Puffins are one of the main attractions to see in Iceland. Why? Because of its rarity. Puffins are not endangered, but because they are threatened by human activities (like over hunting), it makes it harder to see them. The more common species that is usually spotted is the Atlantic Puffin. Here’s what you need to know about puffin sightings in Iceland.
1. Joining puffin watching tours
There are tons of puffin watching tours in Reykjavik, trying their best to guarantee you that you would see puffins from the boat. Do not be fooled. In winter months, it is practically impossible to get out to sea because of high winds and puffins spend their time at sea in winter. In the spring and summer months, puffins are on land, nesting and breeding. So even if you bring your best binoculars along on the boat, there might be a chance to spot the puffins but you don’t get to see them up close and personal.
2. Where to see puffins
Which brings me to my second point. If it’s so hard to spot puffins on water, where to see them on land? Puffins live on coastal cliffs (for easy accessibility to food!) and nest in between rocks. Your best bets would be Latrabjarg, Hornbjarg, Hornstrandir, Haelavikurbjarg, Breidafjord and Lundey. These are the best places to spot the Atlantic puffins. The Latrabjarg Cliffs on the West Fjords is one of the 3 largest bird cliffs in Iceland and is classified by National Geographic as the top 10 best places to view the ocean. So essentially by heading to Latrabjarg Cliffs, you are checking two things off your travel checklist. Seeing puffins with the best ocean view and getting up close with them.
3. Brace yourself for a long ride
Getting to the cliffs to see the puffins is no joke. We drove for 8 hours to see them. And the route to Latrabjarg Cliffs is windy and rocky. Driving to the cliffs from the main entrance takes another 1.5 to 2 hours. There is a small cafe at the start of the route to the cliffs but do note that it closes at 6pm. Better to empty your bladders and buy a cup of coffee or take it to the wild. 😉 Drive carefully too on the windy gravel road filled with potholes.
Oh yeah! You made your way to the cliffs and spot people lying on the grass with their professional cameras pointing to the puffins. With all the excitement, do not, I repeat, DO NOT get too near to the puffins. They are at the cliffs for a reason. To nest. They become very defensive when it comes to protecting their eggs. So best to keep your distance. You will usually spot a pair of puffins (a male and female) together and they stay together for life (how sweet is that).
5. Sad history
Puffins were once abundant in Iceland, and can be found on almost every cliff by the ocean in the south. So why is it so hard to spot puffins now? Human activities. Puffin meat is considered a delicacy in Iceland and in the 2000s, a farmer from the south could catch up to 400 puffins in a day. Fast forward to today? Zero. Reason: over-hunted. Another reason for the decline is warmer ocean temperature. Because of increasing temperatures due to global warming, fishes that breed in cold waters (e.g. herring) migrate up north in search for colder waters. Likewise, the puffins left the south and head up north where the fishes are. Not to mention over-fishing. Lesser food for puffins equates to starving chicks, ultimately, declining population.
With the rarity and cuteness of this bird, colourful beak and all, we need to reflect on our own human actions if our future generations can see this beautiful bird in time to come.
Worth it to drive 8 torturous hours to see this bird? Yes. Even if you are not an avid bird lover, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.