Puffins at Hafnarhólmi near Borgafjörður Eystri

Iceland is well known for its wildlife and especially the puffins. In the far east a small colony makes the island of Hafnarhólmi its summer home. The island is set behind a small fishing harbour with boardwalks and a viewing hut in the centre of the colony.

A puffin on a cliff top preening

Every summer about 10,000 pairs of puffins make Borgarfjörður their home. They mainly reside on a small rock called Hafnarhólmi tucked behind the scenic working harbour. The island is protected from the weather and walkways make it safe to watch the puffins without worrying about cliff edges or hidden burrows.

Getting to this small piece of puffin real estate is easy in the Icelandic sense of easy. The road is marked clearly and although it includes a mountain pass and gravel roads these are manageable even in a 2WD motorhome. I never thought I would be saying that driving on a gravel road was easy, but this one was pleasant! The villages on the way as well as the amazing landscapes make the trip a visual adventure.

Pulling up in the car park the island can be seen but it takes a moment or two to realise that all the white dots are in fact puffins. On the sheer faces of the rock are kittiwake and fulmars with chicks and common eider mill in the calm waters below.

Icelandic puffins were once used in a variety of ways but this is declining. All species are protected during the breeding season and the benefits of tourism are becoming more beneficial than consumption. There is some competition between man and puffins for food, but an equilibrium has been found and the Icelandic puffins are flourishing.

Stepping onto the island the noise and busy nature of the puffins lives becomes apparent. It is easy to waste a few hours just watching their antics, arguments and parenting skills. Each platform brings a new selection of personalities and despite our visit being late in the season with most of the puffins rafting in the bay, preparing to leave for the winter, there were more than enough puffins still enjoying their summer residence.

Having seen puffins in various locations including Shetland and Skomer Island the Icelandic puffins come last for grace. Their landings leave a lot to be desired. Skomer puffins land with dignity on two feet a short distance from their burrows. In contrast Icelandic puffins crash land in the vicinity of their burrows, sometimes even feet first down the hole which can’t be pleasant for their partner or puffling!!!

Photography Notes

Photographing puffins can be entertaining. Depending on the location you can observe behaviour, arrivals and departures or the puffins squabbling. Take time to just observe. You will soon find patterns to flight paths and where the calm puffins are located.


Where Else to Find Puffins in Iceland

Iceland is the summer home to puffins. From April until August they will be found on cliff tops. We spotted them in various locations including the cliffs at Kirkjufjara Beach and just outside Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. However there are three locations that can almost guarantee puffins during the summer months.

Heimaey has the largest puffin colony in Iceland and there is an observatory on the southern end of the island at Stórhöfði. This is easy to get to and is a short distance from Reykjavik on the Westman Islands.

Látrabjarg Cliffs represent the most westerly landmass in Europe and is home to stunning bird cliffs. Here you will find puffins and kittiwakes in their thousands. The cliffs here are wind swept and have sheer drops so not as family friendly as Hafnarhólmi but given the location in the West Fjords it is not for those short on time and sees less visitors.

Grímsey Island in the north of Iceland is also a good place to see puffins. This again is difficult to reach needing over two hours on a ferry from the mainland, but it is so worth the trip. Puffins are found all over the island and this location more than others will give isolation to enjoy the puffins.

Getting to Hafnarhólmi

Borgafjörður Eystri and Hafnarhólmi are reached by following route 94 from Egilsstaðir in the far east of Iceland. The road is a mix of gravel and tarmac but is relatively easy to drive in the summer months. There is a mountain pass with viewing points across the valley to the sea which is stunning on a clear day. After passing through Borgafjörður Eystri village continue along the coast until the road runs out.

At Hafnarhólmi there is a large parking area and mobile toilets just a short walk from the steps and boardwalks onto the island.

Places close to Hafnarhólmi

  • Borgafjörður Eystri – The nearest village to the puffin cliffs with a small church, campsite, beautiful sea views and the quirky ‘hairy house’
  • Egilsstaðir – One of the main hubs in the East Fjords with a number of large shops and places to stay
  • Stuðlagil – Deep basalt canyon a short distance north of Egilsstaðir