The Kindness Of Strangers: Searching For Puffins In The Westman Islands

The Kindness Of Strangers: Searching For Puffins In The Westman Islands

Christine Engel Snitkjær
Photos by
Art Bicnick
Christine Engel Snitkjær
John Rogers

In the Westman Islands, opportunities for seeing puffins—the colourful seabird often associated with the north Atlantic—are manifold. You can enjoy the raw but very dead heart of the puffin for your glorious, carnivorous lunch. You can also buy stuffed puffins in gift shops. Or you can enjoy watching living puffins as they fly above vast cliffs and gently settle down on a patch of grass right next to you.

One day in July, my friend Ásdís and I opted for the latter option. The Westman Islands is an archipelago consisting of 15 small islands, the largest of which is called Heimaey, or “Home Island.” It’s an appropriate name—Heimaey becomes the home of thousands of people from all around Iceland each August as they gather for the infamous Þjóðhátíð festival. And that’s not to mention the 1.1 million puffins who call the islands home each summer, making it the largest puffin colony in the world.

Don’t eat your breakfast here

We commenced our journey by taking the 30 minute Herjólfur ferry ride from Landeyjahöfn, situated on the southern coast of the Icelandic mainland. The ferry is the most economical way of getting to the island for visitors who don’t own boats or helicopters, or don’t want to take the €100 plane hop directly from Reykjavík.

Fancy as we are, we’d brought our own oatmeal to eat on the ship. People gave us funny looks. It was not until we were on the boat going back to the mainland that I noticed the sign that said “only food bought in the ferry cafeteria can be enjoyed here,” situated right next to our table in a bright, very noticeable color. Oops.

Always follow the map

Ásdís and I had been so busy eating our oatmeal, we hadn’t gone out onto the deck to enjoy the view of the islands. It wasn’t until I disembarked the ferry that I noticed the beautiful landscape surrounding us. Lush green grass covered hills of black ash, while the endless ocean could be glimpsed in almost every direction. In the near distance, the volcanoes Eldfell and Helgafell loomed silently but menacingly over the small town.

“Lush green grass covered hills of black ash, while the endless ocean could be glimpsed in almost every direction.”

We started with a visit to the Eldheimar volcano museum. Founded in 2014, this museum tells the story of the famous 1973 eruption on Heimaey, and how this catastrophe affected local residents, many of whom lost their homes to the lava, and never returned. The museum is built over some of the ruined houses, so you can see the devastation first-hand.

After that, it was time to see some puffins. Prior to this trip, I’d never seen one in real life. We followed the tourist map of the island to the key spot—a puffin viewing lookout, signified along by an arrow pointing out the edge of the map. Could the arrow mean that the puffins are in a location so far away, it’s off the map completely?

Sharing is caring

We decided to try our luck and continue down the road toward a hill in the distance. It took us 55 minutes of walking, with alarmingly fast-moving cars careening past us, to reach a small hut. When we arrived, photos of puffins graced the walls amidst many curious tourists, so I knew we must have come upon the right place.

“If you want to see the puffins up close,” said one of our fellow visitors, “go to the other side of the hill. The puffins fly down and land on the ground right next to you.” He and his girlfriend had arrived on the island the day before and, having fallen in love with the beauty of the Westmans’ landscape, had decided to stay for an extra day. We thanked him for the tip, to which he replied “Hey, sharing is caring!” A kind stranger like that always makes my heart sing.

Following his directions, we made our way up across the tiny pathways of the hill, taking in the expansive areas of grass dotted with grazing sheep. On the other side, a glorious view of the smaller Westman Islands greeted us, shrouded in mist and surrounded by the crashing ocean. The tip was accurate: we looked on as puffins playfully swirled through the air, swooping down and landing in the grass around us. We could have stayed for hours, and in that moment, I was very grateful for the kind stranger’s advice.

No puffins for dinner

Before catching our ferry back to the mainland, Ásdís and I went to dinner at Slippurinn. This restaurant is only open during the summer and its kitchen focuses on slow cooking, wild herbs, and top-quality local ingredients. I’m not exaggerating when I say that their food is some of the best I have tried. I went for the plant-based nut roast dish—every mouthful was a little piece of heaven. Do I regret not ordering puffin? Not in the least. After seeing those charming birds up close, I was relieved to see that puffin wasn’t even offered on the menu. In the rolling beauty of the Westman Islands, puffins are better seen in the air than on the plate.

Distance from Reykjavík: 114km
How to get there: Drive Route One South to Landeyjahöfn, catch the Herjólfur ferry

Read more Grapevine articles on the Westman Islands here:
Eat It, Or Frame It? Slippurinn Eatery Pops Up At Apotek
The Westman Islands Are Alive (Even In The Wintertime)
On the Puffin Trail in Vestmannaeyjar