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Puffins in Iceland - Everything You Need to Know

|April 24, 2023
Passionate nature lover, traveler, adventurer. Viktoria has traveled halfway around the globe with a single backpack and a tent. Finally, she landed in Iceland and decided to make a new home for herself in Reykjavik.

Iceland is the puffin watching capital of the world. Bird watchers and scientists from all over the globe come to Iceland to see this interesting species for themselves. Thanks to their incredibly cute and funny appearance, puffin watching has become one of the top favorite summer activities for visitors and locals alike! Learn more about the puffins in Iceland, including when to see them and how to find them.

With 8 to 10 million puffins inhabiting the island, Iceland is home to more than 60% of the world’s entire Atlantic puffin population. With a large part of this population walking almost hand in wing with humans during the summer season, it is definitely something Icelanders are proud of.


Puffins at the Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs in Iceland


Lundi is the Icelandic word for puffin, making the name as short and easy to remember as the lovable creature it refers to. Although they aren’t the national animal of Iceland, you might get the impression that they are, especially when walking along the shopping streets in Reykjavík. This cute little bird is the superstar of all the local gift shops! When you want a puffin shop, “Lundinn” is the name to look for!

If you visit Iceland in the summer season, between May and August, you’ll have the best chance of running into some puffins on your trip. You don’t have to travel far from the capital, as a large puffin colony breeds on a small island just a few minutes sailing time away from Reykjavík. In this article, I will share everything you need to know about these adorable little birds!

2 puffins on the rocky ground in Iceland

12 Fun Facts About Puffins That You Probably Didn’t Know

  1. Thanks to their funny appearance, puffins have been nicknamed ‘sea parrots’ and ‘clowns of the sea’! Their waddling walks make them look a little comical.  The Icelandic nickname of the puffins is “prófastur” which means preacher. Due to their “dressing”.

  2. They change their color during the year. At the end of the breeding season, some of the special characteristics of their plumage are lost when they molt. Their white feathers become dark gray and their beaks also change, becoming narrower, with a tip that is bright. The birds develop their brighter colors once again during the spring. Their winter dress is, though, seldom seen by humans!

  3. This is because puffins spend the winter – more precisely, the larger part of the year, some eight months – out at sea. They spend most of their lives resting on waves, coming ashore only to breed and raise their young, known as pufflings. Each female produces a single puffling every year.

  4. While at sea, the birds spread out widely across the North Atlantic Ocean. Each bird has more than a square kilometer to itself, so it is very unlikely that anyone will spot a puffin on the open sea in winter.

  5. In late spring, thousands of puffins form large colonies on coastal clifftops, coming together for the breeding season.

  6. Puffins are monogamous. They usually mate for life and a couple can stay together for over 20 years!

  7. To make their nests, known as burrows, they dig out a burrow in the turf or soil where they lay their single egg. Each year they return to the same burrow.

  8. The male and female share parental responsibilities, they take it in turns incubating the egg. It takes 36-45 days for the baby “puffling” to hatch.

  9. The chick grows rapidly, after about six weeks it is fully developed and capable of caring for itself.

  10. Atlantic puffins have incredible skills. They can dive to depths of about 60 meters and fly at a speed of 88 km/h (24m/sec) by flapping their wings 400 times per minute!

  11. The reason why they need to flap their wings so fast is that their bones are not hollow so they are heavier than other birds. This is also the reason why they can dive down as far as they do.

  12. In bird terms, puffins live long lives. The oldest recorded puffin was ringed in the Westman Islands and died at the age of 38. However, the average lifespan of a puffin is 20 to 25 years.

Close up of a puffin in Iceland

The Best Time to See the Puffins in Iceland

Puffins spend most of their lives out at sea where they spread widely across the ocean, making it hard for anyone to find them. They only come ashore to lay their eggs and spend a few months of the summer in Iceland, while the chicks grow strong enough to take care of themselves.

The best time to see the puffins in Iceland is in the summer. They arrive in May and leave in late August. The colony is usually the most active in the evenings. The birds stand outside of their burrows, resting on the grass before heading out to sea, where they spend the night roosting.

