How to see puffins in Iceland

A puffin in summer 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.
Good to know – Facts about puffins

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.

Chasing the Northern lights

Northern Lights in Tromso

The Polar lights are one of the oldest secrets of nature and probably on almost every travel bucket list. This guide gives you all information about the Northern lights you need. Also, I will share my experience with you and answer the question if a Northern light tour is worth its money.

Northern Lights in Tromso

Seeing the Northern Lights was forever on my travel bucket list. In March 2022, I finally had enough money saved to book a flight to Tromsø, one of the most Northern cities in Norway. Tromsø is basically on every top 10 list for the best places to see the Northern lights in the world.

💡 Information about the Northern Lights
The Northern lights are part of different legends, myths, and sayings. In the past, people interpreted them as signs of god or deceased persons. Mostly they were a bad prediction and therefore were totally different seen than today.
The polar lights are a natural light in the sky caused by a disturbance in the magnetosphere released by the solar wind. They exist on both poles of the earth. The ones in the North are called Northern lights or aurora borealis. The lights in the South are called Southern lights or aurora australis. The Northern lights are more famous because they are easier to reach since most regions in the North are still inhabited. The lights can have different colours, the most common ones are the green lights. But they can be also red, violet, and blue.
Where can you see the Northern lights?

Usually, you can see the Northern lights from the sixtieth degree of latitude. Rarely do they appear even on a lower degree of latitude till middle Europe. This can happen if there was a really strong solar flare in combination with the right weather conditions (winter and clear nights). But obviously, your chances get higher with travelling more to the North. Besides North Norway (including Svalbard), they can be also seen in Northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, the North of Finland, Sweden, and Siberia. The Southern lights are best seen from the Antarctic.

When is the best time to see the Northern lights?

Northern lights are usually best seen from September to March every year (the Southern lights can be seen in the reverse time from March to September). After this time, the days get too long and the sky too bright. During summer the sun does not set, it is called the midnight sun. In winter it is the complete difference. Especially from November till January, the days are dark (almost) all day long. Some days the sun does not rise at all and the whole day is more in the dawn. During these three months, the hours of the sun lie between 0.1 and 3 hours of light. But without light, it is also difficult to explore Norway.
The Northern lights are usually the strongest at the beginning and end of their season, therefore in September and late March.

I was very exciting seeing the Northern lights for the first time.

❗️ 5 Tips for your own travel
1) Bring enough time
First of all, plan enough time to actually see the polar lights. Not only good weather conditions are important but you will also need some luck. We stayed around one week in Tromsø to have several nights the chance to see the magical lights. In one night we were actually lucky enough.
2) Check the weather and the moon calendar
Looking for the weather forecast is a bit of nice but mostly useless advice since most of you probably book the flights way beforehand when the weather forecast is still more of gambling. Nonetheless, you can check the usual weather prediction of the destination in the particular month beforehand. Has one month more rain days than another? How many hours of sunlight do you have per day?
While weather forecast is harder to predict, this does not apply to the moon calendar. You can already check in advance in which moon phase the moon will be during your stay. Since the Northern lights are best visible in a dark sky you should choose new moon for your travels.
3) Install an aurora app
You will find many different aurora apps in the app stores. They usually show you a KP index (as higher all the more Southern you can see them, the maximum value is 9 and also describes the strength of the geomagnetic activity), how cloudy the sky will be (of course here less is more), and a percentage which calculates how good your chances are to see the Northern lights in the next minutes, hours, days, or even weeks. It usually also has an alert to tell you that you could see the lights in the next minutes at your live destination.
For Norway, you can also use this page from the official page of Norway:
4) Be mobile
The Northern lights are like stars best visible if the surroundings are dark. Therefore, you should make sure to be mobile and leave the city and its lights behind. You should choose a wide and flat area. The direct emergence of the Northern Lights usually is very hard to predict. If you rent a vehicle, it will be easier to reach the (mostly isolated) places to have the best view of the Polar lights. 
5) Be prepared
Waiting for Northern lights can be an ordeal. Make sure you are prepared with warm clothes, some hot drinks, and maybe even some food. In case, you want to take photos, make sure to bring the right equipment such as a tripod and spare charged batteries (the camera loses a lot of energy in the cold). Put the camera already in the right settings. Turn off your autofocus, and choose a low exposure time. Sometimes the Northern lights just appear for a few minutes and start fading fast, in that case, you should already be ready.
How do the Northern lights look like?

