Photographing Atlantic Puffins in Iceland

For some time, I had been wanting to travel to Iceland to photograph the Atlantic puffin, so when I decided to take a break from photographing tigers for my book, Hamir: The Fallen Prince of Ranthambore, I booked myself on a trip to Iceland. At  the time I had never really photographed birds, so I did not know what to expect. I knew I had to get myself a sturdy tripod so I got one that was ideal for the camera and lenses I was using at the time. 

After a short layover in London and a short connecting flight, I arrived at Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. I had booked myself at a hotel near the airport and I was to meet my guide the next morning. After settling into my room, I headed for the city centre to buy some food supplies, for I had been told that Grimsey Island, my eventual destination, had only one shop that opened for only two hours a day. 

That night I was so excited that I barely slept. I was finally fulfilling one of my longstanding dreams of photographing the Atlantic puffin. The little birds and their antics had captured my imagination since I saw them in a film on them and they were on my bucket list since. I waited impatiently for the morning.

I got up really early the next morning, grabbed a double espresso and was ready to meet my guide and start the adventure. After the customary meet and greet, we did not waste time and we hit the road for a six-hour journey to the northern coastal town of Akureyri. We were to spend the night there and catch an early morning ferry that would take us to the remote island of Grimsey.

Grimsey is a hidden miracle of nature. It is on the Artic Circle, and in summer, that means 24 hours of daylight, with the “golden” hours extending a few more hours, a dream for any wildlife photographer.  At the time it had only eighty residents, and by that, I mean human residents — the island is home to over a million birds. A land mass measuring just four square kilometres, Grimsey is easily navigable on foot. Most of the houses on the island are near the harbour. The ferry docks here and most of the passengers are day tripper; others stay at the two small Bed & Breakfast lodgings on the island. 

Grimsey is also home to the Atlantic puffin.

I didn’t know what to expect from this trip. As I have mentioned, photographing birds is not my forte, so I spent that night devising strategies in my head on how to approach the Puffins. It’s easy photographing birds from a distance but getting close to make portraits, like I do with tigers, was going to be a challenge. After hours of tense and excited planning, I finally dropped off, thanks mainly to a dinner of freshly baked homemade bread with mackerel and some soup.

The next morning, I jumped out of bed, had a coffee and headed to the closest cliff I could get to, which just happened to be a minute’s walk from my lodge. What I saw can only be described as a wondrous spectacle of nature. Hundreds and thousands of puffins, some flying out to sea to go fishing, some getting back from sea with a mouthful of fish. They would land on the cliff, look around and then disappear into their burrows, which I can only assume was where they were hiding their little ones. The Puffins stay on land between April and August, breeding and preparing the young ones for the next six months at sea.

I started photographing the Puffins, and with each hour that passed I would inch closer to the birds. I must have been out there for about eight hours the first day, photographing these birds and by the end of that I managed to get to with ten feet of them. It also took me that much time to get used to the heights and keep an eye on the terns, protective of their owns nests and chicks. At the end of the day the bird activity would slow down and I would take that as a cue to head back to my lodge for some hot soup and delicious home-made food. It was the beginning of summer but it was nevertheless cold, especially for someone who is used to the Indian summer. 

I repeated this routine every day, sometimes shuttling between different locations. By the end of the trip I had gained the trust of some of these birds and could get within five feet of them. All my hard work and patience finally paid off. I made a lot of images, but the really rewarding experience was spending an entire week around hundreds and thousands of birds at one of the most picturesque locations in the world. 

It was now time to head back to India. I had planned to return to Grimsey to spend an entire month on the island, but with the travel bans because of the Covid pandemic, I was forced to cancel my trip. I am determined to return to Grimsey one day soon and spend time with the beautiful and very animated Atlantic puffin, also known as the clown of the sea.

Hamir: The Fallen Prince of Ranthambore now available on Amazon