How to see puffins in Iceland

Seeing puffins was one of the highlights of my trip through Iceland. In this blog post, I will introduce these little seabirds to you, share the best spots to meet them and suggest the best times so you can hopefully see puffins on your next trip to Iceland.

Atlantic Puffins (also known as common puffins) are seabirds native to the North Atlantic Ocean and can be found on the coast of Iceland during the summer. They are the smallest of the puffins, measuring 26-36 cm (10-14 inches) and weighing about 390 grams (13.76 oz) which is comparable to a soda can. They can dive up to 60 m (196.85 ft) deep and fly at a speed of 88 km/h (54.68 mph).

In my eyes, they look like little penguins with beaks of parrots. In a few other languages, they also have the parrot in their names. For example, in German, they are called Papageientaucher, which can be translated to parrot diver. The Latin name is Fratercula arctica, which translates to Little brother of the north. In Iceland, they are called Lundi.

Like many other birds, puffins have different plumage according to the seasons. Every spring before breeding season, the beaks and feet of puffins turn colourful to a bright orange. In winter, their beaks and feet fade to dull shades.

Puffins are monogamous animals and stay with the same mate for a lifetime, which also has practical reasons, as they usually return every year to the same burrows.

Let’s talk about how you can see puffins in Iceland.

Best time – perfect season and daytime

Puffins return to the coast of Iceland in late spring (end of April) for their breeding season. The best time to observe puffins is during summer, usually between the end of May and the beginning of August. Some recommend June and July when the puffins are most active in taking care of their chicks. Puffins breed in colonies, which also creates a much higher chance of finding several birds at the same time.

In autumn and winter, puffins disperse widely across the open ocean, far from land, and can’t be found as easily. They can live for months at the sea. 

The best daytime to see puffins are in the early morning, around 7 to 11 am, and in the evening, around 6 to 10 pm. During the rest of the day, most puffins are off to the ocean to catch small fish and crabs. They can dive for up to one minute but usually stay underwater only around 20 to 30 seconds.

Best locations to see puffins in Iceland

Puffins nest in clifftop colonies – there are some spots in Iceland that are especially known for being good spots to see these little seabirds. Important: Puffins dig burrows in the earth, which can make the ground loose, so please keep a safe distance from cliff edges for your safety.

Akurey and Lundey – West Iceland

These two islands are the closest to Reykjavik and can be reached by boat from the harbour. In summer, you can book a puffin tour to see them along with other birds.

Látrabjarg in Westfjords – West Iceland

The cliffs of Látrabjarg in the Westfjords are 14 km (8.69 miles) long and up to 450 m (1,476 ft) high, malking them the longest in Iceland. Látrabjarg is not only a great spot to see puffins but also a famous location for bird watching in general. You can observe gannets, gulls, razorbills, white-tailed eagles, and many more.

The puffins hide between the stones and grass along the cliffs. You can see these little birds up-close here. Látrabjarg is the westernmost point of Europe and can be reached by car via gravel roads. There is a parking spot next to the lighthouse.

While Látrabjarg is the most popular place to observe puffins in western Iceland, there are more spots, such as the fjords of Breiðafjörður with the island of Hafnarhólmi, offering boat tours around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, as well as Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the north of the Westfjords. The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is only accessible by boat and has to be explored on foot.

Dyrhólaey close to Vík í Mýdral – South Iceland

Dyrhólaey is a beautiful viewpoint at a height of 120 m (393 ft) and close to the black beach of Vík í Mýdral. The view itself is already really stunning, and if you are lucky, you can also see some puffins around. However, we did not see them here as it was not the optimal time of day (see ‘best time’ for more information).

We were actually lucky to see puffins at the cliffs of the Black Beach later that day.

Ingólfshöfði Nature Reserve – South Iceland

This is an isolated headland between Dyrhólaey and the glacier of Jökulsárlón. To go there, you need to cross the sand dunes, which requires a special vehicle. Therefore, it’s recommended to book a tour in order to visit it.

Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) – South Iceland

The Westman Islands are located in the south of Iceland and consist of several islands. The largest one is called Heimaey and is a popular spot to see puffins. You can take day tours (even offered from Reykjavik) to the Westman Islands to observe puffins. You can also reach the islands by ferry if you want to explore them on your own. More than one million puffins can be found around the islands in summer, making it the largest single puffin colony.

Borgafjörður Eystri – East Iceland

Borgafjörður Eystri is a fjord where you can find platforms that help you observe puffins and other seabirds up close. The spot is close to the harbour, reachable by car, and there is no need to hike to reach it. There is even a live stream to watch the puffins nesting.

The Birding trail – North Iceland

In the northeast of Iceland, you can find the Birding Trail with plenty spots to observe puffins. One of them is the 60 m (196 ft) high cliffs of the Tjörnes Peninsula. Additionaly, the two islands Grímsey and Flatey are both northwest from Húsavik, but don’t confuse them with the same named islands in the Westfjords. You can also book a puffin tour from Húsavik, for example to Ludney.

I personally did not visit all the spots but only two of the places mentioned above. My first encounter with the puffins was more of a coincidence. We visited the Black Beach next to Vík í Mýdral in the evening and found some puffins on top of the cliffs. However, most of my photos are from the westernmost point, the cliffs of Látrabjarg, which are also well known as a good spot for viewing seabirds in general. I was also lucky to see some puffins during our Whale Watching Tour in Húsavik. 

Acting responsible to protect puffins

This passage is important to mention as well. Please respect nature and behave quietly around the puffins. It is important to not scare puffins away from their nest. If you remain calm, you will also have a much better chance of taking great photos. As with all wild animals, please do not try to touch or feed them, as you can damage their protective plumage and harm their eating habits.

Do not fly any drones around puffins and other birds. Furthermore, in Iceland, it is strictly forbidden to use drones around bird breeding grounds like the cliffs of Látrabjarg.

Atlantic puffins in the Red List Category

According to the data from BirdLife International, the Atlantic Puffin has been listed as vulnerable in the Red List Category since 2015. According to their data, there are around 12 to 14 million mature individuals left worldwide, but the population trend is decreasing. In Europe, the population is estimated to be 4.7 to 5.7 million pairs, though according to the Seabird Institute of Audubon, it is even less, with 3 to 4 million pairs. Help protect puffins, also by avoiding restaurants that offer puffin meat. In the past, the over-hunting caused the loss of puffins, for example in several colonies in the US state of Maine. 

Other countries to observe puffins

Of course, puffins do not only live in Iceland but can be also found in other northern countries. In North America, they nest from Newfoundland in the northeast of Canada to the northeast of the US. In Europe, they nest from the north of Iceland, Greenland, and Russia to the Brittany coast of France. The Atlantic puffin can also be seen in Norway, Ireland, northern Scotland, and of course, the Faroe Islands. However, the chances of seeing puffins are highest in Iceland. According to the Seabird Institute of Audubon, sixty percent of the Atlantic puffin population breeds in Iceland.

You have read the blog post How to see puffins in Iceland on My Travel Journal-Blog.

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