Best places to see wildlife in Iceland
Updated: Jun 15
With Iceland opening to tourists again on 15 June, travellers can time their visit to coincide with the peak period for wildlife watching. From puffins and snipe to seals and humpback whales, William Gray picks the best places to see wildlife in the Land of Fire & Ice.
Brooding ice caps, steaming volcanoes, wave-gnawed cliffs and black-sand beaches... Iceland's most famous natural wonders tend to be gritty and geological. But there's more to the country's hotlist than half-baked landscapes and dramatic coastlines. Iceland is also a magnet to cetaceans and seabirds, particularly during summer, while its freshwater lakes and wild swathes of tundra attract breeding waders and wildfowl. Read on to discover how to add flukes and feathers to your must-see list of Icelandic natural wonders...
What wildlife can I see in Iceland?
Apart from the occasional Arctic fox in the West Fjords and Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and introduced reindeer roaming the mountains of East Iceland, you won't see much in the way of wild land mammals. Icelandic horses, yes. Sheep, definitely. Even the odd polar bear (lost and not facing a bright future) makes its way to the far northwest coast. But it's Iceland's cetaceans and seals that people come to see.
Left to right: Puffin, male eider duck, minke whale
Around 23 species of whales and dolphins can be found in the seas around Iceland, particularly during summer when the wide bays and deepwater fjords become irresistible feeding grounds. Orca, humpback and minke whales are three of the most commonly seen species, along with harbour porpoise and white-beaked dolphin. Blue, fin, sei and sperm whales are also occasionally sighted, along with northern bottlenose whale, pilot whale and white-sided dolphin.
Iceland's rich seas also attract seabirds – by the millions. Towering sea cliffs, like those in the West Fjords and along the South Coast, are teeming during summer with razorbills, guillemots (common, black and Brünnich's), little auks, northern fulmars, gannets, kittiwakes, shags and puffins. Noisy colonies of highly territorial Arctic terns nest in open areas near the coast, while the ubiquitous eider duck breeds on islands and rocky shores throughout the country. Gulls, skuas, petrels, shearwaters... Iceland is a veritable paradise for seabirds.
Rivers and lakes, and the surrounding moorland and tundra, attract whooper swans and geese (greylag, pink-footed, white-fronted, barnacle and brent). Other waterbirds include red-throated diver, Slavonian grebe, red-breasted merganser and goosander, while ducks include sought-after species such as Barrows goldeneye, harlequin and long-tailed duck.
Several species of waders also arrive to breed in Iceland during summer. Renowned for their whirring 'drumming' sound (caused by vibrating tail feathers), snipe are commonly seen and heard, along with oystercatcher, black-tailed godwit, whimbrel, purple sandpiper, golden plover and red-necked phalarope.
Birds of prey are not common, but you should keep your eyes peeled for white-tailed eagles, soaring on broad, 2m-wingspans, and Iceland's national bird, the gyrfalcon, hunting ptarmigan on the wild and lonely peninsulas of the far north.
Where should I go to see wildlife in Iceland?
These are five of the best wildlife watching destinations in Iceland:
1. West Fjords
Remote, rugged and requiring a detour from Iceland's main Ring Road, the spectacular West Fjords need time to explore – but you'll be well rewarded for setting aside at least three or four days of your itinerary on this far-flung peninsula. Wildlife enthusiasts will want to make a beeline for Látrabjarg – a 14km-long stretch of sea cliffs reaching up to 441m in height and festooned with seabirds from May to August. With care, you can walk along the cliff tops and photograph puffins posing by the entrances to their nesting burrows – just be sure to use a telephoto lens so that you can keep your distance, avoid disturbing the birds or caving in their burrows. Hornstrandir nature reserve is another outstanding wildlife location in the West Fjords. A ban on hunting has allowed Arctic foxes to thrive here (it offers your best chance of seeing one in Iceland), while Hornstrandir's extraordinary shark-fin headlands and towering sea cliffs are seabird citadels – and a source of food for the foxes. Hiking is the only way to explore this uninhabited area (accessible by boat from Ísafjörður).
