Gannets at Stóri Karl, Iceland

The Iceland gannets are hidden away in some of the more remote areas, but with some planning and exploring they can be found. One place is Stóri Karl in the north east corner of the country.

young gannets in the colony

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The road from Þórshöfn becomes a rough track as the end of Langanes peninsula comes into view. The lighthouse at Fontur marks the end of the peninsula with its white tower and red lantern. The cliffs along the coast are buzzing with birds but as Skorvík Cliffs and the sea stack known as Stóri Karl are approached this activity intensifies. As with other gannet colonies the smell hits your nose as you approach, feathers float in the air and the constant noise of the gannets floods the senses. It is not a restful place to visit.

Gannets (Morus bassanus) make these cliffs their summer home. Nesting on the cliffs as they do in Shetland and Bempton Cliffs in the UK, this small colony, the second largest in Iceland after Eldey Island, is pushed for space as is the way in most gannet colonies. However it is noticeable here in the far north of the Atlantic that their nests whilst still containing man-made materials are far more natural in their content. Unlike other seabirds the population of gannets in Iceland is increasing by around 2% each year and is currently estimated to be 37000 breeding pairs.

By the end of July, the gannet chicks are hatched and range from small fluffy bundles to black feathered scraggy creatures. The parents are busy tending to their young, the 90 day clock until they leave ticking continually. The weather is harsh this far north and the adult gannets have to work hard to rear their young.

Photography Notes

The gannets at Stóri Karl are easy to find and can be viewed from a purpose built viewing platform. There is no way to get lower on the cliffs (and why would you want to anyway) and so a longer lens is ideal for photographing these birds. These birds are not here all year round so make sure you check if they have arrived before making the trip to see them. They are usually in residence during June, July and August.

The cliffs with the birds are a short distance from the viewing platform so the gannets will always be viewed from above. Not ideal but the only option. The platform is very good for flight shots as the gannets will glide past at eye level as they approach the rocks.

Take time to observe behaviour. It is a busy, crowded place and birds come and go and behaviour patterns can be watched and photographed.

To capture these birds a 400mm lens was used. The aperture was set to f/8 and the ISO was kept at 100. These were shot using AV mode to compensate for the changing light conditions and variable exposure factors.

On the way you may well pass a herd of friendly Icelandic horses grazing on the cliff tops as well as numerous sheep.

Getting to Stóri Karl and Skorvík Cliffs

Stóri Karl is located just outside the coastal town of Þórshöfn in north east Iceland. Route 85 takes you directly from Route 1 to Þórshöfn and then the gravel track of road 869 follows the cliffs along the coast and is part of the Arctic Coast Way.

There is a fork in the road after a few kilometers and the left turn will take you to the bird cliffs and on to the lighthouse. The viewing point is clearly marked with an information board and small parking area. This road really needs 4WD to be tackled safely and notice should be taken of weather conditions.

Places to stay near Stóri Karl

The nearest place to stay near the bird cliffs is at Þórshöfn. This small town has a lovely quiet campsite. If you want something a little more then the beautiful studios on the sheep farm at Ytra Lón will fit the bill perfectly.

Where to See Gannets in Iceland

The largest population of gannets in Iceland is at Eldey Island where about half the Icelandic population breeds. It is estimated that over 70000 birds make the island their home. Eldey island can be seen from Reykjanes Peninsula in the far south west of Iceland. It is an isolated lump of rock, 10 miles offshore. Even from the main coast of Iceland the presence of the birds can be seen with its white glow from centuries of guano being deposited on the 77 metre high cliffs.


In the north of Iceland gannets nest at Rauðinúpur as well as Skoruvíkurbjarg (Skorvík Cliffs). Smaller colonies can be found at Súlnasker in the Westman Islands to the east of Reykjavik and at Skrúður, an island just offshore from Vattarnes in the east.