Ultimate Puffins Iceland 2017 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Sep 25, 2017

Conditions—wind, light and lots of birds—were virtually perfect where our group stood atop an 800-foot-high cliff as scores of puffins, razorbills and murres streamed past us. As the birds flew into the headwind they seemed to hover in midair making flight shots extremely easy to accomplish. It was wonderful!

With days interspersed by a wide variety of weather conditions we spent many happy hours photographing at two of Iceland’s exceptional seabird colonies, enjoying the almost constant change of lighting conditions that made photography both challenging and highly rewarding. Small squalls, light rain and lead-gray skies counterpointed by sunshine, blue skies and warm balmy (for Iceland) weather kept our shooting interesting. And during the late hours of the long daylight, when the setting sun barely kissed the horizon, we were treated to incredible photo opportunities to depict the birds perched on the flower-bedecked clifftops backlit against the midnight glow of the sun.

Atlantic puffins in IcelandLatrabjarg lies at the extreme northwestern section of Iceland. There, on sheer thousand-foot cliffs, a half dozen species of photogenic seabirds “nest.” The birds have many different strategies for accomplishing their goal during the short nesting season. Puffins dig burrows in the soft sod, and kittiwakes glue their nests of seaweed and dried grasses onto the sheer cliffs, cementing them in place with their own guano. Meanwhile, fulmars find a vegetated ledge that will cradle their egg, while the murres lay their one conical egg directly onto the stone of a rocky ledge. But what makes this area so special is that these birds are remarkably tame because, for many years, they have not been hunted by people at this location. Their unwary nature presented us with great opportunities to create tight portraits and wide-angle landscapes which included the birds as a component of our cliffside photographic compositions. What great fun!

Northern fulmars in IcelandOn remote Grimsey Island, as photographers, we had the entire island to ourselves for the most part. During the day a tourist boat brings in day trippers for a few hours, but we virtually never ran into the visitors because they were usually on foot walking from the ferry dock, while we had our own incredible 4x4 Sprinter van to transport us to some of the more remote areas of the island. Grimsey has little in the way of tourist infrastructure and our group members were the soul occupants of a small and relatively Spartan guesthouse that is open during the summer months. What made this accommodation incredible was the fantastic gourmet chef we brought along to cook for us while we explored the island. And what amazing meals she produced! Fresh local ingredients, supplemented with a wide variety of herbs and spices and fresh-baked bread at every meal, made a great visit to Grimsey a culinary event every day.

Of course, as we traveled between our destinations, we were confronted with thundering waterfalls everywhere. And as you might expect, they became a major part of our photographic repertoire.

Atlantic puffin in IcelandA lot has changed in Iceland since my first visit more than 20 years ago. Tourism has picked up exponentially, and the tourism infrastructure, transportation and food services have improved markedly. On the downside, seabird numbers have declined in many areas due to the probable effects of climate change impacting their food resources. Some areas in southern Iceland have had very noticeable declines in several species—Atlantic puffins noteworthy among them.

What makes this puffin trip extraordinary is once you get away from the bustling tourist hub of Reykjavík—out in Iceland’s remote “wilderness”—you can still experience the wide-open spaces, friendly and accommodating local people, and the raw, rugged and wild beauty of the incredible volcanic sub-arctic island l was attracted to during my first visit more than 20 years ago.


Be sure to check out our 2019 Ultimate Puffins, Iceland trip!

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