Where is the best place to see puffins in Iceland? Can you find puffins throughout the year? Are there any tours particularly tailored to puffin watching? How close will they let you get? Discover all you need to know about Iceland’s most adorable animal.
It is little wonder why so many coming to Iceland seek out the nation’s puffin population. These beautiful little birds, with their brightly coloured bills, emotive watery eyes, and clumsy, wobbling walk, are intrinsically likeable creatures, and they are very easy to attribute with human traits. After all, they nest in lifelong pairs, nurture their chicks as a couple, and have clear social bonds within the colony.
The colonies in themselves are also part of the appeal of these charming birds, as they can number in the tens of thousands. This makes puffins quite as awe-inspiring collectively as they are adorable individually.
Iceland is, in fact, home to sixty percent of the world’s Atlantic Puffin population: over six million individuals. The fact that they nest in the same places they were born, and only nest when there are other puffins around, means that certain places in Iceland are undoubtedly the best in the world for this special kind of birdwatching.
They cannot be seen all year, however. Puffins roost on the surface of the ocean, and only come on land in order to breed, lay their eggs, incubate them, and raise their chicks until they fledge. This occurs throughout summer; therefore, the puffin-watching season in Iceland lasts from June to September.
There are many ways in which you can enjoy the puffins up close. There are certain places along the coast where they nest in vast numbers, which you can rent a car to drive to and approach yourself, and boat tours from destinations all around the country that will take you to islands that they seasonally colonise.
When they are nesting, puffins are often very easy to see and approach; in spite of being hunted and having their eggs raided in Iceland for a millennium, they have very little fear of people, and it is easy to get within a metre of them in some places. This is an incredible opportunity to connect with nature, but, of course, needs to be done so with respect to the animal.
If puffin watching, therefore, heed the following guidelines to ensure the experience is as pleasant for you as it is botherless for the bird in question.
Protecting the puffins you are watching is not only important because they are cute and it’s the decent thing to do. Puffins are ‘Threatened’ according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN); their populations are in decline across their range, including in Iceland, so ensuring that you do not hinder their protection will help in their recovery efforts.
Furthermore, if you disturb one puffin, you may actually unsettle the whole colony. Puffins are sociable when on land, and look to each other to determine the safety of their environment. If one takes off in a panic, all the others may follow suit; they tend to flock together and fly in a tight circle above where they are nesting, to intimidate and protect from potential predation.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Milan Nykodym
You do not, therefore, want to be responsible for emptying the cliffs at a popular bird-watching destination just because you thought a puffin wanted to be stroked.
If you wish to take a step further to protect the puffins while in Iceland, you could avoid purchasing their meat. Although they are hunted responsibly, and eating puffin is not considered taboo here, there is a strong push from many in Iceland to ban the practice at least until the population comes back into recovery.
As they nest along the cliffs of Iceland’s craggy coastline, there are many places around the country where you can reliably find puffin colonies throughout summer. In many of these, you can follow a trail to reach them, without having to book a boat tour.
Due to the cautious nature of these birds when choosing a place to nest, however, you are unlikely to find any in a location that is not known for its puffins. In spite of this, however, you may have a bizarre stroke of luck and find a puffin or a puffling somewhere you would never think
Tour guides Paulina Pierzak and Armann Ægisson, for example, found a puffling at midnight in downtown Reykjavík, likely confused by the lights, and as bewildered as to see them as they were it. After a night regaining strength in a cardboard box with some water and crackers, little Puffer was released back into the wild.
Photo courtesy of James McDaniel
Horticulturalist James McDaniel, who works in Selfoss, a town over five kilometres from the ocean, found a lost puffin hiding between two greenhouses. Again, after a little nursing, it could be released back into the wild.
These cases, of course, were particularly exceptional. For your best chance at seeing puffins without getting on a boat, you are much better checking out one of the five places listed below.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Progresschrome
The Látrabjarg bird-watching cliffs are the most westerly point of Iceland; considering Iceland is the most westerly European country, they are often also considered to be the most western point of the whole continent (in spite of the fact that they are actually on the North American tectonic plate). At fourteen kilometres long and over four hundred metres high, they are one of the most popular attractions in the Westfjords.
While certainly an impressive sight during winter, it is throughout the summer that these cliffs truly come alive. Puffins are just one of the dozens of species of birds that come here to nest; you will also find guillemots, northern gannets, auks and forty percent of the world’s razorbills. There are literally millions and millions of individuals, which collectively turn Látrabjarg into a breathtaking natural wonder.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Common, by Gsd97jks
Many trails will take you close to the cliff edge, where you can easily admire the many animals, be they nesting or swooping out to sea. With caution, you can approach more closely, being sure to stay approximately a metre from edge so that you don’t accidentally cave in a hidden puffin burrow.
