Iceland's cold waters are the perfect place for seals who enjoy good fish, peace, and quiet. It must be said that they enjoy a certain tranquility there, what with the small population and extensive shores of Iceland.
There are quite a few seals colonies in Iceland even though their numbers are tending to drop. The country has about 40,000 of them and the colonies are always in the same places around the island, which makes it practical to find them.
Even if you can spot Greenland seals, especially in the northwestern fjords, bearded seals, and even ringed seals, they are rather rare along the coasts. More often than not, they come from Greenland and are just passing through.
The two main species that can be observed in Iceland are:
Unexpectedly, grey seals are clearly more common than the common seal in Iceland. Gray seals have an elongated snout and are rather large, adults weighing 150 to 300 kg and measuring up to 3 meters in length.
Harbor seals have shorter snouts and are much more curious by nature. They are also smaller since they weigh 150 to 200 kg for a size of 2 meters. Like most humans, harbor seals prefer sandy beaches to the rocky ones.
The good news is that seals can be observed all year round, in winter and summer. Still, as with most animals, they are more visible in summer with their young. Seals bask on beaches or rocks, but spend a good part of their time in the water.
The best time of day to see them is when the tide is low. This is when they take a moment to rest before hitting the water again to find fish.
Seals are not shy and will let you get quite near them...but they remain wild animals, so there is a limit. You should keep your distance for both your safety and theirs, and stay at least 15 meters away to avoid scaring them.
For quality shots, you'll need a good zoom function on your camera (200 mm or more) or a pair of binoculars. Some sites have been set up as viewpoints for seal-watching (see below), where cabins with equipment such as binoculars to watch them quietly without scaring them away.
Seals can be seen almost everywhere around the island, but some sites are better than others, known to host seal colonies for years. You can expect very high chances of seeing seals at these sites:
In the south of the peninsula, a small car park allows near the Ytri Tunga farm will lead to a ten-minute path to the beach where a seal colony is often found basking on algae patches and rocks.
It is one of the best spots for seal watching in Iceland.
In the north of Iceland, the Vatnsnes peninsula offers several very famous spots for seal-watching. The seal is actually the symbol of the local region. For a time Hindisvik in the far north of the peninsula was the best spot, but the owner has since closed access to visitors.
Observations points are found a little further south at Illugastaðir, a perfectly laid out site, ideal for observation. The “seal beach” of Svalbarð lives up to its name.
Near the famous Hvitserkur ark there are also numerous seals to be found basking near the water. Just head down to the beach and walk along it to the Osar farm. And Vatnsnes is also one of the best spots for seal watching.
The famous Jökulsárlón lagoon is also very often visited by a few seals who like to swim between icebergs. They can also be observed on the beach opposite, where the icebergs, now polished are returned to the "diamond beach".
As the place is very touristic, seals are a bit more shy.
In the fjords of northwest Iceland, the superb Rauðisandur beach is quite famous for welcoming seals, along with Isafjordjup further north. Follow Road 61 and keep an eye out for several signs indicating the presence of seal colonies, especially near Hvitanes.
In the East, seals are less present, but there is still a colony near Húsey along Road 926, and you can even book a tour to see them up close.
The Seal Center is an institution in the Vatnsnes peninsula, in Hvammstangi more precisely. The small village of Hvammstangi is the true Icelandic seal capital and as such boasts a museum where all seal species are in the spotlight, along with updated maps to all the biggest seal colonies.
It also covers a lot about the ratio of seal populations to fish populations, and why the seal numbers are in decline.
The Seal Center is only open in summer from June to August and Monday to Friday from 11AM to 3PM.