One of the biggest draws for families to travel is the opportunity to have intimate encounters with animals in their natural habitats.
We asked Ryan Connolly and the team at FTA Member Hidden Iceland to help you understand the draw of Iceland’s hometown favorite – The Puffin – with a little help from FTA Member Jamie Bachrach, a professional travel advisor who calls his agency “The Wandering Puffin.”
“I believe any time families with kids see animals up close and in their natural environment it is much more of an experience, especially when they see hundreds, if not thousands of these birds in a small area,” said Bachrach.
“Anytime you can have an authentic wild experience, whether it is seeing nesting puffins and other seabirds flying around and diving for fish, or going on an African safari and seeing elephants in their home, the idea of experiencing unencumbered nature sells itself,” Bachrach added.
Finding Puffins in Iceland – Bringing families back to nature
Iceland has a mysterious allure to it. A solitary island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean filled with glaciers, volcanoes and ice caves. If you’re lucky you might see the northern lights dancing across the sky in winter, or glimpse the midnight sun as it sleepily touches the horizon and rises again in the summer. The adventure awaits for any family looking for something a little different from the Disney experience. Especially with personalized trips with Hidden Iceland.
What is the the Atlantic Puffin?
But this article is about the friendlier, dare we say, cuter side of Iceland. The little birds that have decided to make Iceland their home for a few months of the year; the puffins.
Iceland is home to the biggest collection of Atlantic puffin colonies in the world with around 5.6 million, many of which frequent the south shores of Iceland. Often compared to penguins, they are much smaller than many people think. Just big enough to sit in the palm of your hands.
In the summer months (May to September) you will see them fly clumsily through the air attempting to reach their nests high up in the cliff-sides of Iceland during mating season. But it’s the sea where they feel most at home. In fact, the elusive puffin is only land dwelling for a paltry 3 months of the year, and even then, they remain on the cliff edges ready to dive for food when the winds are right for take-off.
For the remainder of the time they are out at sea. Or rather, the Atlantic Ocean. Dodging waves and diving for food. They are expert swimmers and are known to dive as deep as 60 meters in search of fish. They live for around 22 years and mate for life when they meet the perfect partner. Each year, after a lonely winter at sea the male and female puffins will fly to Iceland, often to the exact same nest in search of their partner. They will lay one sole egg each summer, and spend virtually all of their time fishing to help the pufflings grow strong, ready for the immediate winter exodus in September. If the puffling doesn’t get enough food in a short 40 day nesting period they won’t be ready for migration at the end of summer, so seeing hordes of puffin adults flying back and forward to the sea daily is a normality here in Iceland.
Why do families get so excited by Puffins?
At Hidden Iceland, the thing we hear most when families visit in the summer is, “Where can we find puffins? My kids love puffins!”
Perhaps it’s because of their effortless ability to travel vast distances, swim deep in the ocean, their colorful beaks, maybe they’ve seen the movie “Happy Feet 2” or “Puffin Rock.” (They are nicknamed the Clowns of the Sea after all.) Either way these little migrating birds bring a sense of excitement to the faces of children and adults alike. I personally love that you need to go on a mini adventure to find them, whether it’s by sea, atop a cliff face, or along the shores of the black sand beaches. This is because they live on the edges of cliffs by the sea — not an easy place to get to, especially with small kids. And with the puffin numbers dropping rapidly in the past few decades it is vitally important to protect their natural habitat and not get too close.
“I have sent families to several destinations with puffins, including Iceland, Alaska and Maine, just to name a few,” said Bachrach, at The Wandering Puffin. He has viewed puffins, held rescues, and studied puffins for the past 30+ years.
“My marketing is in the storytelling of my experiences in this environment, but also sharing the stories of my clients whose travel arrangements I have made where they get to experience nature. The fact that I show a passion for these birds enhances their time with puffins when they encounter them in the wild or in a rescue or aquarium situation,” he said.
I’ve heard that Puffins have been classified as vulnerable on the endangered species list (2015)?
Yeah, this is one stage away from being classed as endangered. There are still well over 10 million Atlantic puffins in the world but the numbers have been dropping so rapidly in recent years that they are now considered a big concern. When you see puffins on the menu at the local Icelandic restaurant you’d be forgiven for thinking that tourists appetites are the reason. The reality is very different. The puffin numbers in Iceland have dropped from roughly 7 million to 5.6 million in only a few short years with the population of some of the colonies halving since the turn of the century. This can’t be explained away by the few thousand puffins that are hunted each year for food.
