Wildlife in Iceland: How and Where to see Puffins, Whales and more in Iceland

06. Jul 2019 |17 min read

Although Iceland is relatively ‘new,’ geologically speaking, there’s still plenty of animals to be found here. There’s everything from the native arctic fox, the whales around Iceland’s oceans, the domestic Icelandic horse, and many more. Follow along on this guide and learn more about the wildlife in Iceland and where to find it!

Native Wildlife in Iceland

Iceland is home to only one indigenous land mammal. However, Iceland still has a diverse amount of animals, including birds, sea mammals and plenty of other fauna.

Arctic Fox in Iceland

Arctic Foxes of Iceland

The Arctic Fox settled on Iceland long before the first human settlements emerged. It has been theorized that during the last ice-age the Arctic Fox made its way over the sea-ice to Iceland. Arctic foxes are adaptable to various conditions and were able to acclimatize to Iceland and feed on berries, birds, eggs and other small invertebrates. 

Unfortunately, the arrival of humans to Iceland didn’t spell good news for the Arctic Fox. Iceland’s only land mammals were hunted extensively for its fur, as well as from farmers who wanted to protect their livestock. Despite humans causing a disruption to the fox populations, they also brought along food in the form of food waste, rodents, and lambs, which allowed them to survive.

Where to see arctic foxes in Iceland:

Today, the Arctic Fox can still be found all across Iceland. Places where they are concentrated include the Westfjords, in particular in the Hornstrandir Reserve, a place that’s become popular amongst wildlife photographers as the foxes here have become notably fearless of humans.

Whales of Iceland

Iceland is home to over twenty different varieties of whale and dolphin. It’s known to be one of the best places to see the giant sea mammals, especially during the summer months when they migrate around Iceland’s water to feed here. The sub-Arctic waters around Iceland are extremely fertile and fed by the Gulf Stream, making it home to thousands of ocean animals.

Iceland’s relationship with whales is a complex and ever-changing story. Commercial whaling began in the late 19th century, and since then it’s been outlawed and then reinstated many times, due to local and international pressure. Whaling is currently still legal in Iceland, however, there is a growing concern whether it may affect the growing whale-watching and tourism industry. Whale watching tours leave several times a day across the island.

Where to see whales in Iceland:

If you’re staying in Reykjavik then you can join the 3-hour boat ride in Faxafloi Bay, where you’ll see plenty of Minke, Humpback, and Killer whales. Next is Iceland’s best kept whale-watching secret, which sets sail from the charming village of Hjalteyri, in northern Iceland. Finally, a place that’s known as ‘The Whale Watching Capital of Iceland,’ Húsavík, where you can get the ultimate whale-watching experience whilst sailing on a traditional Icelandic vessel.

Seals of Iceland

Seals have enjoyed the shores of Iceland for hundreds of years to breed and hang out. The island’s long uninhabited coast allowed colonies to established long before humans set foot here. For the first settlers, seals were a blessing as their large populations provided an abundance of food, clothing and oil resources. Did you know that a seal will have a 5 cm (2 in) thick layer of blubber to keep it warm in the winter?

That’s a body fat percentage of between 40 and 50%!

There are two native seal species that live in Iceland: the grey seal and the harbor seal. Other species frequently visit the shores and waters of Iceland, including harp, bearded, ringed and hooded seals. When the first settlers arrived there was a large population of walruses, but they were hunted to extinction in Iceland in the 17th Century. Today, on a rare occasion you may spot the odd walrus in the Westfjords.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of seals in Iceland then we recommend visiting the Icelandic Seal Centre in Hvammstangi. Inside the museum, you can also look at the lab where scientists are conducting research to help protect and preserve seal species in Iceland. The Icelandic Seal Centre is open daily from 10:00 to 16:00 (closed on weekends during the winter months). 

Where to see seals in Iceland:

You can find seals all around the country, however, places where you are guaranteed to see them include the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Westfjords, the Vatnsnes Peninsula, and the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. 

Puffins of Iceland

Over the last decades, puffins have become one of the key symbols for Iceland. There’s no surprise why, thanks to their beautiful bright colored beaks and other unique features. Iceland is the breeding home for more than 60% of the world's Atlantic puffins. However, puffins are sea-birds and spend most of their time on the oceans only returning to land to form breeding colonies throughout the spring and summer months.

