Iceland’s rugged, barren terrain doesn’t make life easy for animals, but they’re as part of the landscape as the country’s glaciers, waterfalls, and mountains.
The unforgiving land makes spotting the eyes of an Arctic Fox in the distance or hearing the sound of grazing horses all the more impressive. For those animal lovers — or anyone looking to make new friends — here’s a list of creatures to keep an eye out for while exploring the Land of Fire and Ice.
It’s no secret that Iceland is a hotbed for Atlantic Puffin breeding. Every year between early April and September, the colorful beaks and cheeks of these seabirds can be spotted along the country’s coastlines. There are many places to add to your puffin-spotting itinerary if you happen to be in Iceland at the right time.
Just south of Reykavík is a small town called Dyrhólaey, where you can watch puffins come and go. Ingólfshöfði and Borgarfjörður Eystri to the east are two other popular spots, and driving to those locations will offer spectacular views of the countryside before you catch a glimpse of the cute mammals. For the extra adventurous, there is Grímsey Island, an isolated jewel of landmass which extends into the Arctic Circle and can only be reached by ferry.
Much like the land they live off of, these horses are small, tough, and beautiful. Dating back to the ninth century, the sounds and sights of hooves and wild manes have become somewhat synonymous with the country itself, making guided horse tours a commonality. But there’s something special about seeing these striking mammals in the wild, which is easiest by car. While on the road, look for their silhouettes against the vast landscapes, and pull over for impromptu roadside photo-opps.
As long as you’re not on a glacier, chances are you’ll run into a sheep or 12 — maybe a even whole crowd if you’re visiting in September, when farmers round up their herds for winter. In this instance, put your car in park and watch their furry feet cross the road as they head for home. There are more sheep than people on this tiny island, which makes it almost impossible to miss them!
The frigid waters that surround Iceland — a mix from the Atlantic and Arctic — might not entice too many swimmers, but it’s a different story for whales. The region’s shallow currents attract up to 20 different species who use the area for feeding throughout the spring and summer months.
The best way to see these majestic sea creatures is on a whale-watching tour, which can be done right from Reykavík or by heading to more remote areas like Snæfellsnes or Húsavík, where orcas are seen on a regular basis. Though most tours showcase similar types of whales, the vessels can vary, so choose accordingly and make sure to bring your zoom lens!
Iceland’s only native mammal is impressive for a number of reasons. Not only have Arctic foxes sustained everything Mother Nature has thrown at them for thousands of years, but they also embrace the challenge by braving each winter head-on instead of hibernating. These foxes can thank their bodies for much of that strength, as their fur regulates internal temperatures and changes colors to adapt to landscapes and seasons, much to the disappointment of predators. This also makes photographing Arctic foxes more of a challenge.
To improve the odds of spotting an Arctic fox or two, there are tours offered from spots around the country, all of which will shed light on the animal’s patterns and diet. But if you’re looking to go out on your own, head to the Westfjords region. The area’s wilderness is pristine and untouched by human infrastructure (especially in Hornstrandir), which gives you increased chances of spotting an elusive Arctic fox, especially during the summer.
As an island nation, Iceland is full of places to spot the playful seals that bask in its surrounding waters. It’s possible to see these quirky creatures in any coastal region, though there are undoubtedly a few places that are better than others. To increase your chances of seeing seals, follow low tides and good weather, which seals enjoy just like humans!
Three hours north of Reykavík is a place called the Vatnsnes Peninsula, home to three locations that are popular stopping grounds for seals. Another place worth visiting is Jökulsárlón, as seals are routinely seen poking in and around the glacial lagoon’s floating icebergs.
Header image by Alessandro Colli