to Westmann Islands during the summer months. For a cheaper option, you can travel to Þorlákshöfn yourself. From there you can take a ferry to Heimaey on the Westmann Islands.
Once on Heimay, you can take a puffin tour by boat. If you don’t want to take a boat tour, you can see puffins nesting in colonies on Heimaey’s cliffs. We would recommend spending a day or two on Heimaey, an island that’s known for its volcanic eruptions!
2. Dyrhólaey Rock Arch
- Located in southern Iceland
- A 2hr 30min drive from Reykjavik.
Driving on south Route 1 you will pass hot springs, the town of Hveragerði and the waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss before you arrive at the Dyrhólaey Rock Arch. This is probably the second-best place to go puffin watching in Iceland from Reykjavik. An easy 2hr 30 min drive from the capital, Dyrhólaey Rock Arch is also only 2 hours from the Westmann Islands. Get an early start and you could see both sites in one day!
Dyrhólaey is the southernmost point in Iceland and has the kind of dramatic, volcanic landscapes visitors fall in love with. The Dyrhólaey Rock Arch has been shaped over millennia by the endless movement of the ocean. This monumental landmark is one of few formations in the world to have hexagonal-shaped columns. The views are out of this world and worth the trip to Dyrhólaey alone.
Handy for visitors, you can approach the arch from the beach below and cliffs above and see puffins from both vantage points. However, the lower parking lot is much easier to access in an ordinary 2WD car.
Visitors should also be aware that Dyrhólaey is a protected nature reserve which means access is limited during peak nesting times to keep the birds safe from disturbance. Check for closures before you go.
Check out: Top 30 incredible things to do in Reykjavik
3. Ingólfshöfði Cape
- Located in south-east Iceland
- A 4hr 50 min drive from Reykjavik
Still on Iceland’s southern coast, Ingólfshöfði Cape and Nature Reserve is located a few hours drive from Dyrhólaey. Ingólfshöfði Cape is one of the lesser-visited puffin watching destinations in Iceland as it is surrounded by huge cliffs and is inaccessible by car. The area is also private, which means you must take a puffin tour to access this sheltered enclave that plays host to a huge variety of nesting seabirds. This is why you can also see kittiwakes, guillemots and saltwater ducks when you take the tour.
You can drive to Ingólfshöfði Nature Reserve but the trip can take up to 5 hours from Reykjavik. To see Ingólfshöfði Cape you must book a tour. Tours are organized by a local farm, take 2.5 hours and require hiking so are not suitable for all travelers. Anyway, it is an incredible spot to go puffin watching in Iceland!
4. Skjálfandi Bay – Lundey Island & Flatey Island
- Located in northern Iceland
- A 5hr 45min drive from Reykjavik
And now to the north where you can combine the best whale watching in Iceland with puffin watching. Skjálfandi Bay is one of the most visited places in northern Iceland, thanks to its extremely popular whale tours. Several species of whale come into Skjálfandi Bay each year and the nearby town of Húsavík is home to Iceland’s whale museum.
As Skjálfandi Bay is full of fish, this area is also very popular with birds. Around 100,000 pairs of puffins nest around this bay, with the largest concentration on Lundey Island, or Puffin Island in English. Most boat tours visit Lundey Island but a few go as far as Flatey island, an unpopulated island that is also a popular nesting spot.
You can access Húsavík by car then take a boat tour of the islands. Tours that combine whale watching and puffin watching in Iceland are popular like this Original Big Whale Safari & Puffin Island Tour.
5. Látrabjarg Cliffs
- Located at the westernmost point of Iceland in the Westfjords
- A 5hr 45min drive from Reykjavik
The Látrabjarg Cliffs are the most impressive sea-bird cliffs in Europe. Up to 14 kilometers long and up to 441 m high, these cliffs offer lots of opportunities to get up close to millions of nesting birds. Here you’ll find Gannets, Razorbills, Auks and Guillemots.
Safe from predators, the birds are almost tame and are not shy of photographers. Do be careful, though. These cliffs are incredibly steep so take heed of the markings. These markings are not heeded by locals who can still be seen abseiling down the cliff faces to continue their long tradition of foraging for eggs and feathers.
You can drive to the Látrabjarg Cliffs but this trip can take up to 6 hours from Reykjavik. Good thing is you don’t have to head that far only to see Puffins. Nearby you’ll also find the pink sands of Rauðasandur beach and the Dynjand falls.
6. Faxa Bay
- Located in southwest Iceland, off the coast of Reykjavik
- A 10 minute drive from Reykjavik
Althoug number 6 in the list, this is definitely the best place to see puffins, during short trips to Iceland. There are three international airports in Iceland but most flights arrive at Keflavik airport, close to Reykjavik. Those visiting Iceland for only a few days or who are on a layover in Reykjavik can still have a wonderful experience. If you’re planning a short trip Iceland, also make sure to check out our route guide to the Golden Circle for inspiration.
Even if you only have one day in Reykjavik, you can go puffin watching at Iceland’s Faxa Bay. You can see a great diversity of marine life from the bay but for the best experience. Take a boat tour out into the fjord and chances are that you’ll see whales, porpoises, and other seabirds.
Most people join a small group puffin-watching tour leaving directly from Reykjavik Old Harbour. The tours circle both Akurey and Lundey islands and there are lots of opportunities to see puffins as closely as you can from a boat. Longer tours are available and usually combine puffin watching with whale watching.
Best tours puffins iceland
FAQ puffins iceland
What is special about puffins?
There are just a few bird species that can hold approx 10 fishes in their mouth at once, but the puffin is one of them. Because of the spiny tongues which they pressed against the roof of their mouths, they can bring the fish back to the nest to feed the little ones.
What are baby puffins called?
Baby puffins are called puffling (pysja in Icelandic), it sounds cute doesn’t it?
Where are Atlantic puffins found in the world?
Atlantic puffins can be found only in the North Atlantic Ocean. The most popular places in Europe are Iceland, Faroe Islands, Brittany coast of France, Greenland. To keep it simple keep in mind that you can find them from Canada to Norway all across the North Atlantic.
How many species of puffins live in the world?
There are 4 different kinds of puffins species found in the Northern Atlantic.
1. The Tufted Puffin
2. The Atlantic Puffin
3. The Horned Puffin
4. The Rhinoceros Auklet
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I hope that answers all the questions you may have about puffin watching in Iceland. If you manage to visit one of the places I’ve listed above, let me know about your experience by leaving a comment below.