How to Spot Puffins in Iceland

Iceland is a beautiful and fascinating country, and lots of people go to see its waterfalls, volcanoes, and generally gorgeous scenery. When I went to Iceland, of course I wanted to go see all of the most popular sites. But one of the main reasons I went was also to see puffins.

That’s why I ventured to the Westman Island of Heimaey, just off the southwest coast. There, I found an aquarium called Saeheimar where visitors have the opportunity to observe rescued puffins.

I learned about how the puffins got to the aquarium in the first place. The one I met (named Hafdis) had been rescued from the streets of Heimaey—while pufflings are supposed to go out to sea once they leave the nest, some get confused by the lights of the nearby town and end up there instead. The children of Heimaey pick up pufflings off the streets and take them to the Saeheimar, where the pufflings are rehabilitated and released, though some have been kept.

If you go to Iceland and you’re interested in seeing a puffin up close, Saeheimar is the place to do it. If you can’t make it to Saeheimar, though, here are some key facts about puffins that will help you spot one on your own:

  • Puffins are not penguins! They’re colored like penguins, though, with black backs and white bellies, and orange feet.
  • You can distinguish puffins from other birds by their brightly colored (and fluorescent!) beaks, which get brighter during breeding season to attract mates.
  • Puffins are tiny—they’re only 18 cm tall—and they fly like bats, with quick, frantic movements (about 400 beats per minute). That’s one way that you can distinguish them from seagulls and other birds when searching the sky for them.
  • They tend to nest in cliff faces, so you can spot them in cliffs near beaches during breeding season in the spring through summer. Puffins cannot be found on land for the rest of the year, when they head out to the ocean.
  • Puffins burrow using their bills and feet, laying a single egg in the cliff faces, and it can be difficult to spot them there. You’re better off trying to find them flying over the ocean to dive to catch fish.
  • If you’re able to spot puffins on your trip to Iceland and then have the opportunity to go back the next year, you’re likely to see the exact same puffins, as they are monogamous and return to the same place to breed each year.

Looking to do some puffin spotting? Plan a trip to Iceland!