One of the most recognizable and best-loved Arctic seabirds
What you need to know about the Atlantic Puffin
Our Expert Says… "The puffin's beak is easily capable of carrying up to 10 fish at a time, but the record observed is a bird with over 60 at once! They have a lot of local names, but my particular favorite is the 'Parrot-Billed Willy'."
The puffin is one of the most-recognized and most-loved seabirds in the world. A member of the auk family, the Atlantic puffin (also known as the common puffin) is most known for its brightly colored bill. Half red-orange, half grey, and with a yellow band in between the two colors and a yellow rosette where it meets the face, this is the feature of the puffin that is familiar to most people.
The puffin looks at its finest when wearing its summer breeding plumage. After breeding, the birds molt and lose some of the bright facial colorings and the bill appears to darken. It’s rare to see a puffin in this condition, though, as once the breeding season has finished they head out to sea where they stay until the following spring.
Far from just being decorative, a puffin’s bill is a powerful tool for hunting. Fast swimmers and accomplished divers, puffins can catch and hold several fish at once thanks to their bill’s ability to hinge parallel, rather than pivoting, as well as small backward-facing serrations that stop the prey from slipping out.
Outside the breeding season, Atlantic puffins live a solitary life hunting for fish and bobbing about on the ocean’s surface. They keep themselves facing into the wind, even when they are asleep, and must spend substantial parts of each day preening their feathers, recoating them with waterproof oil from their preen gland.
In spring, puffins return to land, gathering in large colonies at the place of their birth. They use burrows, with the most sought after being in grassy banks just behind a clifftop where they can take off and land most easily.
Puffins are monogamous, and repairing and rebuilding burrows is part of how the birds re-establish their pair bond. The other way they do this is by “billing” - the birds approach each other and then gently rattle their bills against each other, and action that is done regularly throughout the breeding season.
Although there are some 11 million adult puffins in the North Atlantic (with over 90% of these in northern Europe) their status has been listed as “vulnerable” due to a rapid decline in bird numbers in recent years. There are thought to be a number of factors behind this reversal of a previously increasing trend, and these include increased predation by gulls and skuas, the introduction of rats, cats, or other invasive species onto some islands used for nesting, reducing food supplies, and climate change.
Atlantic Puffin: Pictures from our travelers
Spots where the Atlantic Puffin can be observed
The outer bay can be a very good area for whale watching and an area where Blue Whale can be seen for cruise ships departing or arriving at the mouth of the fjord.
Isfjorden is the largest fjord system in Svalbard with spectacular geology, such as the Devonian sediments along Dicksonfjord and Ekmanfjordat. Most cruise ships sail out the first evening, a chance to enjoy the scenery, to explore the rest of Svalbard, before coming back to consider landings and explore parts of Isfjorden on the last full day.
Exploring the pack ice
The highlight of many Svalbard cruises is to explore the pack ice, and the best conditions occur when there is an obvious edge to pack ice to sail past, or calm seas where some ships go into the loose pack ice.
It is a unique and unforgettable experience to explore the pack ice ‘at the top of the World’. Seabirds feed along the edge, that can also be good for Harp Seals, and whales. The highlight is to spot a bear. Sometimes they are at a distance, sometimes a few hundred metres away, sometimes they come right up to the ship. What is crucial is to bring binoculars to enjoy and observe the Polar Bear in the heart of their realm, the pack ice, whatever the distance.
Sometimes a bear is seen quickly, sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it takes most of the day. Other times two days can be spent exploring the pack without seeing a bear. It is important to patient, enjoy the whole experience, with a bear sighting being the icing on … the pack ice! Conditions can change quickly. Mists often come in to reduce visibility. Currents can spread out the ice into widely scattered pack, making bear sightings less likely. Strong winds and a swell can mean keeping further away from the pack ice edge. In the early season the whole northern coast is in the grip of the pack, plus fast ice in the deeper parts of the fjords on the western side. Ships explore the ice edge to the NW of Spitsbergen at this time, with more options as the ice retreats north. As the pack ice retreats north it gradually ‘unzips’ from west to east, clearing the coast of northern Spitsbergen first, then the northern end of Hinlopenstretet, (enabling circumnavigations of Spitsbergen, exactly when varying from season to season), then the northern coast of Nordaustlandet and Sjuøyane.
Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like Lagøya and Sjuøyane can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.
The 14th of July bay and glacier, named by Prince Albert I of Monaco on the Princesse Alice on his oceanographic expeditions to Svalbard from 1898 to 1907.
It is one of the highlights in Krossfjorden, often combining a landing with a Zodiac cruise. Cruising along the impressive glacier front, there are regular calvings with bergs in the bay that attracts birds like kittiwakes. And nearby there are bird cliffs with a colony of Thick-billed Murres (Brünnich’s Guillemot) that also includes Atlantic Puffins. Options for landing (being careful of potential Tsunami waves from calvings) include one of the best spots in the whole of Svalbard for flowers, and even the chance to walk on the side of the glacier.
The sound between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet in the high Arctic, in contrast to the milder coast of western Spitsbergen. Early in the season it is locked in ice that slowly clears from the south.
The northern end can be blocked by the pack for a while, varying from season to season. Once open, it enables circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, although ice can still drift in on strong currents and block Hinlopenstretet. When Hinlopenstretet is open, but the northern end is still blocked, ships will come into the area, typically sailing along Freemansundet between Edgeøya and Barentsøya, then return.
The area is superb for Zodiac cruises and landings, and can be superb even as a ship cruise. There are plenty of seabirds, the sound can be good for whales, there are various fjords to explore, like the surprisingly arid and desert-like Wahlenbergfjorden, various island groups to explore, like Wahlbergøya, and the chance to experience what is described as the polar desert. Three locations stand out as highlights in whole of Svalbard, the ice cliff Bråsvellbreen, the Walrus Haul out at Torellneset , and the bird cliff at Alkefjellet.
Not part of Greenland, this is a volcanic Island on the mid-Atlantic Ridge that ships often visit it on route between Svalbard and Iceland as part of the cruise. However, it is a bit of detour south for ships heading across from Svalbard to the very NE of Greenland, with the chance to explore the ice edge as they approach the East Greenland current, an area where they might encounter Walrus and Polar Bears on the sea ice (both more elusive when exploring NE Greenland), and even Narwhal and Bowhead Whales on the edge of the sea ice.
For ships that do sail past or visit Jan Mayen, it is a volcanic island on the mid-Atlantic ridge, like Iceland to the SW. It is great for a range of breeding seabirds, and for whale watching.
Remains of a gypsum mine below spectacular and beautiful cliffs. In addition to the cultural remains, including parts of a railway and a barge, it has an interesting flora due to the ‘mild’ location, deep inside Isfjorden.
Nearby cliffs, which go right down to the sea, are eroded into impressive shapes, and can be a great place to explore offshore in a Zodiac, the chance to see various seabirds that breed on the cliffs, with kittiwakes and four auk species including Puffins. It is a popular site for a combined landing and Zodiac cruise, and a ‘sail’ past on boats out from Longyearbyen that are visiting Pyramiden.
The shallow seas off South West Svalbard and the drop-off into deeper waters are probably the best places for whale watching in Svalbard.
In addition to the Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, and Blue Whale, the SW is a good area to see White-beaked Dolphins (more elusive to the NW), whilst heading further out to deeper waters, there is the chance of spotting Sperm Whales and the Northern Bottlenose Whale.