Whale watching was on our to-do list in Reykjavík, but we didn’t plan ahead for it. We also figured that it would be wrong to leave Iceland without seeing any puffins, as colorful, goofy, and famous as they are. On our second to last day in Iceland, Cooper, Emma, and I drove the southern coast of Iceland, from Grindavík all the way to the town of Vík, near the island’s southern extremity. I had intended for us to catch the ferry to the Westman Islands off the coast, where we were sure to see puffins, but time was short, so we focused on the mainland instead. One beautiful spot was the Dyrhólaey nature reserve, where many puffins nest in the spring and summer. I wasn’t sure if we’d actually find a puffin, since we weren’t sure exactly where to look, but it was exciting when we did! So exciting, in fact, that we decided to go on a puffin boat tour in Rekyavík the next day, instead of whale watching.
Dyrhólaey Nature Reserve
Dyrhólaey means Door Hole Island: the basalt cliffs protrude off the southern coast into the ocean, but with a large hole cut out that boats can fit through. At the time, I’d either forgotten or didn’t yet know that the suffix ‘ey’ means island, and Cooper and I disagreed about whether it was a peninsula or island proper. Wikipedia tells me that the end of the promontory began as a volcanic island, which is now the end of a peninsula.
That peninsula and its lighthouse mark mainland Iceland’s southernmost point. We didn’t venture that far, although if I’d realized at the time that the door hole island was the main event, I probably would have insisted. But it was late afternoon, we’d already been driving since 5:00 am, and we still had several stops to make before our long drive home. Instead, we stuck to the eastern end of the nature reserve, where we’d parked, sitting out on the rocky point for a bit and looking for puffins on the cliffs, trying to follow the directions from the guidebook.
After staring at a cliff for a few minutes, Cooper spotted a little black shape: our first puffin! It disappeared, then reappeared—forward facing this time!—which allowed us to confirm it was, in fact, a puffin. We could have spent hours there, sitting above the sea or exploring the beach and the area around the lighthouse. I’d definitely recommend spending a night in the area, to avoid having to rush around and double back to the capital like we did.
We were tired from the loooong Reykjanes and south coast road trip of the day before, and as we loitered about eating cinnamon rolls and poking in shops, I don’t think I really wanted to get on a boat. But as we left the harbor, all three of us knew it had been the right choice. How could we visit this coastal land settled by the Vikings, where life is sustained by fishing, without going out on the water? It didn’t even rain that much on us.
Puffins summer on the two uninhabited islands offshore from Reykjavík. The islands are weird and flat and rocky and unappealing, if you ask me, but our guide told us that the population of puffins there has grown in recent years. (Elsewhere in Iceland, populations are decreasing, likely due to a shrinking food supply caused by warming ocean temperatures.) From the boat, we could see the puffins fly awkwardly between the islands and the open water with little fish in their beaks, fleeing the bigger birds that tried to steal from them. My point-and-shoot camera, which I carried with me for its 12x zoom, malfunctioned near the start of the tour (possibly fatally), but before that happened, I did get one decent shot of a puffin outside its burrow and a photo of a few puffins floating on the water.
They were surprisingly small and difficult to see, recognizable in the air only by the weird rhythm of their little flapping wings. In the end, we wished our boat trip was longer—the puffin tours are only an hour!—but were glad it had been easy to fit in on our last day, and that we still had time to go to a thermal pool before dinner. Win-win, really.