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Wildlife in Iceland

Iceland’s long summer days, mineral-rich waters and fertile coastal cliffs attract a wonderful mix of sea mammals and birdlife, all waiting to be encountered.

4 mins read

Iceland’s seismic terrain of ash-dusted volcanic peaks, majestic glaciers and mountain ranges also features an abundance of marine mammals and birds. Considered one of the best destinations in Europe to watch whales, Iceland harbours some of the world’s largest bird populations in the summer months. Read on to discover the wildlife prospering in the land of ice and fire.

‘Sea parrots’ of the Atlantic

During the summer months, Iceland provides sanctuary to 60% of the world’s Atlantic Puffin population. That’s anything between 8 - 10 million Puffins perched on Iceland’s craggy rocks and cliffsides. Their penguin-like coats, colourful beaks and oh-so-adorable ambling gait have made them the signature Icelandic bird for many. Nicknamed “Clowns of the Sea” or “Sea Parrots”, Icelanders simply call them Lundi.

There are plenty of places to see puffins in Iceland. Heimaey, the largest of the Westmann islands, provides a habitat for countless birds including puffins. The coastal cliffs of Bakkagerdi and northerly Grimsey also have large puffin colonies. Here you’ll be able to see these delightful birds splash, waddle, flap and tumble in their natural habitat. Heaven!

Iceland’s profitable bird

Incredibly light, warm and luxurious, eiderdown products are the indulgence of choice for the global super-rich. Common Eiders are a protected species that have been ‘farmed’ for centuries on the island. That is, farmers provide them with nesting boxes all around Iceland’s coast. In return, the birds leave their valuable down when they abandon their nests in the summer. You’ll see them everywhere along the coast, and despite being sea ducks, even in the lake in the middle of Reykjavik.

The exquisite properties of eiderdown

When scrutinised under a microscope, eiderdown reveals the secrets that have made it the most valuable down on the planet. In contrast to a feather’s neatly arranged barbs stemming from a solid shaft, eiderdown’s soft fibres branch out randomly from a single point, twisting around each other. Each fibre has small hooks which allow the down to cling to itself, trapping air and heat, leading to extraordinary insulation. Wealthy Vikings of old would stuff their bedding with it; not much has changed since.

How Razorbills avoid throwing a strop

A group of Razorbills is collectively known as a ‘strop.’ How does this robust Atlantic seabird avoid actually losing its temper with fellow seabirds? One way is by not fighting for food. Razorbills, guillemots and puffins do not compete directly with each other for fish. A time old arrangement sees guillemots catching large fish, puffins catching small fish and Razorbills gunning for everything else in between.

Whale, hello there

Despite humpback whales getting all the attention because of their playful antics, minke whales are the most common whale species you may see on Iceland’s coastline. The smallest of the “great whales,” they have slender, streamlined bodies, making them fast, capable swimmers. Minkes can be curious creatures and are known for approaching ships, even keeping pace with moving vessels at times. You’ll have opportunities to spot various whale species all around Iceland’s coast. Husavik, however, has been dubbed ‘Iceland’s Whale Capital.’ The Skjálfandi Bay, which Husavik looks over, has a thriving ecosystem leading to bountiful masses of zooplankton and, inevitably, whales. The sheltered location of Eyjafjörður Fjord also provides excellent whale spotting possibilities. Keep your eyes peeled for them when we sail to Akureyri, Iceland’s ‘northern capital’.

The humpback whale’s unique flipper

How do humpbacks turn and dive with such agility while being bigger and heavier than a bus? It’s all in the flippers. Unlike most whales, which have flippers with smooth leading edges, humpbacks have uniquely large bumps on theirs. These create turbulence that provides added lift and reduced drag at high angles, giving these giant creatures surprising agility. Engineers are borrowing this concept to modify water turbines, windmills and boat rudders.

Spot the difference

The harbour seal is the more common of the two seal species that pup in Iceland. How can you tell them apart from grey seals? Well, harbour seals have V-shaped nostrils and are noticeably smaller than their grey cousins, who can weigh up to 300kg. They can be hard to spot, but you might catch glimpses of them around Reykjavik’s coast, the Snæfellsnes peninsula and Eyjafjörður, Iceland’s longest fjord.

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Penguins perched on the ice of Cuverville Island, Antarctica. Credit: Espen Mills / HX Hurtigruten Expeditions

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