Europe's undisputed whale watching capital, this busy harbour town on Iceland's North Coast faces the sparkling expanse of Skjálfandi Bay – a summer feeding ground for whales and dolphins. Minke whales are the most commonly sighted species, but humpbacks are also frequently encountered, along with white-beaked dolphin and harbour porpoise. Blue whales also visit the bay, but they tend to only stay until early summer before moving north. Less frequently spotted cetaceans include orca, fin, sei and northern bottlenose whale. Several operators run whale watching boat trips from Húsavík, using restored wooden herring trawlers. North Sailing offers 'silent' whale watching aboard its electric-powered schooner, Opal. Set out into Skjálfandi Bay during a late evening in June and you could experience humpback whales breaching under the midnight sun.
Left to right: Harlequin ducks, Lake Myvatn, red-throated diver
3. Lake Myvatn
An internationally important wetland in North Iceland, the Myvatn-Laxá Nature Conservation Area attracts 28 species of ducks, including no fewer than 15 breeding species. Scaup, wigeon and tufted duck are the most common varieties, but birdwatchers have their sights set on Barrow's goldeneye. Myvatn is the only known nesting site in Europe for this striking duck – the piebald males have a purplish head, bright yellow eyes and a distinctive white crescent on their faces. The equally glamorous harlequin duck also nests here, while other species to look out for on the 37-square-kilometre lake include common scoter, mallard, teal, gadwall and long-tailed duck. The list of waterbirds also bubbles over with whooper swan, red-breasted merganser, red-necked phalarope, Slavonian grebe and both red-throated and great northern diver. Why such rich bird life? Fed by nutrient-rich freshwater springs percolating through porous volcanic bedrock, Lake Myvatn and the Laxá River fuels a super-abundance of algae and aquatic invertebrates on which the birds feed – including the odd midge during July and August.
Left to right: Common snipe, common seal, Hvítserkur sea stack, nesting eider duck
4. Vatnsnes Peninsula
You can see seals hauled out on icebergs in the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon on Iceland's South Coast, but the more remote Vatnsnes Peninsula in the far north of the country is not only an excellent spot to see both grey and harbour seals year round, it's also occasionally visited by bearded, harp, hooded and ringed seals. Even a rogue walrus has been known to haul out on its rocky shores. Start by finding out about the area's pinnipeds at the Icelandic Seal Centre in Hvammstangi, then head to the seal colony at Illugarstadir. The bird life is also excellent around the peninsula during summer. Eider duck nest around its shores, while the air is filled with the sound of drumming snipe. Mythical creatures also haunt the Vatnsnes, the most famous of which is Hvítserkur – a 15m-tall sea stack that's either a petrified rhino or dragon, depending on how you look at it.
Left to right: orca, white-tailed eagle, barnacle geese, Snæfellsjökull
5. Snæfellsjökull National Park
Located at the tip of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland, this spectacular national park is dominated by the ice-capped hulk of a dormant volcano. Wildlife lovers, however, will look to its shores where sea cliffs and rocky coves are home to black-backed gull, fulmar, guillemot, kittiwake, razorbill and shag. Look for black guillemots at Malarrif and Lóndrangar. The north coast of this mountainous finger of land is also the haunt of white-tailed eagles – around 50 of Iceland's 90 or so pairs nest in the area. Scour the mountain ridges for their unmistakable silhouettes of broad, 2.5m-long, finger-tipped wingspans. If the eagles elude you, ravens will no doubt make it onto your ticklist. With luck, you should also be able to spot golden plover, ptarmigan, ringed plover and purple sandpiper in the heathland areas sweeping down from the perpetual icefields of Snæfellsjökull. Keep your eyes peeled for arctic foxes skulking through the moss-covered lava fields. Common and grey seals haul out along the coast, while orca, minke whale and harbour porpoise are often seen close offshore. Operating from Olafsvik, whale watching boat trips with Laki Tours venture into deeper waters where sperm whale are sometimes encountered.
A new 14-night self-drive from Discover the World, Backroads of Iceland features both the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and West Fjords, with opportunities to spot puffins, whales and other wildlife. Available July-September, from £1,741, excluding flights.
Wildlife Wishlist recommends Discover the World – pioneers of whale watching in the country and the world's leading Iceland specialist with 37 years' experience. Find out more about their Iceland wildlife watching holidays.