Our trip to Iceland was a graduation gift to our son, so while we were there, we wanted to make sure he got to see and do all the things he was hoping for when he selected Iceland as our destination. When he realized we’d have the opportunity to see puffins, that’s the thing he wanted most to do.
We saw puffins on our side trip to the black sand beach, and after some research, my husband discovered that the jagged rocks we could see way off in the distance from our Airbnb are home to one of the largest Atlantic puffin colonies in the world: Vestmannaeyjar – Westman Islands. And! There was a ferry to the islands only a half hour away from our house.
We booked tickets for the four of us for the next day. The main island, Heimaey, is only about 5 square miles, and I was tempted to just explore on foot. Luckily, after looking at the weather forecast, my husband booked a ticket to take our car on the ferry too. I would come to thank him over and over for that decision during the 5 hours we were on the island.
Up until our island day, we had spectacular weather: sunny and warm enough to sometimes not wear a fleece or hat or windbreaker. On this day, though, the forecast was more dreary. Rain and drizzle, wind, and cooler temperatures. On deck on the ferry, the wind cut right through you, the sky was steel, and the ocean was a frigid-looking dark glacial blue. As we approached, the islands were spectacular to behold, especially cloaked in fog and mist. The fog and mist made them difficult to photograph; my pictures don’t do their majesty justice.
We were already cold when we landed, so we headed directly to a café for coffee and croissants (and pretzels and fried dough). Then we drove across the island to see the bajillions of puffins we were promised.
When we arrived at the puffin nesting, the wind and rain were blowing sideways. Also, we were in a cloud. And it was cold. And wet. We started off on an upward trail that headed deeper into the mist and harder into the wind, and proceeded to get drenched. We had every bit of our gear on — sweaters, fleeces, wool socks, wool hats, raincoats — and still we were cold and wet. “Uhh, I think there’s snow mixed in with the rain, Mom.” Maybe? I couldn’t see through my droplet-covered glasses, but it sure felt cold enough.
We saw no puffins; it’s hard to see down onto a cliff face when you’re on the land directly above it. The wind was strong enough and the footing dicey enough that getting too close to the edge of a 600 foot drop onto wave-splashed rocks wasn’t something any of us felt good about. We turned around, dripping wet, and walked a short path to a small building that looked like bathrooms was perched on the cliff’s edge. We went inside, where the cold wind blew through the cracks, and saw that it was a puffin-viewing room. From there, we did see puffins on a facing cliff below us, but they were far away and the windows were milky and hard to see through. That was as close as we were going to get to puffins.
Five minutes into our five hours on the islands and we were cold, wet, and had done the thing we came to do. But! We saw sheep on the trails. Sheep who did hang out at the cliffs’ edges — right up on the edge — and who bleated at us when we walked by.
With the weather as it was, none of us with rain pants, all of us soaked and shivering, we got back in the car, cranked up the heat, and drove around the island and hoped for the rain to stop. About a half hour later, we parked down at the black sand beach below the cliffs to see if we could see anything from there.
We walked out onto the windy beach, where I saw puffins up on the grassy hill nearby. The kids opted to go back to the shelter of the car; I hiked up the hill for a closer look. I did get to see a few puffins flying around and landing on the grass. I didn’t get photographs on this trip. The puffins were still a bit far away — they were more savvy about flying away when people got close than the ones we saw on the main island of Iceland the day before — but it was fun to watch them fly. They’re comical; they look like tiny penguins and don’t look like they should be able to lift off into the air.
After the beach, I was cold and wet enough that I also took shelter in the car. The mist and rain made it hard to see anything even if we could have seen out through the fog on the windows. Despite the fact that we saw more puffins up close on our pleasant, dry day at black sand beach where we weren’t trapped on an island in sopping wet clothes for multiple hours, the trip wasn’t a complete bust. Seeing those rocky, green-topped islands reach up out of the ocean was pretty awe inspiring, and we all loved seeing (and hearing) the sheep up close, hanging out on grassy clifftops against a backdrop of the northern Atlantic far below us. I’d love to go back on a dry day.