Puffins spend most of their lives at sea. But you don’t have to charter a boat to get up close to these cute birds. Go puffin watching in Iceland instead!
Around 60% of the world’s population of Atlantic puffins pay a visit to Iceland each year. Between late spring and early fall, an estimated 10 million puffins return to Iceland’s coasts where they form vast breeding colonies. Puffin season in Iceland is during summer and is the best time to see puffins in the wild.
A few years ago, we took a three-month cycling trip around Iceland. We couldn’t wait to see these beautiful birds nesting on cliffs and swooping for fish in the sea. On this trip, we learned a thing or two about the puffin season in Iceland and are pleased to share what we learned in this comprehensive guide.
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 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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
When is the best time of year to watch 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.
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!
How to see Puffins responsibly 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 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 to watch 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.
1. The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar)
- 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.
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.
We love to hear from you!
We hope that answers all the questions you may have about puffin watching in Iceland. If you manage to visit one of the places we’ve listed above, let us know about your experience by leaving a comment below.
For more Iceland inspiration, don’t forget to check out our comprehensive Iceland Travel Guide.