In most places, there will be markers showing you the closest you can get, so for the safety of everyone involved, follow their guidance.
My personal meeting with the puffins at Látrabjarg
Látrabjarg is renowned for its dramatic scale and unmatched bird-watching but is also a place of Icelandic culture, tradition and history. You may see some individuals abseiling down the cliff-faces on ropes, foraging for eggs and feathers; there is a long tradition of this in Iceland, dating back centuries, which continues today under regulation.
Because of this skill Icelanders developed, an incredible rescue was possible when the British trawler Dhoon crashed at the bottom of Látrabjarg. Local farmers were able to use the ropes to scale down the cliff, saving the twelve surviving members of the accident.
Those who continue to harness this skill should, according to folklore in the area, be cautious, however. It is said that a troll who lived in the cliffs was renowned for cutting their ropes, and though forced by a bishop into a cave without any birds nesting around it, is still alive and hidden within Látrabjarg.
Coming to these cliffs just for the bird-watching is well worth the trip, but thankfully, many other wonders of the Westfjords are close by for when you’ve had your fill. Rauðasandur is a nearby beach, renowned for its unusual pinkish sands, an anomaly in Iceland. Dynjandi is just a little further away and without a doubt one of Iceland’s most awe-inspiring waterfalls.
While the Látrabjarg birdwatching cliffs are well worth a visit, to reach them is a seven-hour drive from Reykjavík, making it quite a schlep for those staying in the capital. Luckily, however, there are puffin colonies just a few hours away along the South Coast, the closest being at Dyrhólaey Rock Arch.
Driving Route 1 South, you cannot miss this enormous landmark. Curving out from a row of cliffs into the tumultuous ocean, Dyrhólaey is a fascinating example of Iceland’s dramatic landscapes, shaped over millennia by fire and water. Up close, you will also see that it has unusual, hexagonal basalt columns, rare formations that can only be found in a few places around the world.
It is possible to approach the arch both from the beach and from atop the cliffs, and both directions will reveal to you the vast puffin colony that nests here throughout summer. There are fewer other species of bird than at Látrabjarg (although eider ducks are also numerous), but the puffins still number in the thousands.
Standing atop Dyrhólaey, however, means that the landscapes around you may even steal your attention from the birds you came to see. To both the east and the west, you can see the South Coast stretching far in both directions; to the east, the views are particularly great, as they go across the notorious black-sand beach of Reynisfjara to the Reynisdrangar sea stacks. In clear weather to the north, you will be able to see Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which covers Katla volcano.
Reaching Dyrhólaey from Reykjavík is a journey of fewer than three hours, but considering the number of features en route, will likely take much longer. You will drive through the geothermal town of Hveragerði, where you can hike to and bathe in natural hot springs, and pass by two of the country’s favourite waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss.
The Tjornes Peninsula is a small, remote peninsula in North Iceland famous for two things: the fossils that can be found on its west coast and the birdlife on its east. While the former draws visitors throughout the year, and its other popular resident bird species, the rock ptarmigan, does not migrate, the area truly comes alive with the arrival of the puffins.
Several bird-watching trails will take you to see the puffins; one leads to its outermost tip, called Voladalstorfa, while another runs along the cliffs by Skeiðsöxl. Both of these will grant you fantastic views of the colony. While admiring them, you can keep an eye out for the elusive ptarmigans, great cormorants, and black guillemots.
A great advantage of birdwatching from Tjörnes is the fact that, when looking out to the ocean, you have a good chance of spotting whales and dolphins. It sits right beside the town of Húsavík and Skjalfandi bay, the whale-watching epicentre of Iceland and arguably all of Europe.
The peninsula is also in a convenient location near other awe-inspiring sites of the North. It is, for example, just an hour’s drive from Lake Mývatn, an area renowned for its diverse array of geological and geothermal wonders. The ‘Capital of the North’, the cultural town of Akureyri, is just an hour and a half away.
Avid birdwatchers seeking more than just puffins should head just a few minutes south-east of the peninsula to Víkingavatn, the Viking Lake. The wetlands here are home to thousands of freshwater birds, allowing you to admire all kinds of duck species and nesting horned grebes.
Photo by Jennifer Boyer
Further along the South Coast from Dyrhólaey, between Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón, you can find Ingólfshöfði Cape and Nature Reserve. This hidden gem of a destination is surrounded by mighty cliffs, and only accessible by crossing the dunes to its north-west; its sheltered, protected location makes it a thriving home for Iceland’s puffins and other birds.
Like at Látrabjarg, you can expect to see the puffins nesting with a number of other species, such as kittiwakes and guillemots; because Ingólfshöfði has a rich vegetation, however, you can also expect a wealth of seafowl that includes many of the country’s saltwater duck species.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Ómar Runólfsson
This nook in the South Coast is often overlooked by travellers, so is the perfect place to come if you want to admire puffins without the crowds.
