Iceland is one of the best places on the planet for wildlife watching.
If you landed on the shores of Iceland about 1,100 years ago—just before humans arrived—the only other land mammal you would have encountered would be the Arctic fox. At some point near the end of the last Ice Age, foxes trotted over the frozen sea to the island. Once the ice melted, the foxes stayed, and became Iceland’s ﬁrst land mammal.
One thousand years later, Iceland’s biodiversity has expanded to include other land mammals, such as reindeer, mink, mice, rabbits and rats. These animals were brought to the island by settlers and eventually formed wild populations. As for aquatic animals, the island has over 20 diﬀerent native species of whale and dolphin, and is considered one of the best places in the world for whale watching, especially during the summer months. Iceland is also home to numerous seal species, two of which—harbor seals and grey seals—are year-round residents. Occasionally, walruses show up onshore to rest while traveling from other locations. (Sadly, Iceland’s original walrus population was hunted to extinction in the 17th century.)
When it comes to birds, Iceland has no shortage of fascinating feathered residents, ranging from white-tailed eagles, auks, guillemots and Arctic terns, to the ever-popular puﬃn. Roughly 60 percent of the world’s puﬃn population make their home in Iceland, and there are plenty of viewing opportunities.
To help you ﬁnd the best places to watch Iceland’s unique wildlife, we put together a list of recommendations and resources, organized by species.
ARCTIC FOX WATCHING
If getting a glimpse of one of the most striking species of fox on the planet is at the top of your wildlife watching list, make your way to the Westfjords, in the northwest of Iceland. The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is located there and fox sightings are common. The reserve covers over 200 square miles of cliﬀs (home to nesting birds), tundra and ice, and is the perfect place to spot a fox. westtours.is/trip-categories/hornstrandir-nature-reserve/Another foxy destination is the Arctic Fox Center in the ﬁshing village of Súðavík, also in the Westfjords. The center—dedicated to the preservation and protection of Arctic foxes—oﬀers guided fox-sighting tours. melrakki.is/home/
Like puﬃns, seals can be spotted all along the coastline of Iceland, but one of the best locations for seal watching is the Vatnsnes peninsula in North Iceland. There, you will ﬁnd public seal- viewing sites in Hvítserkur, Illugastaðir and Svalbarð. These locations are managed by the Icelandic Seal Center, which also oﬀers educational exhibits and seal-watching boat tours. selasetur.is/en/
Iceland is an ideal location for whale watching and there are numerous tours available from many locations. The northeastern village of Húsavík, which overlooks Skjálfandi Bay, oﬀers some of the most spectacular whale watching on the island. During the summer months, you can often spot several species right from the shore, including blue, ﬁn, humpback, orca, pilot and sperm whales. But boat tours are a better bet, and many depart daily. Salka Whale Watching and North Sailing both oﬀer daily tours during the summer months. (northsailing.is and salkawhalewatching.is). Laki Tours, in the western town of Grundarfjörður, oﬀers especially good orca watching. lakitours.com
There are many places around the island where you might see these charismatic orange-beaked birds, but one of the best places is on the Vestmannaeyjar Islands—home to the largest puﬃn colony in the world. The birds congregate in summer to mate, lay eggs and raise their young, and the colony often grows to more than one million birds—a truly spectacular sight. There are a number of boat tours that take you around the coastline where there are good views of the puﬃns. Eyja Tours oﬀers a Puﬃn and Volcano bus tour that takes visitors to some of the best viewing spots. eyjatours.com
Reindeer were brought to Iceland from Norway in the late 18th century for animal husbandry. The practice of reindeer herding didn’t catch on, so the reindeer were never domesticated. Over time, most of the free-roaming reindeer died out, except for a herd of several thousand that continues to live in the higher elevations of eastern and northeastern Iceland. The best time to see these reindeer is during the summer months in the areas around Mount Snæfell, in Vesturöræﬁ and Brúaröræﬁ. Tinna Adventures oﬀers a four wheel drive guided reindeer tour. tinna-adventure.is/tours/
Adapted in part from Inside Animal Hearts and Minds by Belinda Recio, published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2017
BELINDA RECIO, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery in Hamilton, Massachusetts, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world.