Iceland is home to around half of all the world’s puffins. The Westman Islands, which host the world’s largest puffin colony, are a haven for the country’s iconic birds.
There are over 1.1 million puffin burrows buried beneath the soil on the chain of islands. From late April to late summer the birds pepper the cliffs and meadows. During this time, around 20 percent of the world’s entire puffin population breeds and raises its young here.
It’s an annual tradition for children of Heimaey, the archipelago’s only inhabited island, to form “pysja patrols” to rescue lost and disoriented young puffins (which they call pysjas) that have wandered from their nests. The kids scoop up the confused birds and bring them home for the night. They then release them back into the wild. The pysja patrols save thousands of adolescent puffins every year.
Beyond the pysja patrols, puffins further are ingrained within life on Heimaey. Puffin images feature on murals and advertisements. Even the street signs are modeled after the orange-beaked birds.
Until the population began to rapidly decline in the 2000s, locals hunted them as a traditional food source. The population has since started to rebound, to the joy of the islanders who consider the birds an important part of their culture.
The Atlas Obscura Podcast is a short, daily celebration of all the world’s strange and wondrous places. Check out this episode about the puffins of the Westman Islands.
Know Before You Go
The GPS coordinates lead to a wooden lookout that often offers prime views of the puffins.