The Icelandic horse, Atlantic puffin, Arctic fox, migrating whales and wild reindeer are just a few examples of the plentiful wildlife found in Iceland. My name is Ryan Connolly, a glacier guide in Iceland, and co-founder of Hidden Iceland.
We specialise in running small group tours to all areas of the country to experience Iceland at its most raw and beautiful. I have personally walked amongst all of the animals in this list and care deeply about the environment I guide in. This article will focus on the more photogenic versions of wildlife in Iceland and how best to experience them in person.
Despite the fact that Iceland is an isolated island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, skirting the edges of the Arctic Circle, the wildlife is incredibly diverse. Many mistake Iceland’s treeless landscape for a harsh tundra. A place devoid of life, heavily affected by the elements. In winter, this cold and often dark terrain certainly feels like a place where vegetation and animal life would struggle to take hold. But with a mix of volcanic activity, glacial erosion and the warm waters of the gulf stream comes a unique biome that entices sea birds, wild animals, whales, rich vegetation and a plethora of hardy locals living off the land. Ash from volcanic activity acts as a natural fertiliser. The glaciers erode the volcanic rocks to create usable soil. And the warm waters streaming up from the gulf of mexico give Iceland a temperate climate that keeps the average winter temperature just above freezing. Believe it or not, it’s a great place to live for both animals and humans alike.
To be fair though, much of the flora is under snow or not growing in the winter months. Around 90% of the bird species have migrated south for the winter. Many of the barnyard animals such as sheep, cows, pigs and goats are kept indoors for their own protection from the wind and cold. Even the whales that spend their summers in Iceland are long gone too. Luckily during these months most tourists are more focused on the skies than the sparse life on the ground as they hunt for the ever elusive northern lights. Icelandic horses tend to be the only large animal you will see outside in the winter, but if you look close enough you can also catch a glimpse of the shy Arctic fox blending into its surroundings. Or perhaps a pair of ravens capitalising on the kindness of local guides feeding them atop a glacier.
In summer the winds drop, the temperature rises and the 24 hours of daylight creates an environment ideal for life. The once barren looking ash fields are flush with tall purple flowers, the Alaskan Lupine. The Icelandic sheep are released into the wild to graze unencumbered until the winter returns. Around 120 different bird species migrate to Iceland including the clumsy Atlantic puffin, the predatory Great Skua and the Arctic Tern known for having the longest migratory pattern in the world, at an impressive 15,000km each year. Whale watching also becomes a big draw during these months with many tourists joining local whale watching tours to see Killer whales, Minke whales and even the occasional Blue whale.
I’ve listed my favourites below, but trust me this list could be much much longer.
1. The Icelandic horse
The Icelandic Horse is one of the most photographed animals in Iceland. They are the only large animal to remain outdoors during the winter months so catching a glimpse of the northern lights in the sky with a snow-covered Icelandic horse in the foreground is the crown jewel for any amateur photographer. I’ve personally only managed to take an out of focus version of this so won’t be sharing it here today sadly. The Iceland Horse is also a great example of how animals can quickly adapt to a changing environment. It’s reported that the Icelandic Horse was a lot taller and slimmer than its current stalky physique. They also grow a thick layer of hair up to 15cm long all over their body in winter to combat the cold. The horse is so closely protected that no other species is allowed into the country and if it is taken out for an International riding competition it can never return. They are a delight to ride, with 5 gaits instead of the normal 3, one of which being the tolt. This is a style of running that utilises the leg strength and keeps one hoof on the ground at all times which creates a very stable but speedy ride. The Icelandic Horse is one of a kind. Depending on the quality of the horse they can sell for as little as £5000 up to £300,000. You can see why they are so loved by the locals and tourists alike.
You can join on a number of horse riding tours in Iceland if you are wanting to try out a tranquil horse ride. Or if you want to simply say hello while travelling you can include lunch at the Friðheimar Tomato Farm which also trains horses as part of a Golden Circle tour.
2. The Atlantic puffin
Iceland boasts the largest Atlantic puffin colony in the world with a reported 10 million puffins frequenting the shores every summer. The largest single colony is located on the Westman Islands in the south of Iceland with 1.1 million puffins choosing this as the perfect vantage point to mate and fish. These colourful little birds are much smaller than is often believed. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hands in fact. They are most at home in the open ocean and actually spend an impressive 9 months at sea without touching dry land. They only come onto land to mate. Even then they will choose tall cliff edges where they can quickly get access to their fishing grounds to feed their ever hungry baby pufflings. Although the number of puffins in the area is impressive they have in fact recently been given the status of ‘vulnerable’ on the Endangered Species list. In the south of Iceland the mating season has not been ‘successful’ since 2003 with less than half of the mating puffins bringing their offspring adequate food to allow them to migrate into the open ocean at the end of summer. This is because the water around the coast has risen by around 1 degree celcius meaning the puffins main food source, the cold-water sand eel, has moved north in search of colder water. This forces the puffin to spend more time searching for food and makes it less likely that the puffling will be given enough food in the short summer window.
3. The Arctic fox
The Arctic fox numbers seem to be defying the global trends and are actually growing in number with the onset of climate change. Milder summers, increased levels of migrating birds and greater restrictions on hunting have allowed the number of Arctic foxes to grow for the first time in decades. This sadly doesn’t mean you’re definitely going to see an Arctic fox out in the wilderness though. I personally have only ever seen 7 or 8 in the wild over the past 4 years, and I work in the outdoors for a living. This is because these small creatures, like the Icelandic horse are perfectly in tune with their environment.
They are nocturnal for one, which of course makes a big difference in sightings. But also a large number will change colour throughout the seasons to match the environment. A dark brown, blue or black in summer and a snowy white in winter. The Arctic fox is more of a scavenger than a hunter. Effectively, it eats what it can get a hold of. Whether this is a sea bird, fish, berries or left overs from another animals hunt is irrelevant to the Arctic fox. By the end of the summer they are fat and fluffy and ready fort the harsh winter months.
If you want to see a guaranteed arctic fox then you can check out the Arctic Fox Sanctuary towards the West Fjords where they care for orphaned foxes who are unable to fend for themselves in the wild. I recommend doing this as part of an organised package and see the rest of the West Fjords while you are there.
4. Whales of Iceland
Keiko, the killer whale from the movie Free Willy was actually captured off the Icelandic shores. Later in life, just like in the movie, he was released back into the nutrient rich waters of Iceland after a spell of rehabilitation in a sea enclosure in one of the southern islands. Killer whales (Orca’s) are just one of the multitude of whale species found mating along the coast of Iceland in summer. Whale watching is a big part of the draw for tourists in Iceland and on a good day you can spot Orca’s, Humpback whales, Minke whales, Fin whales and even a Blue whale.