The main reason sadly is climate change. Or more specifically rising sea temperatures in the breeding areas of the puffin. You see, for a pair of puffins to successfully mate in the short summer window they need a constant and easy supply of food, hence living on the cliffs by the sea. In Iceland the dominant food source during this time is the sand eel, a cold water fish. Since the waters in the area have risen by roughly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, these fish are being found increasingly further north, and more scarce at that.
Without an easy source of food, mating is unsuccessful, as the puffin adults need to fly further to find food. In fact, it’s reported that 2003 was the last time there was significant baby puffins being born and making it to adulthood in the south of Iceland. Either the egg is never hatched or the pufflings starve, or are too weak to follow their parents out to sea.
The real impact of this problem has only recently been realized due to the long life span of the puffin (21 years), but with less and less puffins being born, or being left behind, each year the numbers are expected to drop as much as 79% by the year 2065.
What is the tourism impact? And can I see them safely without disturbing the delicate eco-system?
Luckily, at the moment, there are still millions of puffins making their way to Iceland, and plenty of safe places to see them. The first puffins have already started to arrive for the season. The foot traffic of tourists has little effect on the mating patterns because the nests are often in hard to reach places. As long as you don’t climb the cliffs or go too close to the edge at the top then it’s unlikely the puffins will be overly disturbed by your presence. They’re more likely to be agitated by the hunters with nets (which are being more and more restricted), the mink which roam the cliff tops, or perhaps the great skua bird which try to eat the eggs.
In fact, having an influx of tourists seems to be having a quasi positive effect. Puffin spotting and whale watching bring in more money to the economy than hunting does, so the government are increasingly restricting the practice, and there’s a call to ban consumption in restaurants.
Where are the best places to see them?
My belief is that Iceland has so much to offer, that simply jumping onto a short puffin boat tour is not the best way to spend half a day, especially if you’re unlucky and don’t see any up close. My recommendation is to double it up with some adventure along the way. We have a similar sentiment when it comes to searching for the northern lights.
– if you book onto a 1 or 2-day trip along the south coast most companies will stop off at the famous Reynisfjara black sand beach. The beach with basalt columns, black sand and crashing waves is beautiful enough, but puffins have made the cliffs above their home too. You are unlikely to see them up close from the beach but you’ll see them swooping in and out of the sea constantly while there.
– The Latrabjarg sea cliffs in the West Fjords are some of the biggest in Europe at a staggering 1400-ft vertical. It’s here that you can crawl to the edge of the cliff top and peer down and be inches away from the thousands of puffins that spend their summers here. This trip is well off the beaten path, so I recommend spending 4 or even 5 days in the West Fjords searching for whales, other sea birds, seals, arctic foxes and incredible views along the way.
– Couple a trip to the Westman Islands, the largest puffin colony in the world with a speed boat RIB Safari tour. This trip is a 1-hour journey around the broken sea cliffs of 13 volcanic islands in the south of Iceland. Expect to duck a few times as multiple sea birds and puffins swoop towards the sea in search of lunch.
– Every year some of the pufflings are left behind in the Westman Islands. This is mainly because they were too small, hatched too late, their parents were hunted, or there simply wasn’t enough food to feed them in time for the migration. So the local people of Heimaey have opened a Puffin Rescue Centre to house these little guys. They become tame and rarely are able to re-enter the wild so the staff take care of them in house. This gives kids and adults alike the unique chance to say hello up close and personal. If they’re in a good mood then sometimes they let you hold them. A previous customer was lucky enough to have one sit on his head.
Stuck in Reykjavik:
– if you can’t escape Reykjavik, even for a day trip, then there are a number of short excursions that couple up with whale watching too, though these are often a lot more weather dependent than the shore versions.
So, in short there are plenty of places to spot these magical creatures safely and without disturbing them. Always consult with your guide as to the etiquette of each place you go as we want to give them as much peace to breed as possible before saying goodbye in September.
How does working with a travel agent help you encourage families to join you?
The hardest part when it comes to nature is that we want it to be as real a moment as possible. Nothing is manufactured here in Iceland. So that means that sometimes you don’t get lucky. The weather might be too bad to get close to puffins and other wildlife, they might not be active that day, or perhaps not there at all.
So managing the expectations of families with the help of travel agents, such as FTA Member Jennifer Shanks at Family Adventure Awaits , is pivotal when creating a truly bespoke itinerary. It’s also why we never offer trips just to see puffins. When you have still warm volcanoes, breaching whales off the coast, black sand beaches, and museums a plenty, then even if you miss your chance to see them, it definitely won’t be a wasted day.
Come and find the best of Iceland with Hidden Iceland
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