How to Watch the Puffins Responsibly, Without Injuring Them or Yourself

These cute, silly-looking little birds are free and wild animals. Their appearance is the result of millions of years of evolution and they were not created to make people giddy and happy. It is understandable that we, curious as humans are, would like to explore nature and connect with it on a personal level, but we need to keep in mind that we can do serious harm unwittingly. Ultimately, we are responsible for protecting them.

Puffins do not often show any fear towards humans and approaching them very closely seems to be easy. But this doesn’t mean that they want to be touched or that they enjoy our company.  Touching a puffin is actually very harmful to them as their feathers have special properties that deflect water. Petting them ruins this. Please always be respectful towards the birds. Touching and feeding them is the worst thing you can do.

Furthermore, approaching them too closely around the edges of cliffs is very dangerous. The grassy turf slopes hide a network of tunnels where the birds have dug burrows for their eggs. These holes can easily collapse when we step on them, which is extremely dangerous so close to the thrilling cliff edges.

The safest and least harmful behavior at the bird cliffs is to lay down quietly in the grass, approaching them very slowly and quietly, and watching them motionlessly. Emulating a nature photographer is the best way to go.

The Best Puffin Sighting Spots in Iceland

There are a number of places in Iceland where sightings of the Atlantic Puffin are plentiful. There are guided puffin watching tours all over the country, but in many cases, it is also possible to drive to their habitual locations to spend an afternoon with them. This list is the most complete guide yet to finding puffin in Iceland.

Note! Never approach too close to the cliff edges as the burrows that the puffins have dug make the ground loose and hollow!

Puffins in Reykjavík

Reykjavík is not one of those places where you can find puffin colonies by yourself. If you would like to see them in the capital, you need to get on a boat. A large puffin colony breeds on two small, uninhabited islands by the names of Akurey and Lundey, nearby. Not only puffins can be found here, but also cormorants, black guillemots, eider ducks, seagulls, kittiwakes, arctic terns, and northern fulmars live and nest here.

Akurey and Lundey are often referred to as the Puffin Islands. They are both very close to Reykjavík, only a half-mile away, a few minutes from the city center by boat. In the summer season, puffin watching tours with a 100% sighting guarantee operate multiple times a day.

Puffins in South Iceland

There are plenty of amazing opportunities to meet the puffins along the route to Iceland’s most popular sights on the South Coast.


Iceland’s largest puffin colony lives in the Westman Islands, some 10 kilometers off of Iceland’s south shore. One-fifth of the world’s total puffin population nests here every year, this means you will find the largest single colony in the world here! In addition, thirty other bird species also have nests around the islands.

Vestmannaeyjar is a group of 15 small islands, the largest one is called Heimaey, ‘Home Island’. It is also the island with the largest bird population off the Icelandic coast. If you’re wondering where to see puffins in Vestmannaeyjar, then Heimaey is certainly one of your best options. Puffins live so close to humans here that there is a tradition of rescuing baby puffins in trouble. During the months of August and early September, young puffins are left alone by their parents and are forced to start taking care of themselves.

Bjarnarey island, a popular puffin nesting spot in the Westman islands

The first solo hunting attempts made by these puffin babies sometimes fail. Like all youngsters, they tend to get distracted by the city lights, so they end up landing on asphalt and in gardens. Local children are allowed to stay out late throughout these weeks. They patrol their neighborhood streets clutching boxes to collect the lost birds, they then return them to the wild.

In January 1973, a violent volcanic eruption destroyed half the town. The houses which were half-buried in solid lava can still be seen on the island. Heimaey is definitely worth a visit, not only for the puffins but for its interesting history and geology.

Puffins have also started to populate and build nests on the second newest island on our planet, Surtsey, which is the second largest of the Westman Islands. This island resulted from an eruption from a vent under the ocean in November 1963. However, only scientists are allowed to approach this amazing place.

Reaching the Westman Islands throughout summer is possible by domestic flights from Reykjavík airport. You can also take a public ferry from Landeyjahöfn, a lonely harbor not far from Hvolsvöllur and Seljalandsfoss on the South Coast. Visit the Westman Islands and see Icelandic puffins on our Vestmannaeyjar Island, Volcanoes and Puffins Tour.

