Features: Making a case for traveling to Iceland to see its wildlife

Ditch the golden circle, find some foxes

April 3rd, 2018

 

Iceland has been experiencing a moment that has been going on for several years. Before now it lived in relative obscurity, existing in most peoples’ awareness simply as part of a joke about its name relative to Greenland’s, but today it is one of the most desired travel destinations on the planet. People flock to the island nation to experience its rugged landscape, explore its ice caves, and ride its handsome (but short) horses. Yet despite nature being the primary draw for millions of tourists, Iceland’s wildlife doesn’t make it onto the average person’s itinerary.

That’s a lot of people who are missing out!

  Puffins > geysers, in my opinion

Puffins > geysers, in my opinion

Iceland is in no way in need of more reasons to visit, but based on my social media feeds, it could certainly use more diversity in how people spend their time there.

I’ve traveled to Iceland several times, just before inexpensive flights became available (which I only mention because I’m bitter about it), and a good deal of my time was spent looking for wildlife. It was an adventure to explore such a seemingly inhospitable place to find the animals that make it work. Anyone else who likes wildlife can get a lot out of my approach, not only for the sake of the animals that can be found, but because it takes you into the less-explored places of an over-explored country.

So whether animals are your thing or you simply want to find your way onto the road less traveled, consider my guide to planning your wildlife trip to Iceland.

Plan a dedicated Iceland trip

My first piece of advice is to go to Iceland because you want to go to Iceland, not because it’s a bucket list item that is conveniently on the way to mainland Europe. Despite its size, Iceland has a tremendous amount of wildlife to offer keen observers, and it merits more than the maximum 7-day stopover offered by Icelandair. If this isn’t how you roll, then there are whale watching tours to be found in the capital city of Reykjavík, available any time of the year.

Go in the summer

Speaking of which, if you’re in Iceland to explore its wildlife, aim for a summer visit. This is when baby birds are fledging, and all of the animals that you might otherwise see are still around. Plus the sun doesn’t set in June and that’s kind of cool -- no darkness to obscure the animals you’re looking for. Anything I recommend below is with a summer trip in mind.

Get out of Reykjavík and into the Westfjords

Don’t get me wrong, Reykjavík is a great city with a ton to do, and the Golden Circle is neat, but it’s a bummer to see so many repeating the same cycle of activities, knowing how much more is out there, and how accessible it is. Wildlife lovers should dedicate at least 75% of their time to the Westfjords, a region chock full of animals and tap water that does not taste/smell like sulfur, which is irrelevant to a wildlife experience, but to me it’s a clear perk.

  My photography skills know no bounds. (This is an arctic fox)

My photography skills know no bounds. (This is an arctic fox)

Notes on spotting animals:

  • Polar bears do not live in Iceland, but every so often they visit. And by every so often, I mean 5 times in the last century. Do not expect to see one.

  • I’ve seen foxes, whales, birds, etc just by driving around, but I’ve also spent enough time in Iceland to have good chances. Paid tours are an excellent way to increase your chances, but I have not actually done any myself.

  • Don’t touch them. Do I have to say this?

  • Look for the elusive white-tailed eagle. If you manage to spot one, give me a call so I can be jealous at you in a more intimate manner.

 

Here’s a little Westfjords road trip to get you started:

hvalur
  • Rent a car and drive the 5 hours from Reykjavík to Ísafjörður, the largest town in the area. Get gas along the way, as once you get into the fjords there will be very limited options for refueling.

  • Book a fox-watching day trip with West Tours, who will boat you up to the Hornstrandir nature reserve to look for the country’s densest population of arctic foxes.

  • Plan time to visit the Arctic Fox Centre in Súðavík, which is about 20 minutes from Ísafjörður. They have a museum which will tell you everything you’d want to know about the history and present life of the arctic fox, and also two living ambassador foxes that were orphaned as babies.

  • If you didn’t go whale watching in Reykjavík, West Tours also has a summertime whale and dolphin-watching trip that doubles as an excellent fjord-viewing trip.

  • Set your sights on Bíldudalur, home to the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum. While not technically wildlife, sea monsters give excellent insight to how wildlife has been viewed historically. Icelanders have let their imaginations run wild throughout the centuries, so there is plenty for the museum to cover.. Plus, it’s just top notch anyway, one of my favorite museums in the world.

  • End your Westfjords exploration with the finishing touch of Látrabjarg, home of a massive cliffside puffin colony, among many other seabird species. The puffins here are tame despite being totally wild, likely because not many people make it out this far. They let you get very close while taking photos, so just make sure to not get too close, and also don’t fall off the crumbling cliffs.

Visit other wildlife hotspots

A lot of people enjoy driving the Ring Road, which takes drivers through pretty much every major settlement in the country. Animal lovers may want to stop at the Húsavík Whale Museum in northern Iceland, coupled with a whale watching tour. It’s off the Ring Road, so it requires a little extra time. Fortunately, this also means you’ll be heading somewhere that most people don’t take the time to see.

Avoid directly killing wildlife

  Don't tread on me

Don't tread on me

Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon, is a perfect example of how tourism negatively impacts Iceland, its wildlife in particular. Most people come away from here naming it as one of their favorite spots, but all I can remember is the nesting arctic terns desperately trying to keep ignorant tourists from crushing their eggs, with little success. Ironically, people were stamping around off-trail in order to photograph chicks, unaware that they were killing those same baby birds in the process.

Iceland has had to adapt quickly to a massive rise in tourists, so nesting areas like this aren’t yet roped off, since it hasn’t been a problem in the past. Do what you can to not contribute to this problem.

 

Should you eat wildlife?

You can find animals like puffin and whale on the menu in Icelandic restaurants. You can also ride a horse and then eat a horse for dinner, albeit not the same horse. It’s a very small country (350,000 people), inhospitable to most types of farming, and they have survived on what the environment has given them for the past millennium, which of course informs traditions and diets. Whales are not part of this tradition -- almost no Icelanders eat it, so if you choose to do so, know that it’s more of a tourist gimmick than anything else. Whale-friendly restaurants often self-identify, so head there to be certain you’re not supporting tourist-driven whaling.

Iceland is home to a wide range of animals that are exciting to spot, from the diminutive puffin to the shy white-tailed eagle to pods of frolicking whales. This is a great place to look for arctic creatures in their prime while exploring the country’s sights that often go unnoticed by the masses. Besides, who can say no to adorable puffin pictures?

 

Over and out,

Ali Wunderman

 

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