Lovable Puffins: A Spotter’s Guide

Puffins’ comical gaits, alert expressions and vividly social natures make sighting a colony an unforgettable experience. Not only do the birds tend to mate for life (most of the time), but they also create impressively equitable societies. Both sexes show off their most vibrant colors of reds and oranges for the summer breeding season and they each play active roles in caring for their young. There are four different species of puffin: one in the Atlantic and the rest in the Pacific. Whether you’re on deck with a set of binoculars, zipping through the water on a Zodiac or indulging in a little armchair traveling, here are some tips for telling them apart, as well as recommended locales for spotting each.

Atlantic Puffins on Grimsey Island, Iceland
Atlantic Puffins on Grimsey Island, Iceland/Lucia Griggi

The Iconic Atlantic Puffin

For most, the word “puffin” evokes images of Atlantic Puffins when uttered. This endearing species sports the classic white breast that makes it look as though it’s wearing a tuxedo. During the summer breeding months, its beak is a gaudy orange with a blue-grey triangle at the base. While its cousins might favor the Pacific, the Atlantic Puffin, as its name suggests, prefers climes like Iceland, Norway, northern Britain and beyond. 

Martin Renner, one of Silversea’s Expedition Experts and Ornithologist, who has previously monitored puffins’ diets to analyze against changes in the ocean environment, also recommends heading to Witless Bay just outside St. John’s in Newfoundland, Canada, which is home to more than 300,000 puffins between May and September. “It’s an awesome spot where you can get puffins, humpback whales and icebergs altogether during the right season,” he says.

Atlantic Puffin, Grimsey Island, Iceland
An Atlantic Puffin on Grimsey Island, Iceland /Lucia Griggi

The Long-Lashed Horned Puffin

At first glance, the Horned Puffin looks quite similar to its Atlantic-based relatives, but it favors the North Pacific, ranging all the way from the Russian Far East to northern British Columbia in the East and the Chukchi Sea in the North. “You’re really best off in Alaska during the summer; you can see puffins on glacial cruises out of Seward,” says Renner. “An ideal spot is the eastern Aleutian Islands, where you get massive colonies in the tens of thousands that buzz around the rocky coastline.”

The Horned Puffin’s summer bill is also different in color, with a yellowish base. It boasts two ‘horns’ above its eyes, like dramatic false eyelashes. As with the Atlantic Puffin, the Horned Puffin has a tuxedo-like coloration.

Horned Puffin, Talan Island, Russia
A Horned Puffin, Talan Island, the Russian Far East/Lucia Griggi

The Distinctive Tufted Puffin

The largest of the species, the Tufted Puffin favors the Pacific. It takes its name from its distinctive tufts—pale gold feathers which backcomb exuberantly from above its eyes like a fashionable quiff. Unlike the Horned Puffin, the Tufted Puffin has a dark belly. If you’re looking at a mixture of the two species, focus on the abdomen to tell them apart. Tufted Puffins have a wide range, being found all the way south in California and northern Japan. Renner recommends heading to Alaska or Russia to see them from early May until at least September. “My favorite place is out in the western Aleutians,” he says. “They’re not hugely abundant, but they are always around, meaning you can see them with ease.”

A Tufted Puffin, Talan Island, Russia/Lucia Griggi
A Tufted Puffin, Talan Island, the Russian Far East/Lucia Griggi

The Surprising Rhinoceros Auklet

Despite its name and its muted colors, genetic evidence and the shape of the bill suggest that the Rhinoceros Auklet is actually a type of puffin, and is closely related to the Tufted and Horned Puffins. Some ornithologists are even campaigning to rename it the ‘rhinoceros puffin.’ Needless to say, it takes its name from the strikingly protuberant horn atop its bill. According to Renner, Teuri Island – just offshore from the little harbor of Haboro in Hokkaido, Japan – is a spotter’s hot spot, as approximately 4 million Rhinoceros Auklets inhabit the island. The auklets can also be spotted in Alert Bay, British Columbia.

When it comes to puffins, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, you don’t just see them—their deep, almost grunt-like calls echo across the seascape, as you breathe in the salt-laced air. It’s an experience involving all your senses. Regardless of the species, you’ll always remember your first sighting of puffins. The best part, of course, is spotting flocks of them in their full orange-and-yellow-beaked glory while in their natural habitat. It’s an experience no wildlife enthusiast will ever forget, no matter if they’re visiting the Aleutian Islands, passing along the coast of Norway or elsewhere.