Puffins on the Fly 2021 Trip Report(s)

By Joe Van Os on Oct 04, 2021

It is as idyllic as idyllic can be—Grimsey Island, 25 miles to the north of “mainland” Iceland is a solitary outpost in the cold North Atlantic lying smack atop the Arctic Circle. The summer sun barely sets on this small island gem as it no sooner touches the horizon than it starts to rise again.

The air is fresh and filled with the sound of the cacophony of hundreds of thousands of seabirds and the rhythmic pounding of waves on the shore. Tall grass and wildflowers quiver with the persistent wind and clouds drift from horizon to horizon.

Both of our 2021 Puffins on the Fly tour groups assembled at the Reykjavik domestic airport and flew for an hour to Akureyri, the “Capital of North Iceland.” There we checked into a comfortable boutique hotel, settled in, and enjoyed our first Iceland dinner.

Following breakfast, we drove to Dalvik where we met the small ferry that would take us on a 3-hour boat trip to the island. In all our crossings, coming and going, the sea conditions were moderate, and everyone disembarked in good shape. We were no sooner than off the ferry when we observed Atlantic puffins, arctic terns, northern fulmars, common eiders, and black-legged kittiwakes on the wing in Grimsey’s small, sheltered fishing harbor.

A trip to Grimsey is like a big step back in time. It has the slow pace of yesteryear, with a tiny fishing village overlooking the harbor, populated by less than 60 people. The village comprises about 25 houses, one small café, a tiny grocery store, a public swimming pool and buildings associated with the fishing industry. There is virtually no traffic—there are probably less than 3 dozen cars and trucks on the island and it is hard to tell if all of them are operational. On this two-square-mile island it is possible to walk almost anywhere from the guesthouse we charter for our groups’ exclusive use. Conveniently, there is a massive puffin colony just across the street from the guesthouse within an easy five-minute walk of the front door. But the island is almost entirely ringed by impressive seabird cliffs.

Fortunately, we brought two 4X4 vehicles with us to the island and we used them for faster access to the more remote locations on the island where we did not have to carry our heavy photo gear for long distances.

Being a relatively far offshore island, Grimsey usually has wind conditions that are very conducive to puffin flight shots and on these trips several diehard flight shooters spent many hours in pursuit of this prize. But the island provided more than puffin flight shots! During our visits we had many opportunities to shoot puffins with their beaks full of fish that they were bringing to their one chick—another “must have” puffin photo. Also, nesting razorbills, common murres and black-legged kittiwakes were very accessible on these cliffs. It is now believed Grimsey may be the world’s largest razorbill colony, and we also had many opportunities to photograph them in flight, as well as with fish in their bills—just like the puffins. Arctic terns are quite common and easy to photograph along with a variety of other breeding birds in the island’s grassy interior.

The island, itself, is very photogenic with towering cliffs, huge swaths of wildflowers in its meadows, and a scenic “international orange” lighthouse that can be seen for miles—even without its brilliant light.

Grimsey in summer is a sheer joy. If the island stayed that way forever, I might never leave. But its winters are dark, with a harsh damp wind and a dearth of seabirds that will not return until the daylight and more temperate weather come again. At that time, I am very happy to return with them.

Postscript. During the last full shooting day of our second group’s Grimsey visit, about half of us visited and photographed the historic island church, Miðgarðakirkja. This northernmost church in Iceland was built of driftwood in 1867. On the night of September 21, the church burned to the ground in 20 minutes, two months to the day from our group visit. The cause of the fire is believed to have started in an old electrical panel.


Be Sure to check out Joe Van Os’ 2021 Trip Photos (see Tour 1 Slideshow above)

 View Tour 2 Slideshow here