I once read everyone sees the Northern lights a bit different. I think, it is important to know, that the polar lights are not as strong with the naked eye as in the photos you know. It is way easier to see them on the screen of your digital camera. It was the same for me. I first saw the lights on my camera. But with time they got stronger. To me, the green intensity was less strong in reality than in the photo, but it was still visible as a glamorous shine, which looked like it was dancing over the sky. It was really magical to see them for the first time.  

The first photo of polar lights was taken in 1892 by the German astronomers Martin Brendel and Otto Baschin.

What can you expect from a Northern lights tour?

You will find a lot of different tour offers with a huge price range. Usually, the tour costs around 100 to 150 US$. The cheapest ones are usually large groups with up to 40 people. Take a look that the size of your group is not too big. In my opinion, this offers you a better experience. Choose a small bus with a maximum of 8 to 10 people and a guide who offers you some information about the Polar lights. Most guides will also help you with your (cellphone) camera settings in order to get the best photos. The tours usually also offer some different extras such as snowsuits, tripods, hot chocolate, some cookies, or even a whole meal. And usually, they also offer you their own professional photo material of the night so you can concentrate more on the actual event instead of trying to get the best photo of your camera.

Depending on the weather conditions and chances to see the Northern lights in different areas, the tour can take a different amount of time. The guide I chose told us that he calculates the chances in the different areas for the same day and therefore decides just a few hours before the trip where he actually goes. Sometimes he drives up to 2.5 hours to the borderline of Finland. Therefore, the tour can also take time from 2 to 9 hours, depending on how far the guide has to drive and at which times the Northern lights show themselves.

Northern Lights tour in Tromso, with a bonfire

Is a Northern light tour its money worth?

Altogether, I would recommend booking a tour but it certainly depends on how lucky you are with the weather on site. Sometimes the Northern light can even be seen directly over the city. However, most of the time, your chances will increase if you rent a car and take a look where the chances of seeing the Northern lights is highest that night. Especially if you are on your own and not particularly familiar with the area a tour can help you to release the stress of the previous planning. In addition, you will not need to be afraid of long journeys and tiredness on the returning ride. If it is your first encounter with the Northern lights the professional tour guide will help you to spot them faster. Because this is actually not as easy at first when the lights are only faint.

Most smaller guides are usually connected with each other in order to find the best spots of Northern lights. I had a really good experience with my guide since he was still totally hooked on the view of the Northern lights and wanted to share his passion as well as this unique experience with us.

A few final booking tips …

If you are thinking about booking a Northern lights tour now, here is a little tip for you: Schedule the tour at the beginning of your vacation. I understand the feeling of saving the best for the end but since you need some luck and good weather conditions putting it at the beginning of your travels will do you a favour. Because if necessary you will be able to postpone your trip. At least in Tromsø, there were so many tours offered that you could easily book one on the same day.
Ensure that your tour guide cancels a tour in case of bad (weather) conditions. Some tours have in their fine-written that they only cancel if it is too dangerous to drive around but not if in general the chance of seeing the lights is low (for example because it is too cloudy). This is especially important because you usually do not get any money back even If you were unlucky and did not see the lights. Some tours offer a second tour at half price if you were unlucky the first time.

❗️ Tip: For a cheap car in Norway
If you decide to chase the Northern lights yourself, in most regions you will be in need of a car to be more flexible and able to leave the city lights behind you. We rented the car from a car-sharing company which was in our case almost 60 % cheaper than the car rental places. We used Book a Wreck which is located at the airport of Tromsø. But you can find them also in other cities.

No matter what you decide, I wish you the best of luck and of course a lot of fun watching the Northern lights.

You have read the blog post Chasing the Northern Lights on My Travel Journal-Blog.