So, if you’re visiting Iceland in the winter, then, unfortunately, the chances you’ll spot a puffin are extremely slim. If, however, you’re here from early April to September then they can be spotted in a few areas along the coast. 

Where to see puffins in Iceland:

Puffins build their colonies and nests in rocky cliffs by the coast. The largest puffin colony in the world can be spotted on the Vestmannaeyjar islands in the south of Iceland, where 15 islands create the perfect habitat for 1.1 million puffins every year. If you’re based in Reykjavik then you don’t have to go far, as two nearby islands, Akurey or Lundey, are another hotspot for puffins. In fact, Lundey literally translates to “Puffin Island.”

The best way to visit these islands is to join a puffin watching tour, where you’ll get as close as possible to the cliffs via a boat to observe the birds. Other great places include Látrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords, Vigur Island, the stones arches of Dyrholaey, Papey in the east of Iceland, and northern peninsula of Tjörnes.

Other Birds of Iceland

Whilst puffins are perhaps the most well-known birds in Iceland, there are plenty of other species as well. Along the cliffs at Látrabjarg in the Westfjords and Krýsuvíkurbjarg on the Reykjanes Peninsula, you will spot various bird species including sandpipers, guillemots, gulls, auks, and fulmar.

The White-Tailed Eagle also lives along the coast, with a wingspan of two and a half meters. This majestic bird almost went extinct in the late 19th century, but conservation efforts have enabled its number to grow to over seventy today. They can be spotted on the western coastal areas and are often seen on boat tours from Reykjavík, particularly around Hvalfjörður.

However, it’s not just the coast where plenty of birds can be seen, there are equally as many species inland. The snowy owl is a beautiful bird of prey that lives in remote areas of Iceland such as the East Fjords and the Highlands. It’s so rare to see that it usually only gets spotted between five and ten times a year. 

Other inland areas for bird watching include the area around Lake Mývatn. Here you can find fourteen different species of ducks, as well as swans and geese. In the flat moorland in the south of Iceland, you can find whimbrels, with their distinctive long beaks. Another species that can be found throughout Iceland is the common raven, which for centuries has played a vital role in Icelandic folklore and pagan ceremonies and beliefs.

Polar Bears from Greenland

Many tourists coming to Iceland think polar bears are native to Iceland, however, this is not the case. Very rarely the odd polar bears have arrived on the shores of the Westfjords on ice-floes from Greenland. 

The polar bears that survive the long journey over the ocean are starving for food and can become a threat to humans and livestock wherever they land. Capturing polar bears, nurturing and returning them to their home costs around 75,000 Euros per bear, so the decision in the past has often been to kill them upon arrival. The last polar bear that arrived in Iceland was in July 2016. Scientists have predicted that as more ice melts due to the impact of climate change, Iceland will expect to see more polar bears arriving.

Non-Native Wildlife in Iceland

Throughout history when settlers arriving by ships arrived at distant shores they often brought animals with them. Most of them were domesticated farm animals like pigs, sheep, and reindeer. However many other animals arrived unintentionally. Rats and other rodents for example often hid on ships and escaped as soon as the boat arrived onshore. Therefore, although they never arrived naturally, they managed to establish themselves as non-native wildlife on the island.

Rabbits in Iceland

Rabbits arrived in Iceland as pets but all it took was for a few to escape in order to establish a growing population across the country. In recent years the rabbit has been seen as an invasive species which is threatening the local environment. In many forested areas, the rabbits chew on tree roots and can cause considerable damage to the local environment.

Reindeer in East Iceland

Reindeers were introduced to Iceland as domestic animals in the 18th Century. They were originally intended as farm animals. However, they eventually became wild and today there are around 3,000 reindeer that live around the country. Their populations are concentrated in the east of Iceland in the Snæfell area. Throughout the summer months, they spend their time on higher grounds, whereas in the winter they migrate to the lowlands.

Although reindeer have become one of the more accepted non-native wildlife animals in Iceland, they still present a considerable risk to many farmers. Reindeer graze the lands on which free-roaming sheep are situated and therefore are stealing the food from the livestock. So far it’s been okay, however, the reindeer population could become a problem in case of a volcanic eruption or abnormally cold winter.

