Compared to some other countries, there is not a lot of wildlife in Iceland. Iceland’s geographic isolation and northern location are probably to blame for this lack of variety in Icelandic wildlife. Animals in Iceland aren’t really a talking point, with the exception of sheep, the horse, and the whales.
However, there are plenty of animals to see in Iceland. In this article, we will tell you more about what animals can be found in Iceland and where to see them.
The Wildlife in Iceland
In the 18th century, reindeer were brought to Iceland from Norway for farming, but the Norwegian (nomadic) style of reindeer herding was not appealing to Icelanders, and they never domesticated the animals.
Reindeer seemed to fit in well in Iceland, and these days, you can still find about 3,000 of them in the eastern part of the country. They are high up in the mountains during summertime, but in wintertime they come down to the coast to graze on the grassland and are easy to spot.
Mt. Snæfell, Vesturöræfi and Brúaröræf are the best places to spot reindeer herds in the summertime, and the coastal areas and lowlands in East Iceland are where it’s all at in wintertime.
The arctic fox is the only land mammal in Iceland that reached the country without help of humans. During several ice ages, long before human settlement, arctic foxes walked over sea ice to reach Iceland.
Research from Durham University shows that arctic foxes also crossed an “ice bridge” to reach Iceland at the end of a period known as the Little Ice Age about 800 years ago, during which huge parts of the arctic seas were frozen. Arctic foxes could cross over to Iceland from other arctic regions quite easily, even though the travels were long and dreary.
You can find arctic foxes all over the country, in the highlands as well as lower coastal areas. They are pretty shy and are mostly active at night, so you have to be lucky to spot one in the wild. In isolated, uninhabited areas like Hornstrandir, arctic foxes feel more at ease around humans and are therefore easier to spot.
Marine mammals often spotted in the waters around Iceland are humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, killer whales, white-beaked dolphins, harbour porpoises, harbour seals and grey seals. In total, there are 23 whale and dolphin species, and 6 seal species in Iceland (among which the walrus, that is spotted in Iceland from time to time).
Whale watching tours depart from Reykjavík, Reykjanes peninsula, Snæfellsnes peninsula and North Iceland. The success rate of these tours is high, and whale watching tours are a lot of fun. Read this article to get an impression of an adventure tour by RIB departing from Reykjavík’s harbour.
Puffins and other birds
Iceland has about 85 breeding bird species, and in total 388 different species have been spotted throughout the years.
Most tourists can’t wait to see the Atlantic puffin, known for its black and white suit and colourful beak. And even though we love puffins, there are so many other amazing birds in Iceland.
What do you think of razorbills, arctic terns, common snipes, northern fulmars, ptarmigans, gyrfalcons and even white-tailed eagles and snowy owls (though rare)? The list doesn’t end there – you can spot greater scaups, tufted ducks, gadwalls, common eider ducks, whooper swans and golden plovers. The golden plover is an especially loved bird, as each year it is welcomed as the herald of spring.
Polar bears are not a native Icelandic species, but sometimes they drift to Iceland on ice floes from East Greenland. The last time this happened was in July, 2016.
When there is a sighting of a polar bear, the police are called and they usually kill it, as polar bears are a threat to the public and livestock. Unfortunately, rescue missions to return them to Greenland are difficult and expensive.
How Can I spot Wildlife Animals in Iceland?
Go to the zoo
The Reykjavik Zoo and Family Park is probably not like any zoo you’ve seen before. You won’t see lions, alligators, giraffes, hippos or animals like that.
Its focus lies on Icelandic farm animals and several native species. Seals, reindeer, sheep, and goats attract people of all ages, all year round! For children, there are several play areas, open all year.
Go whale watching
You don’t have to travel far to go on a whale safari, as Reykjavík offers good options for whale watching. Different whale watching companies have regular departures from the Old Harbour area. White-beaked dolphins and Harbour porpoises are seen year-round in Faxaflói bay, a large bay next to Reykjavík, stretching between Reykjanes and Snæfellsnes. In the summertime, there are regular sightings of humpback whales and minke whales.
Seeing breaching herring is probably not the reason why you travelled to Iceland. However, this herring aggregation attracts all kinds of cetaceans, like dolphins, porpoises, and most importantly, killer whales. Orcas can be seen all around Iceland (Free Willy’s orca Keiko was captured in Icelandic waters), but the chances are a lot higher in areas where there’s a high concentration of food. In wintertime, therefore, they stay close to Grundarfjörður. Can you think of anything more spectacular than seeing a pack of killer whales swim by?
Read more about whale watching in Iceland here.
Go horseback riding
Icelandic horses tend to be around 140cm tall. Internationally, most horse breeds shorter than 147cm are dubbed “ponies” but there are also some other characteristics that make a horse a pony. The Icelandic horse is right on the limit.
The Icelandic horse is known for its many gaits, of which especially the tölt is a particularly steady one.
Look at the birds in the downtown pond
Every Icelander has fond memories of childhood trips to the downtown pond to feed ducks with breadcrumbs. Nowadays feeding the ducks is frowned upon (bread is the equivalent of junk food for birds), but you can still drop by and say hello!
Though ducks are the popular draw, you’ll also see swans, geese, and seagulls. When you start to get cold, you can step into the City Hall to check out the large topographical model of Iceland built to scale.
Not Really Wildlife, Or Is It?
Visit the Cat Café
If you like cats, you feel right at home in Reykjavík. It is estimated that there are around 20,000 cats in the Capital Area of Iceland. And you will not only find cats on the streets, but you will also find them in Iceland’s first and only cat café, Kattakaffihúsið in downtown Reykjavík.
The cats that live at the cat café are selected in collaboration with cat shelter Villikettir (wild cats) and are all up for adoption. Many cats already found a new home through the café. The cosy vegetarian and vegan café has delicious sandwiches, cakes, and coffee on offer. It’s warm inside, and all orders come with a side of cat cuddles.
It’s the perfect place to warm up with a cup of coffee.