The best places to photograph Puffins in Iceland

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. 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.

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:

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Latrabjarg

Latrabjarg, 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 photographing opportunities at Latrabjarg 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. This is a dream come true for any wildlife and nature photographer.The cliff is divided into four parts, Keflavikurbjarg, the Latrabjarg proper, Baejarbjarg and Breidavikurbjarg. 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 Latrabjarg 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 Oskar Gislason was made about the event a year later, and it can be seen in Reykjavik.

The beach by the cliff, Raudasandur is unusual for its light sand, whereas sands are usually dark or black in Iceland. Innermost of Raudasandur you‘ll find the ruins of the farm Sjounda, 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.

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Borgarfjordur Eystri

About 10.000 puffin pairs nest in the summers at Borgarfjordur 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.

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Breidafjordur

Breidafjordur is the name of a vast bay of countless islands, situated in West Iceland separating the Snaefellsnes peninsula and the Westfjords. It features amazing nature and wildlife, and is designated as a nature reserve. The rock formations in Breidafjordur 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 Breidafjordur, between the Stykkisholmur on the Snaefellsnes side and Brjanslaekur 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 travelers further seek out this charming site.

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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 favorable tide.

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Hornbjarg and Haelavikurbjarg

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 Latrabjarg, 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, Kalfatindar 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.

Haelavikurbjarg 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, Haelavikurbjarg 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 birdliffs and the mighty Drangajokull 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.

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Grimsey island

Grimsey 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 Grimsey 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.

Grimsey is encircled by steep cliffs and the southwest side features spectacular basalt columns. The vegetation is rich and consists of marsland, 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 Thveraeingur in the Sagas, when the Norwegian king desired Grimsey as a token of friendship. Einar then argued that a whole army could be fed by Grimsey‘s resources and urged his fellow countrymen to refuse the offer.

You can access Grimsey 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.

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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 and 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 kilometer 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.

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Ingolfshofdi

This is an isolated and a nature reserve in the Southeast of Iceland, close to Skaftafell National Park (part of the larger Vatnajokull national Park since 2008) and an excellent place for nature and wildlife photography. It is named after Ingolfur Arnarson, held to be the earliest permanent settler in Iceland.

Ingolfshofdi 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.

 

 

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