When is the best time to see puffins? Where is the best spot to see puffins? What does it mean for the puffin now that they are categorised as a vulnerable species? These are the types of questions our guides at Hidden Iceland get on a daily basis in the lead up to the summer puffin season. So we thought we’d detail the elusive little birds 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 seabird 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. Unlike the penguin, the Puffin can still fly expertly onto perches of a steep cliff face. Here, with their mate for life, they’ll nest and hopefully raise a chick (puffling).
Despite the puffins ability to fly in strong winds and land on cliff edges they are happiest when at sea. The Atlantic Puffin will spend up to 9 months at sea. They’ll duck waves and dive up to 60m below the surface 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 nesting season. This means steep sea-cliffs tend to be their favourite spot for nesting. This can make 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 avoid predators. The puffin needs to worry about mink, human hunters, and predatory birds like 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, volcanic sands and crashing waves this beach is home to a colony of puffins in summer. You won’t see them waddling along the ground. However it’s a great vantage point to see the puffin swooping back to land in their nests within the cliffs overhead.
Puffins from above | Látrabjarg sea cliffs, Westfjords
The Westfjords is a very long way to travel solely to see puffins. But if you can include this remote part of Iceland in yoru plans, you’ll get an incredible 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 and witness the power of the thunderous waterfall Dynjandi. Puffins are not the only wildlife we will spot. The region is home to whales, arctic foxes, seals and other birdlife. On the far west side of the Westfjords the land drops suddenly into the sea, plummeting vertically 440m at its 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. Without some quick thinking actions by residents the harbour and town could have been lost. The islands are also home to the largest puffin colony in the world, so the perfect 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 island. As you zoom around the islands you can spot 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. The moon is usually a guiding light a sign that signals their time to fly south. As a result many pufflings are marooned on the edge of town alone, and in need of rescue. Thankfully, after being rescued 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 us to learn more up close. If you are lucky you might just get to snuggle a puffin.
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. Seeing whales, dolphins and puffins in one trip is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon in the city.
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 sudden 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. 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. This is too warm for the sand eel, resulting in them 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. Much like with whales, Iceland 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 you 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.