Wild Mink in Iceland

Mink’s were imported to Iceland in the 1930s for fur farming. Several years later the first wild mink dens were discovered in the wild. Since then mink’s have spread throughout the entire country and pose a threat to many native bird species. Wild mink eat the eggs from breeding birds along the cliffs. The small rodents have been hunted extensively over the last decades to keep their population in check, however, efforts to reduce their numbers has proven very difficult.

Domestic Animals in Iceland

When the first settlers arrived in Iceland they brought with them various livestock in order to start farms. Some of these animals escaped and established a wild population, such as the reindeer, however, others remained domestic over the centuries.

The Icelandic Sheep

Sheep brought over from Norway were crucial for the survival of Icelanders for many centuries. These animals provided both wool and meat, allowing people to survive the harsh winter conditions. Although sheep are found in plenty of other countries and may not be the most interesting wildlife animal in Iceland, they did play an incredibly important role in the country’s history.

For example, a volcanic eruption in 1783 led to widespread famine in the subsequent months. It was the most fatal eruption in Icelandic history where up to 25% of the population died. The majority of those killed was not from the volcano, instead, it was due to 80% of Iceland’s sheep dying from the poisonous ashes, which ultimately led to famine. This event shows the extent to which Iceland was reliant on their sheep populations.

Iceland’s history with sheep, however, isn’t only doom and gloom. During the early 20th century Iceland saw a surge in economic growth and industrialization, thanks largely to the high demand of Icelandic wool. It was the money that was generated during these prosperous years that helped shape Iceland into the modern and developed country it is today.

Today, there are around 800,000 sheep in Iceland, more than double the population of the Icelanders here. They are still invaluable for the country, still providing meat and wool.  Take a stroll through Reykjavik and you’ll find no shortage of Icelandic wool sweaters on display. Icelandic lamb is also a local delicacy thanks to its fragrant taste. Some say the taste is developed from the free-roaming sheep who feed on Icelandic thyme all day, therefore indirectly flavoring the meat.

The Icelandic Sheepdog

The Icelandic Sheepdog, like many of the other animals, was brought to Iceland by the first Vikings. It is a spitz breed dog that is similar to the Shetland Sheepdog, the Welsh Corgi and the Norwegian Buhund. As the name might imply, this dog was used to herd sheep in the countryside around Iceland. For hundreds of years, the Icelandic Sheepdog has been helping farmers, guarding properties, and herding sheep.

Thanks to the harsh weather conditions, the Icelandic Sheepdog has developed into a hardy and agile dog. They are full of energy and are fantastic at locating sheep that get lost in the Icelandic landscapes. Despite being so energetic and loyal, the Icelandic Sheepdog is extremely welcoming and friendly to strangers.

Because Iceland is quite isolated, many livestock animals here are much more susceptible to viruses and diseases than in other countries. In the late 19th Century the Icelandic Sheepdog almost faced extinction because of a disease brought from abroad. A temporary ban on other dog breeds entering Iceland was put into place which helped stabilize the population. Today, pet vaccinations and modern veterinary have helped this Icelandic breed survive without a total ban on other pets.

The Icelandic Horse

The famous Icelandic horse is a unique breed that was developed in Iceland. They are known for their intelligence and curiosity. The personality and charm can be traced back all the way to their descendants. Only one horse could fit on a Viking longboat at a time, meaning only the strongest and smartest would make the cut; resulting in a strong population forming on Iceland.

As well as their personality, the Icelandic horse also has a unique appearance. They can sometimes be mistaken for a pony as they rarely reach above 150cm tall. Their initial purpose was for transportation around the island. Having a horse was invaluable. Having one meant you were able to travel across the island to trading posts and develop wealth. If you didn’t have a horse you risked the chance of becoming isolated in the Icelandic countryside and impoverished.

The Icelandic horse also played an important role during the clan wars. As Iceland progressed the horses were less used for battle and instead put to use to do farm work. Today, however, the breed is popular as ever in equestrian sports. Most other horse breeds have between three and four gaits, which are different styles of walking, such as trot and gallop (a little bit like the number of gears in a car.) The Icelandic horse is unique in that it has five gaits, which developed thanks to the rough terrain.

