When is the best time to see puffins? Where is the best spot to see puffins? And what does it mean for the puffin now that they are categorised as a vulnerable species on the endangered species list? These are the types of questions our guides at Hidden Iceland get on a daily basis in the lead up to puffin season, also known as summer. So we thought we’d detail the elusive little birds here and give a few tips on how best to see them without disturbing them.
What is a Puffin?
The Atlantic puffin is a small bright billed sea bird small enough to fit into the palm of both hands. They live for around 20-25 years. They are often compared to the flightless penguin due to their black and white coat and bright beak. Both the puffin and penguins are most at home in the sea, though the puffin can still fly expertly onto the tiniest perch up a steep cliff face to meet their pair, and hopefully a hungry nesting chick (puffling).
Despite the puffins ability to fly in strong winds and land on cliff edges they are happiest when at sea. In fact, the Atlantic puffin will spend up to 9 months at sea, ducking waves and diving up to 60m deep underwater in search of food. They only come back to land in order to find their lifelong pair and mate to hatch one solitary egg each year. Even then they stay as close to the sea as possible to be able to fish. A constant exercise during mating season. This means steep sea-cliffs tend to be their favourite spot for nesting which makes it harder for budding ornithologists to spot these little sea birds. Aside from easy access to the sea these remote perches also aid them in avoiding the predatory mink, human hunters, and other predatory birds such as the great skua.
When is the best time to see puffins?
Between 8 and 10 million puffins come to Iceland to breed each year, which is more than half of all Atlantic Puffins with the majority being in the south of Iceland and on isolated islands like the Westman Islands or Grímsey. They will start returning to the land in large numbers in late April with the majority arriving around mid-may for the rest of the summer. Rather unusually a few puffins have already been spotted this year (first week of April) which many attribute to the favourable temperatures. They will remain close to the sea for the entire summer with a mass exodus occurring in early September. They spend their entire time either caring for their puffling or fishing. As soon as the puffling is big enough to fly (usually around 40 days) it’s time to return to the sea until the following year.
Where is the best spot to see puffins?
We have a similar sentiment to the Northern lights as we do to the puffins. You should never plan a day with one thing in mind. There’s so many other things to see in Iceland on any given day so we suggest pairing your attempts to see puffins with other activities in case the little critters are busy fishing when you stop by to say hello.
Puffins from below | Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, South Iceland
If you join our South Coast: Fire & Ice day trip, or our multi day trips along the south coast of Iceland you’re sure to stop at the black sand beach between hiking on glaciers and walking behind waterfalls. Aside from the impressive basalt columns, dark black sands and crashing waves this beach is home to a colony of puffins. You’re unlikely to see them twoddling along the ground but it’s a great vantage point to see the puffin swooping down from above in search of their favourite foods just off the shore.
Puffins from above | Látrabjarg sea cliffs, West Fjords
We don’t recommend going all the way to the West Fjords solely to see puffins, but it is an incredible part of the journey. We spend four days up in this remote and forgotten part of the country. Along the way we drive through glacier carved Fjords, steep mountains, fishing villages, spot whales, arctic foxes, seals and other wildlife and witness the power of the thunderous waterfall Dynjandi. On the far west side of the West Fjords the land drops suddenly into the sea, plummeting vertically 440m at it’s highest. It is the oldest part of the island at around 15 million years and is heavily weathered by waves and wind. The perfect place for puffins to perch during mating season. This area is unique because you can (carefully) crawl to the edge of the cliff and peer down into to nests below, sometimes being only a few feet away from resting puffins and pufflings.
Puffins by sea |Speedboating, Westman Islands
The Westman Islands are a collection of volcanic islands in the south of Iceland. The islands are famous due to the 1973 eruption that threatened to destroy the town, until the locals redirected the lava into the sea. They are also home to the largest puffin colony in the world so a good place to see them. This can be done simply by walking to the cliffs on the island but we always offer the chance on our day trips for our guests to do a one hour speed boat ride of the islands so you can glimpse the tiny birds up close and personal from the water.
Puffins in person | Sæheimar Aquarium, Westman Islands
If you are still not satisfied with seeing the puffins in action the Westman Islands are also home to Sæheimar Puffin rescue centre. We make sure to stop here on our day trip to the Westman Islands too. Each year many of the pufflings will mistake the street lights of the islands for the moon, a sign that would normally signal their time to fly south. This means many pufflings will be marooned on the island alone, and in need of rescue. Thankfully, after being caught by the local kids they are inspected and the vast majority are re-released into the wild. However, the odd puffling is too small or fragile to make the migration and is therefore adopted by the centre. This is great for the puffling of course, but also great for the tourists as they become quite playful at times and you might just get lucky and be able to hold one. Last year we even had one sitting on one child’s head.
Puffins in the city | Boat tours from the Old Harbour, Reykjavík
Sadly we are aware that many travellers have a limited time frame in Iceland and perhaps can’t venture beyond the confines of the city. Not to worry, there are a number of whale watching tours that couple up as puffin spotting tours too. These are more susceptible to cancellation due to the turbulent seas but a great sight if you get the chance to join.
The puffin is now a vulnerable species
Sadly, despite the high chance of spotting puffins and the millions that frequent the island every year they have recently been categorised as ‘vulnerable’ on the endangered species list. This isn’t due to a lack of numbers, but rather a decline over a sustained period. Since 2003 the likelihood of paired puffins mating successfully to adulthood has dropped from around 75% to around 50%. Far lower in some colonies in the country. This means that far fewer puffins are being born each year to replace those being hunted, killed or dying of old age. If trends continue the numbers are set to drop by up to 79% by the year 2065. Many would be forgiven for thinking this is due to greedy tourists and their taste for the wild bird. And although the 150,000 birds that are caught each year do play a part, the largest impact is climate change.
The Atlantic puffin needs to constantly feed itself and it’s puffling during mating season. This is why they remain so close to the sea. But their main food source, the sand eel, is disappearing rapidly. Or rather, relocating to colder waters. The water around the the south of Iceland has risen by as much as 1 Celsius in recent years which is too warm for the sand eel. This means they are either disappearing completely or migrating further north to colder climes. This forces the puffin to hunt for longer and fly farther making the likelihood of a puffling getting big enough to migrate south for winter more difficult.
How can I help, and does my presence affect them negatively?
The short answer is no, you are not having a negative impact as long as you consult your guide as to the appropriate distance and best area to see them without disturbing. In fact, much like the whales of Iceland the county makes more money from puffin and whale watching than it does from hunting. This puts pressure on the government to reduce hunting periods and areas. There is a new vigour to ban all puffin hunting nationwide so keep on coming to Iceland and saying hello from the right distance.
If you want to join our most Puffin centric tour we recommend learn more about puffins you can check out our day trip to the Westman Islands.
Hi, I’m Ryan Connolly, I’ve guided in multiple countries and spent the last three years travelling across the globe. I have spent the past 2 years studying everything related to glaciers, climate change, and Iceland in my spare time.