Dyrhólaey stone arch

The south coast is one of the most popular tourist routes in Iceland. The famous black sand beach around Vík is one of the highlights of the area. Dyrhólaey, a massive stone arch surrounded by the black sandy beach is a must-visit destination all year round. It is located a few kilometers from the village of Vík.

Dyrhóleay bird cliffs, a popular nesting area for the puffins in South Iceland

In summer, Dyrhólaey is a popular nesting area for the puffins. Visit them carefully, do not try to approach the birds here. They dig deep burrows into the grass close to the cliff edges. The nesting area is fenced off for their peace and for the visitors’ safety. Even so, the birds are easy to observe from a distance of a few meters.

Ingólfshöfði Nature Reserve

The South Coast’s next remarkable puffin spotting place is called Ingólfshöfði. This is an isolated headland, surrounded by black sand dunes and rivers from one side and the ocean on the other. The isolation makes this area a perfect shelter for thousands of seabirds, especially puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots and the great skua.

This headland also provided shelter for Iceland’s first settlers, Ingólfur Arnarson, and his family. They spent their first winter here in the years 874 and 875. This is where the name Ingólfshöfði which means ‘Ingólfur’s Cape’ originates from.

This beautiful nature reserve, with the bird cliff at the end, is located one and a half hours’ drive east of Dyrhólaey, half an hour before you get to the famous Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. The reserve lies between the farms of Hofsnes and Fagurhólsmýri, in the shadow of Iceland’s highest mountain, Öræfajökull. Nature alone makes the trip well worthwhile. Crossing the sand dunes requires a special vehicle, so to access Ingólfshöfði you will need to book a puffin watching tour.

Probably due to its isolation, this place is not a very popular puffin-watching spot with travelers, which makes it perfect for those who would like to avoid crowds.

Puffins from a colony on the rocks in Iceland

Puffins in East Iceland

Papey Island

Puffins, guillemots and other birds nest in Papey and occasionally seals rest on the coastal rocks. This tiny island just off the east coast of East Iceland was inhabited from the time of Iceland’s settlement until recently. According to a local legend, a giant is believed to live there too.

When the population peaked in 1726, no more than 16 people inhabited the island. The last residents left in the 1940s. Iceland’s oldest wooden church is still standing and in great condition, daily boat tours are run from the village of Djúpivogur.

Skrúður Island

Skrúður is a small and uninhabited island in the Eastfjords. It is famous for its impressive steep cliffs and the high and spacious Skrúðshellir cave – the largest cave in East Iceland – which shelters 18 species of birds, along with kittiwakes, fulmars and approximately 150,000 puffin couples. Curiously, these puffins nest in the cave, laying their eggs directly on the ground without digging a burrow.

The cave is divided into an inner and an outer part. The larger part is approximately 125m (400 feet) long, 85m (279 feet) wide and up to 22m (72 feet) high. In the olden times, farmers came regularly to collect the eggs and birds for food. The cave was also used as a shelter and a fishing base for sailors. The island and the nesting colony have been protected since 1995.

Skrúður island, home to 150,000 puffin couples. Photo: Christian Bickel fingalo

Borgarfjörður Eystri

About 10,000 pairs of puffins nest every summer in Borgarfjörður. With puffins in the majority, 20 bird species, including a number of duck species, moorland birds, geese, divers, swans, and skuas can be observed quite close up from a special hideaway in a single spot. It is so unusual to be able to watch so many species this closely from a single spot. This is probably the easiest and safest place to watch puffins in Iceland, aside from the long drive to get there. There is a shelter and wooden platforms where you can get really close to the puffins without the risk of falling into a burrow or down a cliff. There is even a live video stream from Borgarfjarðarhöfn. You can see puffins nestling here from May to August.

Borgarfjörður Eystri is a fjord in east Iceland. If the inhabitants of all the adorable tiny villages were to be counted, the population of the area wouldn’t exceed 130 residents. The area is known for its great natural beauty and as a unique bird-watching spot. Moreover, the Queen of Elves herself is said to reside here!

