Iceland’s Animals

Iceland may not be known for its land mammals—other than sheep, cows, horses, reindeer, and arctic fox—but animals in the ocean and sky are varied and ample.

Horses in southern Iceland. Photo © Kunthika Panyawuthikrai/Dreamstime.
Horses in southern Iceland. Photo © Kunthika Panyawuthikrai/Dreamstime.


Fish are the lifeblood of Iceland, sustaining its inhabitants, as well as the country’s biggest trade resource. In the waters surrounding Iceland, you will find cod, haddock, catfish, mussels, halibut, plaice, lumpfish, monkfish, skate, and Greenland shark. Native to Icelandic river waters are salmon, trout, and arctic char.


Several species of seals call Iceland home, with harbor seals and gray seals being the most common. There are seal-watching sites in the north of Iceland, and at Hvammstangi is a seal center that serves as a museum, information center, and seal-watching enterprise. Harbor seals are more common to spot because they spend more time on land, whereas gray seals like to spend more time out in the ocean. Harp, ringed, hooded, and bearded seals are also spotted in Iceland, but seeing one is a long shot.


Whale-watching is a spectacular way to spend an afternoon in Iceland, and there are several species to see, depending on where in Iceland you set out on your excursion. High season for whales around Iceland is May to October, and 14 species have been seen off the coasts of the island. The species in Iceland are: blue, fin, minke, pilot, humpback, sei, orca, sperm, bottlenose, beluga, and narwhal whales, as well as white-beaked dolphins, white-sided dolphins, and harbor porpoises.

A puffin in North Iceland. Photo © Bjorn Ludviksson/Dreamstime.
A puffin in North Iceland. Photo © Bjorn Ludviksson/Dreamstime.


Bird-watchers are delighted when they visit, as there are more than 300 species of birds in Iceland. The island serves as a stopover for birds migrating between North America and Europe, and common species are ravens, eider ducks, arctic terns, Iceland gulls, white gulls, black-headed gulls, skuas, white-tailed eagles, gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, and oystercatchers.

The bird that has become synonymous with Iceland is the adorable puffin, with its black and white body, bright orange feet, and colorful red, blue, and orange beak. Puffins are remarkable swimmers and divers, able to stay underwater for up to a minute and surface with as many as 10 small fish in their beaks. While exceptional in water, puffins are clumsy in flight and are known for their uneven landings on land. It’s part of their charm. Millions of puffins call Iceland home, although their numbers have dwindled over the years. It’s possible to see puffins during the summer in areas including the Westman Islands, Grímsey, and the Látrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords.