By Nat Hab Expedition Leader Eddy Savage
Nestled deep in Isafjordur Bay in the Westfjords region of Iceland lies a captivating little island, Vigur Island. Emerging only a few hundred feet from the sea, it is dwarfed by the surrounding mountains that rise approximately three thousand feet, their peaks dappled with snow. Positioned just a little north of 66 degrees latitude, the island experiences long, warm summers, though not warm enough to melt the remnants of the past winter’s snow. The landscape, dominated by tundra due to the northern latitude, hosts only a sparse population of trees, growing where they have been deliberately planted and nurtured. The cool waters of the North Atlantic moderate the temperature, ensuring it never becomes excessively hot, even when the sun graces the sky for nearly 24 hours at the peak of summer.
Situated more than a mile from the mainland, the island has remained uncolonized by Iceland’s only “large” predatory mammal, the Arctic fox. This lack of predation has allowed a flourishing wildlife population, including approximately more than 100,000 puffins, 7,000 common eiders, 1,700 Arctic terns and 2,000 rare black guillemots to nest here comfortably. The eastern shores of the island boast a shallow rocky reef, a favored haul-out spot for the locally endangered Atlantic harbor seals, which can often be spotted basking in the sun’s rays during lower tides.
Vigur Island, settled since at least 1194, has seen diverse uses, including a sheep farm, an eiderdown farm—operated without harm to the common eiders—and, more recently, a stopover for visitors keen to explore the island’s exceptional biodiversity. Today, a family of three manages all the island’s operations, running a gift shop stocked with puffin-themed items and Icelandic artisan creations. A simple restaurant serves traditional lamb soup and a delectable homemade rhubarb cake, aptly named “Happy Marriage Cake.” Accompanied by coffee and tea, these light meals perfectly fuel afternoon explorations of this unique sanctuary.
Vigur Island, as seen from the water, once served as somewhat of a central hub, hosting government officials on occasion.
The island is a breeding ground for 100,000 Atlantic puffins. The steep hills and cliffs form the ideal “jump site” for clumsy and heavy puffins.
A black guillemot and an Arctic tern share a patch of beach. The breeding birds form dense clusters, a sight not commonly observed in many other parts of the world.
Beyond the birdlife, the island offers breathtaking scenery. Möngufoss waterfall cascades out of a hanging valley, plummeting two hundred feet before meandering a quarter mile to the sea.
Atlantic puffins are the main attraction. These heavy diving birds buzz around the island in all directions. Capturing them in flight is challenging but rewarding!
The sea surrounding Vigur Island is often dotted with resting puffins as far as the eye can see.
The front lawn by the restaurant serves as a tranquil resting spot. This black guillemot seemed undisturbed by our presence.
The island hosts 7,000 breeding common eiders. For decades, farmers have collected down shed by the chicks, replacing it with hay to maintain the nest’s insulative properties before processing and selling it globally. Iceland’s common eiders contribute to 90% of the worldwide eider down supply.
Harbor seals find solace on the shallow rocks along the southeastern shoreline, with up to two dozen seals occasionally seen resting.
In all, Vigur Island dazzles the senses, offering abundant wildlife, a unique history and serene surroundings. Every visit to the island promises to be a memorable experience.