Puffins and Razorbills on the bird cliffs at Látrabjarg in Iceland. Photo: Richard Gould

Puffins in North Iceland

There is a route called “The Birding Trail” in northeast Iceland. This area provides plenty of great puffin watching points for bird lovers. The best ones are the remote Rauðinúpur cape in the north-westernmost point of the island, the Tjörnes peninsula to the north of Húsavík and two other beautiful islands, Grímsey and Lundey.

The Tjörnes peninsula

A large puffin colony nests on the 60-meter-high cliffs of the Tjörnes peninsula. It is also famous for its particularly dense population of rock ptarmigans. To get the best view of the puffins, hike for 15 minutes to the outermost tip of Tjörnes called Voladalstorfa.

Another puffin colony lives near Hringsbjarg, on the east side of the peninsula. An observation platform provides a safe base from which to watch the birds.

Purple sandpiper, dunlin, red knot and ruddy turnstone, black guillemot and great cormorant can be observed along the cliffs of the peninsula as well. The multi-colored, layered cliffs are amazingly scenic, and the area is rich in two-million-year-old fossils.

Puffins on the northernmost tip of Tjörnes peninsula, Iceland. Photo: Honza and Ivana Ebr

Grímsey Island

Grímsey Island lies 40 kilometers off the north coast of Iceland. With the Arctic Circle running through it, Grímsey is the northernmost inhabited Icelandic territory. One hundred people live on the island, along with one million birds every summer.

The birdlife in Grímsey is flourishing with numerous wader, moorland and seabird species, which have incredibly dense populations. The island is a remarkable puffin and tern nesting site but kittiwake, northern fulmar, razorbill, guillemot, and murre can also be observed among many other kinds of bird.

Ferries and regular flights run at least three days a week from Dalvík and Akureyri, more frequent journeys are scheduled in the summer. (Note: there is another island with this name in the West Fjords which is also a popular puffin watching spot.)

Cliffs at the island of Grímsey, on the Arctic Circle. Photo: MosheA

Flatey Island

Flatey, the ‘Flat Island’ is a paradise for bird watching, with over 30 different species during the breeding season. With its highest peak rising only 22 meters above sea level, Flatey is the fifth largest island in Icelandic waters.

Flatey has been uninhabited since the 1960s but families that lived there still keep their houses as summer homes. After the population became really sparse, the inhabitants held a town meeting and asked themselves, do we stay or move? Finally, they decided on moving, so all that remained then left together. Many have moved to Húsavík and Hrísey – another birding island in Eyjafjörður (but no puffins there).

Do not mistake it with the other Flatey island in the Westfjords, which is more famous for its arctic tern colony. This Flatey island with the puffins lies in Skjálfandi Bay, northwest of Húsavík. Boat tours run to Flatey from Húsavík in summer.

Puffin in West Iceland and the Westfjords

The Westfjords offer some of the best bird-watching sites in Iceland. The incredibly scenic Látrabjarg cliff is one of the best-known places, although there are plenty of amazing bird watching sites around the fjords of Breiðafjörður, the southern part of the West Fjords, in the famous Hornstrandir Nature Reserve and Steingrímsfjörður, a fjord in the northern part of the Westfjords.

Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

The unique Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is located on the northernmost tongue of the Westfjords. Puffins nest in Hornbjarg and Hælavíkurbjarg, the eastern part of this nature reserve. These birds are thought to be more trusting towards people than in other places because they haven’t been pestered and they don’t meet many humans.

This beautiful spot is known for being one of the most unique nature reserves on the planet. There are no roads leading there, it is inaccessible and closed to any kind of motor vehicle. It can only be accessed by boat and then explored on foot. This is an ideal place to combine hiking and bird watching.

Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, Hornstrandit, Westfjords Region. Photo: Evgeniy Metyolkin

Vigur Island

In the scenic fjord southwest from Hornstrandir lies a small island – often referred to as “Paradise Island” – that is inhabited by a single local family, some 100,000 puffin couples and thousands of ducks, arctic terns, and black guillemots together with the odd seal. Boat tours are run to Vigur in summer from the town of Isafjörður.


