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Welcome to the land of fire and ice, where untamed nature holds sway and unique animals thrives amidst dramatic landscapes. Iceland is a land of contrasts, where glaciers and volcanoes coexist, and where elusive creatures roam freely in their natural habitat. In this animal travel guide, we’ll embark on a journey to discover the eight must see animals in Iceland and reveal the best times and places to encounter them up close.
Let’s start our journey by meeting the iconic Icelandic horses. An integral part of Iceland’s heritage and culture, Icelandic horses have been in the country for over a thousand years. Known for their compact size, friendly temperament, and unique gaits, these horses are a delight to encounter. You can find these majestic creatures grazing in the countryside throughout the year.
To experience the beauty of Icelandic horses up close, you will encounter them all over Iceland but in particular head to the southern region, particularly the Golden Circle area. You will find places to stop where these beautiful horses are up close and can be patted.
Best Time: Spring to Autumn (April to October)
Best Place: Various farms throughout the countryside
When it comes to adorable wildlife encounters, puffins steal the show. These charming seabirds, with their black and white plumage and vibrant orange beaks, flock to Iceland’s coastal cliffs and islands during the breeding season. The most famous spot to observe puffins is the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), particularly on Heimaey Island, where millions of these birds congregate from May to August. Take a boat tour around the islands to witness these enchanting creatures in their element, diving and soaring through the skies.
The Westfjords region is also home to several great spots to see puffins, including the amazing bird cliffs: Latrabjarg, Hornbjarg and Haelavikurbjarg.
Best Time: May to August
Best Place: Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), especially Heimaey Island and Westfjords
Iceland’s waters are home to an array of whale species, making it one of the best places for whale watching in the world. The most common species you’ll encounter are humpback whales, minke whales, and orcas (killer whales). The best time for whale watching is during the summer months, from May to September, when the waters are milder and more accessible.
Húsavík, located on the northern coast, is renowned as the whale-watching capital of Iceland. Take a boat tour from Húsavík’s harbour, and you’re likely to spot these magnificent creatures breaching and feeding in their natural habitat. Another excellent location for whale watching is the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in the west, where you can witness the interplay between stunning landscapes and marine life.
Best Time: Summer (June to August)
Best Place: Húsavík, Akureyri, and Dalvík in the north, and Snæfellsnes Peninsula in the west
The Arctic fox is the only native land mammal and personally I think, the cutest of the animals in Iceland and has adapted remarkably to the harsh Arctic environment. These petite, fluffy creatures change their fur colour with the seasons, turning pristine white during winter to blend in with the snow and reverting to a brownish or bluish-grey hue in summer. Spotting Arctic foxes requires patience and a bit of luck, as they are reclusive and mostly inhabit the remote highland regions.
The best chance of encountering Arctic foxes is during the summer, as they are more active and visible. The Westfjords and the northeastern part of the country, such as Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, are some of the best places to spot them. Be patient and maintain a respectful distance, as these beautiful animals are wild and should not be disturbed.
We were lucky enough to see one in the Westfjords but were simply not quick enough to get a photo.
Best Time: Summer (June to August)
Best Place: Þingvellir National Park, Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
Taking a self drive trip is a great way to see Iceland and the animals that inhabit it. If you are thinking of this option, here are my 11 Tips for Driving in Iceland.
Iceland is also home to a small population of reindeer, believed to have been introduced by Norwegian settlers in the 18th century. You can find them mainly in East Iceland, where they roam freely in the rugged terrains. These majestic wanderers offer a sight to behold, especially during their calving season in May when you might spot adorable reindeer calves. Today around 6000-7000 reindeers can be found during the summer in Iceland but only in the eastern part of the country, east of Jökulsá á Fjöllum river and north of Vatnajökull glacier.
Best Time: May to September
Best Place: East Iceland, particularly east of Jökulsá á Fjöllum river and north of Vatnajökull glacier
Iceland’s coastal regions are also inhabited by curious and playful seals. The most common species are the harbour seal and grey seal. You can often spot them lounging on icebergs or sunbathing on rocky shores. The best time to see seals is during the breeding season, which takes place in late spring and early summer.
The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the nearby Diamond Beach in southeastern Iceland are fantastic places to spot seals. Take a boat tour on the lagoon to see these endearing creatures swimming gracefully in their icy domain. We spotted a number of seals frolicking in the water on our boat tour.
Best Time: Year-round, with increased sightings during summer
Best Place: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Vatnajökull National Park
The golden plover is another native bird that can be seen in Iceland. These medium-sized birds have striking plumage, with a beautiful golden and black coloration. They are known for their distinct aerial acrobatics, especially during the mating season when they perform impressive display flights.
No bird is loved as dearly by Icelanders as the golden plover. According to Icelandic tradition their arrival is considered to be the harbinger of spring and summer: When they arrive winter must be on its way.
The best places to spot golden plovers are the open plains and moorlands in the highland regions. Be mindful not to disturb their nesting sites and enjoy watching their energetic displays from a respectful distance.
Best Time: Summer (May to August)
Best Place: Highland regions, including Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk
Sheep roam freely throughout Iceland (including on the roads and they have right of way) for much of the year. There are about 800,000 sheep in Iceland and only about 323,000 Icelanders. This means there are more than two sheep per human in Iceland. Because they are experts at finding food in the rocky, rugged terrain, they are genuinely free-range.
Most sheep roam free through the spring and summer. But as autumn / fall approaches, they are herded to the shelter before winter hits. Farmers heard all sheep they find, bringing them to sorting pens, where the sheep are sorted into who owns them.
Best Time: Summer (May to November)
Best Place: Everywhere
Iceland’s diverse animals present a mesmerizing array of opportunities for wildlife enthusiasts and animals lovers. From the charming puffins perched on cliffs to the majestic whales breaching in the seas, and the elusive Arctic foxes roaming the highlands, each encounter is a unique and unforgettable experience.