From the majesty of its whale species to the charms of its colourful puffins, Iceland amounts to much more than its unique geology and wild landscapes. You’ll even find one of the world’s most fiercely protected breeds of horses, still working the fields and exhibited in shows.
Húsavík on Iceland’s north coast is often considered to be Europe’s whale-watching capital. Between 95 and 99% of visitors that hit the waters at the height of the season – from mid-April to mid-October – report sightings of the nearly two dozen different species of whales that ply Iceland’s coasts. There’s the giant sperm whale – weighing in at up to 50 tonnes – and the long, acrobatic flippers of the humpback whales. There’s also the minke whale, which, at a mere 8 tonnes, is considered one of the babies. You’ll also find an excellent whale museum that tracks the country’s relationship over the years with the world’s largest mammals.
However, you don’t have to stray from the Icelandic capital for sightings with whale expeditions leaving from Reykjavik’s harbour. Watch as orcas or killer whales (actually a member of the dolphin species) rush by and playful white-side and white-beaked dolphins frolic in the waters. There are also the 2-metre harbour porpoises; sometimes termed ‘puffing pigs’, they are known for their distinctive blow when the break the water.
Head to the Iceland’s northwest tip for the Látrabjarg cliffs, the breeding grounds of quite literally millions of puffins. Doleful eyes and bright beaks make it hard not to fall in love with these while birdwatchers will be similarly impressed with the large populations of eiders, guillemots and arctic terns. Each summer, the staggering 441 metre high cliffs come alive with birdlife as boat cruises bring you among what is an archipelago of 3,000 tiny islets. This bustling natural phenomenon has been recognised by both The Lonely Planet and National Geographic as one of the most arresting spectacles of wildlife in the world. Plan your trip around the midnight sun for stunning views over picturesque beaches when you’ll also be treated to lazing seals that haul themselves onto the rocks to make the most of the warming sun.
While not strictly wild, the Icelandic horses with their shaggy manes and plodding strides are well worth some of your time. At times pony-sized, they’re still used for sheepherding while their genetics are protected by strict legislation that prohibits the import of any horses, making the Iceland horse the only breed in the country. Perhaps head to a horse show to experience them in all their beauty along with traditional Icelandic cuisines and customs.