Puffins on the Fly, Iceland 2022 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Aug 12, 2022

Word has it that Grimsey Island was inadvertently discovered by Norwegian Vikings sailing their square-rigged longships more than a thousand years ago. It’s said they were searching for the Hebrides Islands off the Scottish coast and suffered a slight navigational miscalculation.

The island’s first mention in the old Icelandic sagas dates to 1024 where it is told how King Ólafur of Norway asked for the strategic island as a gift in exchange for his “friendship.” That offer was apparently rejected by the Icelanders as Grimsey was a valuable source of food—both cod and seabirds—enough to feed an entire army.

As Christianity took hold in Iceland, Grimsey became the property of monasteries on Iceland’s northern mainland where the island’s tenant farmers had to pay them an annual rent in dried cod and seabirds.
Fast-forward a thousand years, where today the bucolic island remains largely unspoiled. Its 60 inhabitants are concentrated in a small village in the southwest where a boat harbor with protective jetties was finally completed in 1990. Today these islanders (some who bail out in the winter) make their living from tried-and-true sources—cod and seabirds. And that is where we enter the story.

Cod fishing remains the mainstay of the small population of plucky islanders who call Grimsey home. It is the main source of cash for almost everyone who lives there. Seabirds still play a substantial role in island life as the eggs of common murres are collected from the steep cliffs and more than a thousand Atlantic puffins are still netted as a traditional food source. But now a small tourist industry is emerging that also supplies a cash infusion to the island—puffin photography.

We flew from Reykjavik to Akureyri on Icelandair. The plane is a Bombardier Dash 8. Generally, there is no hassle getting your carry-ons onto this prop plane. But infrequently if carry-on bags are severely overweight, they may have to be checked. In the last 10 tours we have run there, this has only happened to two of our travelers and their gear got there with no damage.

Due to a very limited supply of overnight accommodation on the island, our visit to Grimsey is like a step back in time when tourism in Iceland was in its infancy. Our groups stayed in a cozy farmhouse that has been converted to a guesthouse. We had the whole place to ourselves. It is located less than a half mile from the village and has a massive puffin cliff within a 5-minute walk from the front door. It’s a great situation. With almost 24 hours of daylight at this time of year, those insomniacs who are jazzed to stay out and shoot can stay out late or be up and out before breakfast. Many did!

On both our 2022 trips we had exceptional puffin flight shot opportunities as well as those of razorbills, common murres, Arctic terns, northern fulmars, and black-legged kittiwakes. With more than a million birds that nest on the island and generally ideal wind conditions on one side of the island or other, flight shot opportunities are exceptional!

This year a wayward little auk (dovekie) was on the island for a few days and some of us were able to get some shots of it. Little auks used to nest in small numbers on Grimsey, but they disappeared in the past few decades—probably because of warming due to climate change as they are the quintessential extreme northern Arctic seabird. Weirdly, I first saw it standing in the middle of the street by some houses near the harbor.

Due to the Gulf Stream, the summer weather is not extreme—even for a tiny island that sits directly atop the Arctic Circle. But since we were out for hours at a time, it was a great pleasure for us to come back “home,” warm up, and see what wonderful meals our cook, Anna, had prepared for us. Meals were so good she had to write recipes for us to distribute to our trip participants.

The trips were timed (and are timed in 2023) with puffin chicks being fed in their underground burrows. The parents come in with beaks chock-full of small fish allowing for great portraits as they stand on the cliff outside the burrow. It seems impossible to miss getting great images of this classic shot!

Related Tags:  flight, Grimsey, Iceland, island, puffin, puffins, seabirds