Ingólfshöfði has more appeal to it than just its nature. It is named after Ingólfur Arnarson, Iceland’s first settler to come here by choice, as it is where he first wintered before settling in Reykjavík. It is also home to an old lighthouse and some long-since deserted fishing huts, which, as unhomely as they appear, once kept the few residents of the area from the brink of starvation.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Diego Delso
The Westman Islands, or Vestmannaeyjar, off the South Coast of Iceland, have the largest Atlantic Puffin colony in the world; thirty different species nest over the archipelago, but puffins are by far the most numerous. They nest on most of the islands, including the only one with a human population, Heimaey.
Reaching the Westman Islands throughout summer is easy; there are domestic flights from Reykjavík airport, and regular ferries running from the southern town of Þorlákshöfn. Many operators also run private tours to the island, of which there are options to get there by boat or by plane.
As will be discussed below, once on Heimaey it is possible to take a boat tour, which will introduce you to islands teeming with puffin life. If you wish to spend more of your time on land, however, you need not worry; there are colonies in the cliffs here too.
The puffins are so numerous in the Westman Islands that there is a tradition in the town where the children help pufflings who have wandered away from the cliffs, confused by the lights of the town, make it to the ocean. While cases like those mentioned above in downtown Reykjavík and the greenhouses in Selfoss are uncommon, finding a lost puffin in Vestmannaeyjar is a regular occurrence. Indeed, nearly 5,000 of these pufflings were picked up and put back on track by the local children last season.
Spending a full day or two in the Westman Islands will provide you with more than just an excellent puffin watching experience. These islands have a fascinating history of runaway slaves, murders of vengeance, pirate attacks and, most recently, an eruption that threatened to engulf the main town. There are many museums and natural sites that you can spend hours exploring to learn about all of this colourful past.
Photo from Big Whale Safari and Puffins Husavik
There are several advantages to taking a boat tour to see puffins, rather than just walking up to them on the shore.
Firstly, it provides you with a great opportunity to get out on the water and admire sites such as the peninsulas around Faxafloi bay from a unique perspective. Secondly, it allows you to watch puffins doing more than just guarding their burrows, such as bobbing in the water and diving for fish.
Finally, it also provides a better chance to see more of the animals that many hope to catch in Iceland, such as Humpback Whales (which also migrate to Iceland for the summer) and White Beaked Dolphins.
Photo from Close Up | Whale Watching Tour with Puffins
Taking a boat tour from Reykjavík’s Old Harbour to see an island full of puffins seems too convenient to be true, but from May to August, is more than a possibility. Two islands out in Faxafloí Bay, Akurey and Lundi, become the nesting grounds for thousands of these darling creatures every summer.
The most affordable and direct trip will take you out in a boat that has been visiting these islands for seventeen years; it is small enough to get close to the islands safely and quietly, yet still has a sheltered area in case it the weather becomes problematic. There are binoculars on board so that you can get a perfect view of the nesting puffins.
Photo from Puffin Tour from Reykjavík
It is also possible, however, to combine your puffin-watching trip with a whale-watch. Faxafloí bay has a huge wealth of life, with White Beaked Dolphins, Harbour Porpoises, Minke Whales and Humpbacks all frequently seen in the summer months; you also have a chance to see Blue and Fin Whales, Orcas, and even Basking Sharks.
Even if you overlook a puffin-watching segment and simply take a standard whale-watching tour, you are still more than likely to see puffins, bobbing like corks in the ocean or fluttering overhead.
Although your operator will do their best not to disturb any animals, you may see a puffin take off in flight from the ocean, which is quite an entertaining sight. With a body built for agile swimming, not for flying, they have to clumsily and energetically ‘sprint’ over the water, maniacally flapping their wings, to gain enough momentum to lift into the air.
Photo from Big Whale Safari & Puffins Husavik
It is as easy to take a puffin watching boat tour from the northern towns of Akureyri and Húsavík as it is from Reykjavík; throughout the summer, multiple operators set out into Eyjafjörður and Skjálfandi respectively, and return with incredible success rates.
While it is not so easy to book a trip to see puffins specifically, there are tours that combine the experience with whale-watching; considering the number of Humpback Whales in these waters, and the areas’ tendency to invite even mightier creatures such as the Blue Whale, this is hardly a problem.
Photo from Big Whale Safari & Puffins Husavik
From Húsavík, you can book a tour on a RIB vessel to head out in hunt of diverse wildlife. Most of these tours will make a stop at Flatey island, which is renowned for the sheer number of puffins that crowd it. From Akureyri, there is not quite the same centre of puffin life, but there are whale-watching tours that focus on finding seabirds too, such as this one, that will most likely result in you seeing many of these creatures in the seas and on the craggy coasts of Eyjafjorður.