This stunning fjord between the Snæfellsnes peninsula and the Westfjords is home to countless tiny islands where a teaming birdlife flourishes every summer.

A large puffin colony nests on the island of Hafnarhólm and there is a special hidden viewing spot that provides a great chance to get up close and personal with these birds.

The islands of Þórishólmur and Steinaklettar are also known for their great puffin spotting opportunities. Boats run regularly to these islands from the town of Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

Látrabjarg Cliffs

Finally, last but certainly not least, we come to the spectacular Látrabjarg, one of the most thrilling bird watching places in Iceland. The 14 kilometer-long (8.75 mi) bird cliffs rise to 441 meters (1,447 ft) in height – this place is truly awe-inspiring and provides amazing close-range opportunities for bird photographers.

Látrabjarg is home to millions of birds, including puffins, gannets, guillemots, razorbills, white-tailed eagles, red-throated loons, arctic terns, redshanks, snipes, auks, murres, kittiwakes, fulmars, snow buntings, ringed plovers and more. These cliffs are vital for the survival of entire species since in some cases they host up to 40% of the entire world’s population for some species, such as the razorbill.

Látrabjarg is deservedly the most visited attraction in the Westfjords. However, this fact makes it more dangerous than other spots I have mentioned. Many visitors are not aware of the fact that there are puffin burrows beneath their feet, which make the ground very unstable close to the edges of the cliff. Where many people gather, they tend to mimic one another which can lead to people straying, literally, onto the dangerous ground!

Látrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords, a puffin nesting hotspot. Photo: Progresschrome

Please take care and do not approach too close to the edges.

Látrabjarg is often referred to as the westernmost point in Europe but, in fact, it is the Azores in the mid-Atlantic Ocean which holds that particular title. Látrabjarg is, without doubt, the westernmost point of Iceland and totally worth visiting.

Summary: Top 5 Places to Spot Puffins in Iceland

Diagram showing the best places in Iceland to spot puffins, including Vestmannaeyjar

Are the Atlantic Puffins Protected?

Puffins have been hunted by man since both species have existed. They provided a vital source of food through the centuries for the locals in this harsh climate. The birds were caught for their meat and eggs, while their feathers were used in bedding.

Iceland’s largest puffin colony in the Westman Islands was almost entirely gone around 1900, due to overharvesting. Thanks to some long periods of hunting bans, the colony of puffins in Vestmannaeyjar has succeeded in recovering fully.

Today, Atlantic puffins are protected by legislation in most countries, except for Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Strict laws prevent them from over-exploitation and hunting is maintained at a sustainable level in these two countries.

Not only human hunters, but rats, mice, and arctic foxes are also a danger to the puffins. They eat the eggs and the young chicks, leading to a lack of breeding success for the puffin colony. Besides, the increasing population of rabbits endangers the puffins’ habitat too, since the bunnies like to nest in their burrows. Overfishing and serious sea pollution, like oil spills, can also endanger the survival of these beloved birds.

A strong and rapid decline has been seen again in the Icelandic population since 2000. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Atlantic Puffins are considered a ”vulnerable” species.

A puffin egg. Photo: Klaus Rassinger und Gerhard Cammerer, Museum Wiesbaden

What You Need for a Puffin-Watching Trip

Firstly, check out our puffin map and choose the location. If your plan is to join a puffin tour, you will surely find instructions in the tour description.

If you decide to drive yourself, make sure you have checked the weather and road conditions, and also check your car will be suitable for the drive you are planning. There are places, for example, the Látrabjarg cliffs, which are not so easy to access because not all of the journey can be completed on paved roads. So, you also need to make certain that your car is insured for use on roads that are not asphalted.

Make certain your gear, your clothing, and boots, will be compatible with the weather forecast and the likely underfoot conditions. Approaching the puffin watching points often requires hiking – with Iceland being Iceland, you can expect rapid weather changes at any time. Sturdy, waterproof boots and rain gear are a necessity for any puffin-watching trip.

