Found in the Arctic, puffins are adorable creatures from the Alcidae family of seabirds. Arctic expedition passengers love spotting and having a chance to interact with these iconic polar birds, which hail from four species: the Atlantic puffin, horned puffin, tufted puffin, and rhinoceros Auklet.
Once almost entirely extinct from the east coast of the U.S. (as the result of the harvesting of their eggs for food, and their feathers for pillow and hat-making), puffins have made a small comeback on the coast of Maine.
Wherever we see puffins, it's especially important to respect their habitat, food sources, and nests. However, you can still get great shots of these impossibly cute seabirds - have your camera ready!
Iceland – home base to Atlantic puffins
Atlantic puffins, found primarily in the North Atlantic Ocean, are the most common. Today, the largest puffin population on the planet is located in Iceland; 60% of the world population breed here. That's somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 10 million puffins!
One of the greatest areas for puffin viewing in Iceland is near Grundarfjordur, a small fishing village on the northern coast of Snaefellsnes peninsula. There are only 1,000 human residents in the village, but many, many more seabirds call the area home.
In addition to the distinct Atlantic puffin, with its clownish eye markings and adorable waddle, you'll most likely spot thick-billed murres and black-legged kittiwakes, as well.
As for the rhinoceros auklet, horned puffin, and tufted puffin, they can be found in areas spanning from the Alaska Peninsula to central California.
Puffins feed primarily on small fish, including but not limited to capelin, hake, herring, and sand eels. Diets can vary from one colony to the next, due largely to the variety and availability of fish in a particular location. For example, puffins breeding in Alaska may not have access to the same diet as those in Iceland.
Different types of puffins
Puffins range in size and characteristics, based on the species:
- Atlantic puffins: at approximately 10 to 12 inches, this is the smallest species.
- Rhinoceros auklets: range in size from 14.5 to 15.5 inches.
- Horned puffins: same approximate height as the Rhinoceros Auklet, reaching approximately 15 inches.
- Tufted puffins: the largest of the species, these puffins can reach 16 inches tall.
All four species share similar physical characteristics, however, they differ in terms of height, color, and overall shape.
Young puffins do not search for their own food, but are instead fed by their parents. During the first few months after birth, chicks are typically fed multiple times per day. If you thought baby penguins were something to see, wait until you spot a young puffin.
With its dense cover of thick, down feathers, it's not hard to see how puffins got their name from the appearance of the chicks. Aside from their beak and feet protruding from their feathers, they look like tiny puffballs! This thick down helps keep them warm while the parent puffins are off fishing.
Spotting a puffin
Would you recognize a puffin if you saw one? Of course, they have a distinctive beak and the shape of their head might give them away, but here are some more physical traits and characteristics to watch for:
- Thanks to the shape of its beak, a puffin has the ability to transport multiple fish back to their nest, with the average catch consisting of between 10 to 15 fish.
- Puffins are great at catching fish because they can stay underwater for up to 60 seconds.
- Puffins are extremely fast and can fly at a rate of 48 to 55 mph.
- It's difficult to differentiate between a male and female puffin. The easiest way to do so is to compare their height, as males are slightly taller.
Due to a long life span of 20 to 30 years, puffins do not begin to breed until later in life. It is not uncommon for these birds to live five years before breeding.
Protecting world puffin populations
The puffin has many natural predators, while also contending with the impact of humans.
The great black-backed gull is the puffin's number one natural predator; its ability to catch puffins in midair makes it a dangerous foe over land or sea.
Cleptoparasites, another type of bird, are known to steal food from puffin colonies. These birds also kill off puffin eggs and even chicks, before they have the chance to reach adulthood.
Natural predators are to be expected, and humans have also had a negative impact on puffins, including threats on water and land. The hunting practices described at the beginning of this column clearly weren't sustainable in Maine and almost cost Americans this beautiful creature.
As stewards of the Polar Regions, safety and sustainability are our top priorities and we're proud to offer responsible tourism opportunities for conscientious polar explorers to view animals and birds like the puffin in the wild.
Check out our upcoming expeditions or call an experienced Polar Travel Advisor to discover the best arctic cruises for seeing puffins, including, perhaps, an Iceland circumnavigation voyage. As adorable as they appear in photos, you just can't beat interacting with them in the epic Polar Regions!