Breiðafjörður is the fjord that separates the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the Westfjords. It has many little islands dotting it and fertile waters making it a perfect place for puffins to nest.
Unfortunately, there aren't any tours into Breiðafjörður focussed on locating and admiring its puffins. Even so, however, there are multiple boat trips you can take from the historic town of Stykkishólmur that will allow you to explore the fjord and see these birds both nesting and hunting in the waters.
For example, you could take this adventure, which combines a cruise with a freshly caught seafood dinner served as sushi, blending Icelandic ingredients and ingenuity with Japanese style. Though it is available throughout the year, taking this tour between May and September almost guarantees that you will see several islands with thriving puffin colonies.
Photo from Whale Watching Snæfellsnes
You could also jump onto this whale-watching tour in the final months of its season (it runs from November until June) for the same results. Whale watching in Breiðafjorður is higher risk, higher reward kind of experience, as compared to Reykjavík or Húsavík. While great whales do not frequent its waters so reliably, the area is the best place in the country to find the elusive and magnificent orca.
If neither of these trips appeal to you or fit into your schedule, you also have a great chance of catching puffins simply by taking the Baldur ferry from Stykkishólmur to Bránslækur in the Westfjords, or visa versa. Those travelling around the country may have this in their plans anyway, as the ferry carries cars and is the quickest way to get between the two locations.
If you are utilising a summer self-drive package that guides you around the entire ring-road of Iceland, the Westfjords and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, such as these, which go over ten, thirteen and fourteen days, this ferry trip is included in your itinerary and in the price.
Photo from Westman Islands Private Tour
As discussed earlier, if you want to make the most of the largest Atlantic Puffin colony in the world, you can take boat tours from Heimaey in the Westman Islands to fully immerse yourself in an avian spectacle. These tours do not necessarily market themselves as puffin-watching excursions, as puffins are just an expected part of the experience.
Take, for example, this hour-long RIB tour, that whisks you around the uninhabited islands of Vestmannaeyjar, taking you into five separate caves, and to unusual features such as the famous ‘elephant head’ rock formation. Many of the little isles and rock crops you will pass (and, of course, linger at) will be packed with puffins, and throughout the tour, you will see many in the air and water.
Photo from One Hour Small Island Tour in Vestmannaeyjar
These tours often have a lot more life than just the birds; seals are likely to be sharing the craggy coasts with them, and you have a good chance of seeing cetaceans too. It is the best place in Iceland to see the elusive and mighty Fin Whale, and the second best place, after Breiðafjörður, to see Killer Whales. It was, after all, home to Keiko, the long-suffering orca that played Free Willy, prior to his release back into the wild.
Just off the shore of East Iceland is another enormous puffin colony that can be reached by boat. Papey is a low-lying island, just two kilometres squared, that since 1948 has been deserted of full-time residents. Now, it is a paradise of birds (with puffins and guillemots being the main residents) and seals.
Reaching Papey Island required you to take a boat trip from the sleepy village of Djúpivogur. Those who are taking the ring-road of Iceland will no doubt pass through here, as it is the first major settlement of the East Fjords if approaching from the South Coast.
If taking a self-drive tour around the whole country, this town will be visited on the day in which you head from the Jökulsárlón/Höfn area to Egilsstaðir, the largest settlement of the east. This part of your journey is mainly comprised of sightseeing landscapes, rather than specific features, so interrupting it with a boat trip to Papey can make for a great way to break up the day.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by MosheA
The final place in Iceland where you are guaranteed to see a great colony of Iceland’s favourite animal is on Grimsey Island, the only Icelandic territory north of the Arctic Circle. Most people visiting come only for the novelty of having their passport stamped with proof they entered a polar region, and are surprised to find the wealth of birdlife present.
Something to be aware of if planning a visit to Grimsey is that, because of how far north it is, the puffins tend to migrate a little earlier than in much of the rest of the country. While in September, there will certainly still be a few puffins at, say, Vestmannaeyjar, they are likely to have already left Grimsey by mid-August.
Grimsey Island is easy to reach for any travellers to North Iceland; ferries run throughout the summer from Akureyri, and flights from its domestic airport go on throughout the year.
To conclude, Iceland is the puffin-watching capital of the world. No matter where you are based in the country with the obvious exception of the Highlands, a puffin colony will be easy to reach and return from within a day. If travelling in summer, then you should make every effort to get to at least one of them; you will not regret it.
Seeing these creatures is a blessing, no matter where you are in the world. The fact, however, that in Iceland you can get so close to them, that they nest in such numbers, and that they nesting grounds are in such beautiful locations, puffin-watching over here has a special kind of magic.