For all its natural beauty Iceland is not famous for having a wealth of wildlife to discover. But this land of fire and ice does have some characterful creatures for you to meet. With few trees and some extreme weather conditions many animals would have a hard time here. But a hardy few have survived and prospered on land. When we look to the oceans though it is a different matter altogether. The majority of Iceland’s native wildlife are sea creatures able to swim to the waters of this remote island. There is also a busy birdlife scene in Iceland with all manner of migratory birds passing through at different times of the year.
In fact Iceland only has one native land mammal - the Arctic Fox. These fluffy fellows wandered over the ice during the last ice age and became stranded on the island as the ice melted. Surviving on insects and berries they became the lonely land creatures of Iceland until humans arrived in the 9th Century.
In this article we explore the wild animals of Iceland. We will look at Iceland’s native wildlife and the best places to find them. We will also take a little look at both the domestic and wild animals brought over to Iceland by human settlers.
Iceland Wildlife: Whales, dolphins and seals
The most exciting of Iceland’s wildlife has to be its whales. These gentle giants of the ocean can be spotted throughout the waters of Iceland. Whale watching tours leave from various places around the coast, but the best place to see them is in the north. The village of Húsavík lies in the north east of Iceland about an hour from the Ring Road route. It is the place to go if you are a marine life enthusiast with regular boat trips heading out into the nearby Skjálfandi Bay. You are pretty much guaranteed to spot minke whales, humpbacks and dolphins if you visit during the summer months. On occasion you might see the giant blue whale too. Back on dry land The Húsavík Whale Museum is also worth a visit, perhaps as a primer to a whale watching tour.
Boat trips do head out from other North Iceland towns and cities into the Eyjafjörður Fjord. These make great trips for dolphin spotting or to see the smaller species of whales. However, the real giants of the ocean don’t venture into these narrower stretches of water. This makes Húsavík most definitely the whale-watching capital of Iceland.
Over in West Iceland around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula it is possible to see orcas (killer whales). These sleek creatures are often in the area from around November to March feeding on shoals of herrings. They will often come quite close to shore towards the mouths of inland waterways. So if you are lucky you could spot them from dry land. Also on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and in the Westfjords it is often possible to see seals on the shoreline.
Iceland Wildlife: Puffins and other birds
Spotting North Atlantic puffins is a firm favourite for nature tours in Iceland. The puffins flock to the island from April onwards and stay until around August. These characterful birds with their vibrant orange beaks nest in burrows on cliff edges around the island. They also nest in colonies so where there is one there are many. Atlantic Puffins are some of the most interesting birdlife to observe on Iceland. Bird watching boat trips take visitors around the coast and out to the small islands around Reykjavik and the Westman Islands in South Iceland. There are many more places to see them too. Including from land on the Látrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords.
There are many more migratory birds to be found too, including guillemots, sand pipers, snipes and fulmar. Bird watching around Lake Mývatn on the northern stretch of the Iceland ring road is particularly popular. Here you will find geese and whooper swans, among others.
Iceland Wildlife: The Arctic Fox and other wild animals
Arctic foxes live right across Iceland but none the less you are unlikely to spot one. Unless that is you travel to the remote Hornstrandir Reserve in North Iceland. Here they are a protected species and have little fear of humans. There are two types of Arctic fox – the blue and white. The white has a fluffy white coat in winter that it swaps for a short brown coat in summer. The blue keeps its coat year round but goes paler in winter with a thinner coat in summer.
Elsewhere on the island there are small populations of a few other creatures. All of these are non-native. In East Iceland there are reindeer that were introduced in the 18th Century initially for farming purposes. There are rats and mice brought over inadvertently. Mink were introduced originally for farming purposes and are now living wild in Iceland. And pet bunnies have escaped and multiplied.
In recent years with the advent of global warming a few lone polar bears have been spotted in Iceland. It is a rare occurrence and a worrying one.
Livestock and domestic animals in Iceland
With human settlement came livestock (along with a few stowaways). As larger vessels arrived from Scandinavia carrying sheep, cows and horses, various rodents snuck on board too. Today Iceland very much guards against the introduction of any new animals. Its current population of sheep, cows and horses need to be kept safe from outside influence. Having evolved in isolation over the centuries they are particularly vulnerable to any new diseases. Their isolation means that they haven’t developed immunity in the same way as other creatures.
With by far the largest population of any animal on Iceland is the Icelandic Sheep. There are upwards of 800,000 sheep on Iceland and they roam and graze freely. If you are rent a campervan and explore Iceland by road then you should keep your eyes out for them. Many of the roads in Iceland run through unfenced farmland, so sheep will wander across at will.
The Icelandic Horse
These sturdy and stout creatures were brought over from Norway with some of Iceland’s early settlers. They are now officially called Icelandic Horses and are famed for their inquisitive and friendly nature, short stature and strength.