Iceland Insights: Where To See Puffins
As cute birds go, you’d be hard pushed to find one much cuter than a puffin. OK so penguins are cute but puffins have amazing colorful beaks AND markings around their eyes which makes them look permanently a bit anxious.
Which in my book makes them even more adorable.
But where can you find puffins in the wild and go see them for yourself?
Well, we spill the goods in this blog post and even include an easy little map to help you find cute little puffin friends this year. Read on for cuteness overload!
What To Know About Puffins In Iceland
Let’s get all National Geographic for a minute. There are three types of puffin -the tufted puffin, horned puffin and the Atlantic puffin, the last being the puffin most people picture when thinking of puffins.
Around 60% of the world’s puffin population live in Iceland so if you really want to see puffins you should definitely plan a trip to this amazing country, and if possible to Vestmannaeyjar on Iceland’s south coast, made up of countless tiny islands which is dubbed the world’s puffin capital.
Most of the time puffins live at sea which has led to their cute nickname, sea parrots. They are carnivores that feed on fish and zooplankton and they have hinged beaks which allow them to carry several small fish making it easier for them to bring food back to their chicks.
During the breeding season they head for land, returning to the same colonies to build nests among rocks or sometimes the puffins dig burrows in the soil. The female lays a single egg but both parents incubate the egg and feed the chick. Did you know a baby puffin is called a puffling?
Wanna know more? You know you do. Here’s all the puffin facts you need before you go bird watching.
What Do Puffins Look Like?
Puffins are stout, have short tails, orange webbed feet, a waddling walk and similar plumage to penguins although the two species are not in any way related. Specific plumage depends on the species but all the birds are generally black and white or brownish-black.
During the breeding season (spring/early summer) their distinctive large beaks change color so the outer parts are bright red/orange – after breeding they shed the outer part of their beaks revealing smaller, less colorful beaks.
Where Do Puffins Live?
This bird species calls the North Atlantic ocean and North Pacific home for most of the year. The Atlantic puffins can be found in a multitude of places from Iceland, Greenland and Norway as far south as New York and Morocco. The horned puffin can be seen along the coasts of Alaska, British Columbia and Siberia, wintering along the California and Baja California coast along with tufted puffins which can also sometimes be spotted overwintering off the coast of Japan.
When Is Iceland Puffin Season?
The best time to see puffins is during the breeding season when they head back to land along coastlines and on islands to lay eggs among rocks and in puffin burrows, hatch their baby puffins and care for them until they leave the nest and head out to sea.
Since Iceland is pretty much the best place in the world for puffin watching, it’s worth knowing when Iceland puffin season is. Puffins can be seen in their breeding grounds from late April to late September but to be sure you will be able to spot puffins, plan your trip to Iceland between May and mid-August.
Hatching takes between about 6 weeks and then the puffin parents look after their chick for around 35-60 days depending on how early quality food can be sourced. So you have quite a good window to go on puffin tours to see cute puffins.
Puffin Watching Day Tours in Iceland
Obviously puffins are wild animals so it’s worth joining a day tour with experts who know where Atlantic puffins in Iceland spend their time, and can maybe tell you loads of cool stuff about puffins and puffin colonies would be a smart move.
You can choose an overland tour or a boat tour which will take you to some places where Iceland puffins spend time where you can snap pics of these quirky birds going about their business in the actual wild. Here are a few examples of some puffin watching tours you can join.
- Puffin Express. Just minutes away from Reykjavik city center the Puffin Express boat trip takes just 15 minutes to get to a large puffin colony where over 30,000 puffins nest. Suitable for adults and children (ages 0-6 go free!) expert guides will tell you all the facts and fun stories about the residents of the puffin colony.
- Also departing from Reykjavik is another family friendly offering – a combined whale and puffin watching tour from Arctic Adventures. This small group experience takes you to Puffin Island where as well as puffins you will see other seabird species and nesting birds. In the water you may see Humpback and Minke whales as well as white beaked dolphins and harbor porpoises.
- I am OBSESSED with the Eurovision parody movie, The Story of Fire Saga, and if like me you long to see the whales in Husavik the stars sing about, this is your chance to see both the whales AND puffin populations in north Iceland. Enjoy a thrilling 2 hour whale and puffin safari on a RIB speedboat with stunning views of Skjálfandi Bay. Suitable for anyone aged 7+, warm safety overalls are provided. Singing optional.
- Half Day Whale and Puffin Tour. Board a vintage fishing boat for a half day whale and puffin tour from Husjavik. Tours include a visit to Lundey Island, home to Iceland’s largest puffin colony, and a whale-watching excursion through Skjálfandi Bay.