Most of the time, it is quite easy to see the puffins without binoculars, however, if you have them you might enjoy sightseeing even more.

Puffin standing on a rock in Iceland

Guided vs. Self-Guided Puffin Watching

Plenty of companies offer puffin-watching tours all over the country. There are short boat trips from Reykjavík, day trips, and multi-day tours that include puffin watching as well as taking you to visit many other sights, and often including exciting activities as well.

Some places are easily accessible by simply driving yourself to the destination, so you don’t necessarily need to take a tour. For example, Dyrhólaey and Látrabjarg, the two most popular spots are easily reached. You can also visit the Westman Islands to see the puffins by taking the scheduled ferry.

Most of the puffin-watching places on the mainland are normally accessible by car. However, Ingólfshöfði and Hornstrandir, both located in nature reserves, are exceptions. To get to Ingólfshöfði you need to purchase a tour which runs twice a day, the meeting point is actually 2 kilometers from the nature reserve.

Only highly experienced hikers are advised to explore Hornstrandir without a guide. There are no roads or any other kind of facilities in the nature reserve. To get there, you must either buy a guided tour or take a boat ride from Isafjörður.

Some of the Islands, like Grímsey and the Westman Islands, are accessible by scheduled ferry. For the others (Vigur, Papey, Flatey, and Skrúður) you can find boat rides from the closest larger towns.

If you would like to explore Iceland’s fantastic wildlife, check out our range of wildlife tours!


The Internet was delighted when it discovered footage of a puffin scratching itself with a stick. 

We’ve all had that scratch we couldn’t quite itch. Some resourceful puffins came up with the answer to this universal problem! In a now-viral video, a puffin is shown on camera scratching its back with a stick. The Internet blew up, because who doesn’t love funny animal videos? Scientists, however, were in awe for a different and important reason.


Watch a puffin use a stick as a feather-scratching tool | Science News

Puffin captured on camera with stick tool used to scratch its back

The video turned out to be more than animal antics and led to a scientific breakthrough.

University of Oxford scientist Annette L. Fayet studies the migration and feeding habits of puffins. In July 2018 she was studying a group of puffins at Grimsey Island in Iceland. According to the Washington Post, she set up cameras all around the island and recorded “loads and loads of puffin behavior.”

Puffin with spreaded wings in Iceland

In the video, the bird sees a stick, picks it up with its beak, then scratches its chest with the pointy end. What makes the footage remarkable to scientists is that the puffin uses the stick as a tool. Scientists say that fewer than 1 percent of animal species use tools. The bird’s behavior “fits all current definitions” of tool use, University of Oxford zoologist Alex Kacelnik told the Washington Post. Kacelnik has studied toolmaking crows but was not a member of the puffin research team. Unlike the puffin, crows use sticks to catch grub, making the video even more peculiar.

While this is the first time such a thing had been recorded on video, Fayet said she had noted the same behavior five years earlier. The first sighting was on a remote island in Wales about a thousand miles from Grimsey. Fayet spotted an Atlantic puffin floating at sea with a stick between its beak. The bird began to use the stick to scratch its back.


Family of Puffins on a cliff in Iceland

Fayet didn’t catch any photo evidence of the bird. “It was just one observation, and I was busy doing something else,” she told the Washington Post. While unusual, Fayet said she “kind of forgot about it.”

Fayet sent her footage to colleague Dora Biro, an animal behavior expert at the University of Oxford. Biro was immediately excited, as “this was a puffin, this was a seabird — and tool use had never been reported in seabirds before.” The pair joined forces with their colleague, biologist Erpur Snaer Hansen, to publish a study on puffin tool use.

Puffin eating fish

Back-scratching is a particularly rare form of tool use called “body care.” According to Biro, the only other type of body care performed by wild birds is “anting,” where birds cover their bodies with insects. Biologists believe bug juices might act as chemical defenses against bird fungi or parasites.

Scientists are still unsure as to the exact reason behind the puffin behavior. But then again who doesn’t like a good scratch now and then?

Have you ever seen a puffin?

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