Iceland has one of the greatest puffin colonies in the world, and it is estimated that between 8 and 10 million birds inhabit the island. The puffin is a small bird that belongs to the auk family. It breeds on coastal cliffs or offshore islands and makes its nest in crevices among rocks or in burrows in the soil.
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The species that is most commonly seen in Iceland is formally known as the Atlantic Puffin. The puffin has a black and white plumage, is stocky and has a large beak with colourful stripes. It does however shed the beak colours after breeding. These puffins are particularly good swimmers but rather more clumsy in flight, due to their short wings, that are, however, specially adapted for the swimming.
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The puffin is one of the most popular birds for sightseeing and photographing in Iceland. Due to its austere, yet stylish appearance, it has been nicknamed prófastur (“pastor“) in Icelandic parlance. Below are some of the greatest sites to witness and photograph these remarkable birds.
Látrabjarg, the westmost point of the rugged Westfjords of Iceland, is the largest bird cliff in Europe. It is also one of the most spectacular of its kind in the world and the most dense. It stands at a height of 441 meters and is 14 km long. Millions of birds reside there, including a vast colony of puffins. There are not many places where you will be able to stand as near the puffins as there, as they are remarkably stoic and fearless. Other birds that nest there include auks, guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars and razorbills. Indeed, this is the largest razorbill colony in the world.
The photographic opportunities at Látrabjarg are simply amazing, where you have the multitude of birds, the sheer cliffs, the bright sands of Vedasandur beach and the roaring waves of the North Atlantic Ocean coming together. This is a dream come true for any wildlife and nature photographer. The cliff is divided into four parts, Keflavíkurbjarg, the Látrabjarg proper, Bæjarbjarg and Breiðavíkurbjarg. It is sheer sided and steep and you have to be very careful when traveling there.
One of Iceland‘s most famous rescue missions happened at Látrabjarg in 1947, when the sturdy Icelandic farmers rescued sailors from a shipwrecked British trawler. Being seasoned at gathering eggs from the cliffs by hanging on a string, they used this method to bring the sailors to safety. A documentary by Óskar Gíslason was made about the event a year later, and it can be seen in Reykjavik.
The beach by the cliff, Rauðasandur is unusual for its light sand, whereas sands are usually dark or black in Iceland. Innermost of Rauðasandur, you‘ll find the ruins of the farm Sjöunda, the site of one of the most famous murder cases in Iceland. Two married couples lived there in the 19th century but the one farmer fell in love with the other‘s wife, and she with him, and they were later sentenced to death for having murdered their spouses. The man, Bjarni was executed in Norway, but the woman, Steinunn, died in prison and is buried in Reykjavik. The Icelandic writer Gunnar Gunnarsson based his masterpiece novel Svartfugl (e. “The Black Cliffs“) on this case.
Puffin Fishing. Photo by: 'Edwin Martinez'.
About 10.000 puffin pairs nest in the summers at Borgarfjörður Eystri in East Iceland. The scenery is beautiful and the puffins amazingly calm. The mountain ring is particularly picturesque. Altogether, this is a great place for photographing.
Other birds in the area include fulmars, kittiwakes and eider ducks. Also highly recommended are the harbour, which is both charming and photogenic and has a certification for being environmentally friendly, and well the art exhibition of works by Icelandic painter Jóhannes Kjarval.
Culturally, the fjord has gained reputation for its annual music festival in June, Bræðslan. Among artists who have played there are Damien Rice, Emiliana Torríní, Of Monsters and Men , Belle & Sebastian and Mugison.
Puffin in Flowers. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.
Breiðafjörður is the name of a vast bay of countless islands, situated in West Iceland separating the Snæfellsnes peninsula and the Westfjords. It features amazing nature and wildlife, and is designated as a nature reserve. The rock formations in Breiðafjörður are some of Iceland‘s oldest, dating back to the tertiary era and this is the only place in Iceland where you will find Antorsit, or moon rock, which is the most common rock type on the moon.
Photographers will have a field day here. You will find an abundance of puffins in this area, and altogether around 50 breeding bird species nest there, including common shags, black guillemots, grey phalaropes, common eiders, red knots, glaucous gulls, brent gooses and the White-tailed Eagle. Various seals and cetacean whales can further be found out in the sea, which is also filled with shrimp, shellfish and cod.
Boats sail over Breiðafjörður, between the Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsnes side and Brjánslækur on the Westfjords but the fjord is an adventure in its own right. The largest island, Flatey is particularly a good place to visit. In the winter, the only human population is a few farmers and their sheep, but the island becomes bustling with activity during the summer months, when locals visit their summer houses and travellers further seek out this charming site.
Puffins Take Flight. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.
Lundey and Akurey
These are two small islands off the coasts of Iceland‘s capital, Reykjavik. The former‘s name indeed means “puffin island“. They are uninhabited save for the many birds that nest there. Along with puffins, you will also find fulmars, arctic terns and black guillemots. Various sightseeing tours are operated from the Sundahofn pier by the shore. Entering Akurey does, however, depend on a favourable tide.
Nesting Puffins. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.
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Hornbjarg and Hælavíkurbjarg
These two sheer bird cliffs are situated in the rugged and remote area of Hornstrandir in the Westfjords, lying on the east and west side of the creek Hornvik. Save for Látrabjarg, they are the two greatest bird cliffs in Iceland, and thus ideal for bird and landscape photography. Hornbjarg is highly dramatic and precipitous and has a number of peaks, the highest of which, Kálfatindar reach 534 meters. Another famous peak is Jorundur, at 423 meters. This is also where the bird population is most dense. Southwards one can see impressive dykes, former channels for lava flow.
