This post is part of a series of stories from my 2018 trip to Iceland.
Click here for all posts.

When Jenni and I started planning this trip, we had a wish list with a very clear #1 priority. Puffins. Jenni traveled to Norway a few years ago and never saw one, and as she booked the trip to Iceland and I joined her soon after — she was focused. Puffins or bust.

Multiple places to see them, yes. But there is only one place that claims the largest puffin colony on the planet.

See that tiny chain of islands?

That would be the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago — or Westman Islands. And THAT is where the puffins live. 8 million of them.

The largest of the islands is called Heimaey, and that’s where we were headed. Evidently, if you wanna find puffins – you gotta work for it.

Let’s back up. Puffins? They are small, arctic birds that spend the winter at sea and come home to the cliffs of Iceland to lay eggs in the spring. Beak like a toucan, body like a penguin, webbed feet of a duck, wings like a hummingbird — and awkwardness all their own. They are often called the Clown of the Sea because of their dramatic eyes and bright beaks. In order to carry their chubby little bodies, their tiny wings have to work overtime — flapping about 400 times a minute. It’s a blur! They’re only about 10″ tall, they can fly up to 50 mph, and dive as deep as 200 feet. And they are downright adorable.

Have you seen the video of Kristen Bell’s reaction to a sloth in her house? That is only one step further than how Jenni feels about puffins… She sent me this photo from baggage claim in the Keflavík Airport. She’d been in Iceland for mere minutes, and I was waiting for her across the airport.

So we HAD TO see them. And we felt good about our plans. After driving south along Route 1 the day before, we started seeing signs we were headed in the right direction. This little guy was at the turn toward the harbor where we would catch our ferry to the Westman Islands.

Boarding passes to what Jenni was by this time calling “Puffin Island”

View from the ferry
Arriving on Heimaey about 8:30 in the evening

One of the lessons we learned the hard way that week was that just because the sun never sets doesn’t mean businesses stay open — including restaurants for hungry travelers. We landed in Heimaey after 8pm and by the time we tracked down someone to check us in (after hours) to our backpacker hostel, we were running outta time to find food that night. We finally found a burger place that was still open for a few minutes and looked pitiful enough that they fed us.

Lobster burger at 900 Grillhus

I’m pretty sure Jenni was anticipating puffins crowding the streets of Heimaey like pigeons, but we only saw hints of them around town as we wandered back to our hostel after dinner. No puffin-sightings that night.

Even the hostel was on board with the theme. They offered Japanese-style pods they called “Puffin Nest Capsules” — I’m rolling my eyes even now — but they were a cozy (and dark!) place to settle in for the night.

We’d read that puffins are active on the cliffs in the morning — so we were up bright and early to head out. We were already on a tiny island off the southern coast of Iceland. Now we needed to get ourselves three miles further south — to the southernmost tip of Iceland. One overpriced taxi ride later, Jenni could hardly contain herself…

The southernmost tip of Heimaey

It felt like we were at the edge of the world.

Beyond that gate, around the sheep, and down a dirt path was a small bird blind, built into the hill. We stepped inside and tore open the windows.

And I think it was all of 4 seconds before Jenni yelped, “PUFFINS!!”

Jenni, we found puffins.

We stayed in the blind as long as the puffins stayed on the hill. They were flying back and forth from the water, checking on eggs, fussing with each other, but slowly moving out to the water for the day. There were HUNDREDS.

Venturing out of the blind for a different view.
My favorite! They dive into the hill – flying SO FAST – then at the last second, they turn around and stick their big awkward feet out to land. We were in tears laughing at it.

After over an hour with the puffins that morning, we called for our second overpriced taxi of the day and went looking for breakfast in town.

Jenni snuck that photo of me trying to figure out the microwave at the bakery… I blame it on the metric system.

Before long, it was time to head to the harbor for more puffin action. Why only see them by land, when you can also see them by sea?

We’d made arrangements with a company called RIB Safari, to take one of these RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) boats on a tour of the islands — in hopes of seeing even more puffins out on the water. As we suited up, it became clear our party was a small one, but that only meant we had our tour guides all to ourselves!

With plastic baggies to protect our cameras, goggles to keep out the salt water spray, and instructions about standing up in the boat as we cut through choppy waves — we were off!

We wore suits that were both insulated and built-in flotation devices. The boat was a series of stools with metal handles — we straddled the stool in the middle and held on as we raced around. Our tour guides were a riot — they put on a 2-hour history lesson, guided tour and comedy routine — all carefully choreographed to music ranging from U2 to Dolly’s 9 to 5. We made it to nearly every one of the 15 islands in the archipelago, learning about the volcanic eruptions that formed them. And – of course – seeing plenty of puffins.

And even more plentiful than the puffins were these gulls — there where THOUSANDS. They covered the rocks, they were like pepper in the sky — and I have no idea how we didn’t get pooped on or dive-bombed.

Jenni took this. It creeps me out.

There were sheep on nearly every island, and hunting cabins on a few — but no docks and these ropes are the way up.

 

Do you see the seals??
Lazy seals.
Several islands had accessible caves for us to get out of the wind and hear stories from our guides.

Two hours flew by and we made it back to the harbor, faces crusted with sea salt, camera lenses covered in mist — and not a drop of bird poop. What an amazing adventure!

As we ate lunch in the restaurant across the street, we watched out the window as some (presumably) local kids played near the water. A few of them were wearing wet suits and we joked that they might be about to jump in. And as soon as we dismissed that as absolutely crazy because that water is FREEZING — there they went! #summer

After successfully seeing puffins in the wild and exploring Heimaey, we boarded the ferry and waved a reluctant goodbye to the beautiful Westman Islands. It was worth every plane, car, ferry, and taxi we took to get there.

Puffin Island, you didn’t disappoint.

Stop dreaming about your bucket list and start living it.
– Annette White

This post is part of a series of stories from my 2018 trip to Iceland.
Click here for all posts.

One thought on “Iceland’s Westman Islands: Puffins or Bust

  1. Great post – I will be as excited about puffins next year when i visit I expect. I’m going for a few days to increase my chance of getting good photos! I am not great with small boats, so I’m not sure if I will do the small boat thing though!

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