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Ocean Atlantic Scottish Isles

Atlantic Puffin

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 & Videos

atlantic puffin

Spots where the Atlantic Puffin can be observed

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
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.

Our trips to spot the Atlantic Puffin

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