- Westman Islands. Not so keen on boat tours? Choose a guided coach or luxury minibus tour of the Westman islands, considered the largest Atlantic puffin colony in the world. The Westman islands are made up of a collection of inhabited and uninhabited islands off the coast of south Iceland and have a wide range of great puffin viewing points. Trips last around 2 hours and are available all year although obviously during the winter months you are unlikely to see puffins as they will be at sea.
- Puffin Tour Snæfellsnes. In June and August you can go on the Puffin Tour Snæfellsnes on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Take a slow 1 hour cruise around the island of Melrakkaey departing from Grundarfjörður and take enough pictures to populate your Alexa home screen for days.
Where to See Puffins in Iceland
The great news is that pretty much wherever you stay in mainland Iceland you are never too far away from a puffin adventure. From the Látrabjarg cliffs in west Iceland to the Tjörnes peninsula in north east Iceland it’s very easy to see puffins in Iceland as long as you go during breeding season. Time it right and you will get to see baby puffins too.
See our recommendations on a map! Get our map here.
- This stubby peninsula lies between the fjords of Öxarfjörður and Skjálfandi in north Iceland.
- Stay in Husavik which is the largest settlement on the peninsula and go puffin hunting by road.
- Tjörnes is known as a great bird watching spot known for its dense population of Rock Ptarmigan. Puffins can be spotted nesting at the base of the cliffs.
- Bird lovers can also spot eider ducks, Great Cormorant, Black Guillemot and even some rare breeds like the Red-necked Phalarope.
- The area is also known for vast quantities of fossils from the Miocene – Pliocene ice age. That’s between 2.6 to 23 million years ago. It’s illegal to move or take fossils from where you see them so take only photographs away with you.
- Go June to August for birdwatching, the midnight sun and warmer weather and February, March, September, October for a chance to see the Northern Lights.
- Borgarfjörður Eystri in East Iceland is considered one of the safest and easiest puffin watching places in Iceland with a shelter and wooden platforms to see puffins from with no risk of falling off sea cliffs or into burrows.
- Around 10,000 Atlantic puffins nest here every summer, and nature lovers can also look out for Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Common Eider – the ducks whose soft down feathers are collected from nests to stuff to eiderdowns and duck feather pillows.
- Stay in a Fjord beachside hostel at Bakkagerði, a remote town with only 100 permanent residents and jaw dropping views of vast jagged mountains on all sides. The trip there is a little hair raising involving a dramatic drive across an unpaved mountain pass but totally worth the white knuckle ride. Or choose a cottage, guest house or hotel – there’s lots of choice in Borgarfjörður Eystri.
- While in the area go hiking in any number of insta-worthy landscapes or take a short gentle walk following the trail from Bakkagerði and see if you can spot high ranking elves who are reported to live on a majestic rock called Álfaborg (which literally translates to Elf City.)
- Eight and a half miles wide and almost 1500 feet tall the remote Látrabjarg bird cliffs mark the westernmost point of Europe.
- Situated in the WestFjords, these are the largest bird cliffs in Iceland with around one million birds including puffins nesting here during the summer, so it’s an awesome place to see puffins and other birds with spectacular ocean views.
- It’s free to visit but you are probably going to need a 4-wheel drive vehicle and nerves of steel for the unpaved roads you drive to get here.
- The nearest place to stay is Breidavik which unusually for Iceland has a golden beach, sand dunes and an almost tropical vibe. There are a few accommodation options here including a campground and a hotel/guesthouse offering catered or self catering options.
- It’s a seven hour bus drive from Reykjavik but you can fly to Bíldudalur Airport which is just under 25 miles away.
- Visit between mid-May and August in the early morning or evening for the best chance to see the feathered residents who are mostly off hunting in the middle of the day. Make the most of the midnight sun to see puffins in this beautiful region. During the winter months the remote roads are often impassable and there are far fewer birds and no puffins so it’s best to make this a summer only destination.
- Hikers will love it here where at times you will feel like you are the only person left on the planet.
Ready to go to Iceland?
Are you puffin’ up with excitement at the thought of seeing these comical little birds for real? Do you want to find puffin colonies and fill your entire camera roll with pics of pufflings and their doting parents?
Do you also want to hike glaciers, stroll along dramatic black sand beaches and soak away your cares in natural hot springs surrounded by snowy mountains? You have to visit Iceland where experiencing natural wonders like immense waterfalls and eerie Northern lights in the company of like-minded, badass women will actually change your life.
Meet the Writer
Afra is an award winning journalist who has enjoyed many adventures including swimming with sharks, crewing hot air balloons and canyoning. She started creating online content ten years ago, diversifying after years writing for print publications. She loves travel, great food, and her family. Not necessarily in that order.
Favorite outdoor adventure: Snorkeling in the warm waters off the coast of Cyprus
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