Hælavíkurbjarg is a sheer cliff wall that rises to 258 meters. Impressive rock pillars can be seen by the sea in front of the cliff and downwards of the small Hvanndalur valley you can see further beautiful dykes. Another one stands alone out in the sea.
Along with puffins, Hælavíkurbjarg boasts the largest auk population in the country and Hornbjarg is the main nesting site for guillemots. Other birds include various seagulls, razorbills, fulmars, eiders, long-tails and red-necked phalaropes.
Hornstrandir was populated into the 20the century but is now a nature reserve and a great place to visit in summer, for hiking, sightseeing and photographing. The area is characterised by basalt mountains that reach the sea, deep fjords, secluded alcoves and steep valleys. The bird cliffs and the mighty Drangajökull complete this fantastic scenery. A few dozen houses are scattered in the area, old farmsteads and renovated and new summer cottages but there is no permanent human population there anymore. This is the place to go for peace and serenity, amazing wildlife, breathtaking scenery and for taking some unique pictures.
A Lone Puffin. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.
Grímsey is a small and beautiful island north of the Icelandic mainland. It is Iceland‘s northernmost inhabited area and the only part of Iceland that straddles the Arctic Circle, as its northern tip crosses the 66th parallel.
Walking around Grímsey only takes around an hour and there are plenty of interesting sights to photograph. As well as being popular due to its location, where visitors can get a documentation of having crossed the Arctic Circle, the island, despite its tiny population of less than a hundred people, is renowned for its strong seamen, good chess players, and for its nature and wildlife.
Grímsey is encircled by steep cliffs and the southwest side features spectacular basalt columns. The vegetation is rich and consists of marshland, grass and moss. Thousands of seabirds reside in the island, such as white wagtails, snow buntings, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, and an abundance of puffins and terns. Seals and whales may also be found in the vicinity.
When one sees the abundance of wildlife, one also understands well the famous words attributed attributed to Icelandic chieftain Einar Þveræingur in the Sagas, when the Norwegian king desired Grímsey as a token of friendship. Einar then argued that a whole army could be fed by Grímsey's resources and urged his fellow countrymen to refuse the offer.
You can access Grímsey island both from Akureyri town by flight (there is also a transit flight from Reykjavik) and from the village of Dalvik by ferry.
This island offers excellent scenery for photographing, and standing at the 66th parallel, enjoying the benefits offered by the light and hues of the Midnight Sun is an experience should not be missed by any serious photographer.
Puffins and the Midnight Sun. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.
The Westman Islands
In the volcanic Westman Islands, the birds easily outnumber the humans. The islands host the largest puffin colony in the world, with over ten million puffins. Indeed, all of Iceland‘s seabirds can be found there; guillemots, gannets, kittiwakes and gulls. More than 30 species nest there altogether in sea cliffs and grassland, while other birds make occasional visits.
About 150 plant species can be found on the island and some of the North Atlantic‘s finest fishing grounds are by its shores, which are further frequented by seals and whales.
The islands gained international attention in 1973 when the volcano Eldfell erupted on the island Heimaey, the only one of the islands inhabited by humans (today around 4100 people). Many buildings were destroyed and for months the entire population had to move to the mainland.
Ten years earlier, an underwater eruption created a new island, Surtsey. It is a nature reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only a few scientists are allowed to visit it, but it is considered a prime site for biocolonization research. It is home to around 90 bird species.
The Westman Islands have a reputation of nurturing strong seamen. In 1984 the islands was also in international news due to an astonishing feat, when fisherman Gudlaugur Frithorsson saved his life as his boat stranded, by swimming a six kilometre distance towards Heimaey, with the sea at around 6°C. The Film Djúpið (“The Deep“) by director Baltasar Kormákur is based on these events.
Historically, the islands were also the site of a kidnapping of many Icelanders, as Algerian pirates captured them in 1627 and forced them into slavery. About 35 of them were later ransomed and managed to return. One of them, the Reverend Ólafur Egilsson, wrote a book about his experiences, available in English at local Icelandic bookstores.
Iceland‘s most popular, though also notorious outdoor festival, Þjóðhátíð í Eyjum, is celebrated in the Westman Islands during the first weekend of August, the Verslunarmannahelgi.
For beautiful scenery, an abundance of puffins and other birds and interesting history and culture, the Westman Islands is certainly the place to go.
This is an isolated and a nature reserve in the Southeast of Iceland, close to Skaftafell National Park (part of the larger Vatnajökull national Park since 2008) and an excellent place for nature and wildlife photography. It is named after Ingólfr Arnarson, held to be the earliest permanent settler in Iceland.
Ingólfshöfði is encircled by steep cliffs but to the northwest is a sand dune wherefrom one can reach it. Where there is growth it is richly vegetated and it is home to a huge population of seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and kittiwakes. It is also the largest breeding ground in the world for the north Atlantic family of the Great Skua. There is also a lighthouse there and ruins of old fishermen‘s huts. Altogether a truly atmospheric scenery, perfect for photographing.
About the author: Serena Dzenis is a landscape photographer based in Iceland. You can find more of her work on her website or by following her on Facebook and Instagram.
Would you like to see these cute little sea birds for yourself? Check out our 11-Day Midnight Sun Photo Workshop in the Westfjords for a chance to photograph puffins in their natural habitat in Iceland!
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