In Iceland they are prone to very few diseases, however, this is thanks to strict laws that prevent any other horses from being imported into Iceland. Any horses that were exported are banned from re-entering the country as a precautionary measure of protecting the breed. There are currently over 100,000 Icelandic horses that live abroad, compared to only 80,000 that live in Iceland.

Why not experience riding an Icelandic horse yourself and testing out all five gaits? You can book different horse riding experiences right here. From one to five hours, you can choose which experience might be of interest to you here.

Cattle in Iceland

Drive across Iceland and you’ll see plenty of sheep and horses. One farm animals that you’ll see less frequently, however, are cows. Icelandic cattle were brought over a thousand years ago with the first settlers from Norway. Similar to the Icelandic horse, the cattle here have developed their own unique traits over the generations. For example, their coat is particularly colorful with a variety of markings.

The reason why cows are not often seen in Iceland is that they are housed in barns for eight to nine months of the year and feed on hay. They are able to graze outside in the summer months when the grasses have been able to grow on the field. Icelandic cattle are less raised for their meat and more for their milk, as they are used to create mild, butter-flavored cheese as well as the famous Skyr

In total there are less than 30,000 cows on the island. Because they have been genetically isolated for long the Icelandic cow is particularly susceptible to any and all foreign diseases. To protect the population from illness there is a total ban on cattle imported from abroad. However, there have been efforts to try and import more productive cows in recent years.

Around ten years ago the Agricultural University of Iceland released a report that outlined the cost-effectiveness of replacing Icelandic cattle with Swedish cattle. The university’s reasoning was that Swedish cattle can produce much more milk at a far lower cost. However, many people in Iceland argued that these cows are a part of Iceland’s unique cultural heritage. Plus, everyone knows Swedish cows don’t make Skyr like Icelanders.

Goats in Iceland

The Icelandic goat is another farm animal that is of Norwegian origin and arrived over a thousand years ago but has since established its own characteristics. Today, however, goats are not raised for large scale commercial farming. In fact, the Icelandic goat breed was on the verge of extinction in the late 19th Century. 

Although efforts were made to protect the breed, the population went into decline in the late 20th Century again and in 2003 there were only 348 goats left spread thinly across 48 flocks across Iceland. The Icelandic government has now sponsored the breed, not for farming but to ensure its survival and in 2012 the population had risen to 850. In 2014 the annual grant per goat was 4200 ISK (roughly 34 USD). 

Because this breed has been isolated for so many years it has become quite inbred. The goats today are kept mostly as pets or for their wool. The Icelandic Goat is known for its long guard hair that has high-quality cashmere fiber.

If you’re interested in finding out more about this rare breed then you can head over to the Icelandic Goat Center Háafell. The center, run by Farmer Jóhanna Bergmann Þorvaldsdóttir, has been an important part in the preservation of the Icelandic Goat. At the center, you can also buy goat products like creams, soaps, leather and more. 

Quick Tips When Seeing Wildlife In Iceland:

  • Do not feed animals, domestic or wild. As you may have picked up from this guide, Icelandic animals are very susceptible to disease. Never give the animals food intended for humans. So, unless you are working on a farm or are instructed to feed the animals by the farmers, observe the animals but please do not feed them.
  • Leave nothing but footsteps. The Icelandic landscapes, as well as the wildlife living in it, are fragile ecosystems. A plastic bag left behind might look like a delicious fish to a seal or a food container might look like an appetizing meal to an Arctic Fox. Always throw your garbage into a designated waste bin.
  • Do not approach wild animals. It might look like the perfect selfie opportunity but please resists approaching wild animals. These animals are wild for a reason and approaching them might end badly both for you and the animal. Spotting wildlife in Iceland is exciting but always maintain a safe distance. 
  • Rent a car to explore. Most wildlife in Iceland is found in the remotest areas of the island. To reach these places you’ll need a car, take a look at our guide to renting a car in Iceland to get you ready for your adventure.
  • If you want to see certain animals, check the time of year. Many animals in Iceland only make an appearance on the island on certain dates. Puffins, for example, can’t be seen in Iceland during the winter months. There are of course plenty of other animals to be observed but do make sure to check what time of year animals are here if there’s one you really want to see.

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