My first visit to a Frisian island since I was a kid (affinity to islands and sea: Inselfieber). After more than a month of being land-locked in the Netherlands and Germany, we were very much looking forward to an island recovery on Heligoland.

Deep-sea island

Before we got invited to visit Heligoland we were not aware of the geography and history that let this island stand out from the rest of the Frisian island. While all other German islands are in close proximity to the coast, Heligoland is about 65 km out in the ocean, coming as we did from Cuxhaven. But also from Schleswig-Holstein, the Bundesland (federal state) the island is part of, it’s a minimum of 50 km to get there. In 1721 after a storm tide the island broke apart which created the tiny island Düne (dune) in the East of Heligoland. The main island is formed by a red sandstone plateau (called the Oberland – uplands) with a maximum elevation of 56 meters and a smaller, low-laying sands tract (called the Unterland – lowlands) with some additional reclaimed land towards the Northeast.

A very short history of Heligoland

It is basically a rock on the high seas which brings strategic value to the island, be it as a shelter for pirates, rich fishing grounds for herring (long gone), or the base for pilots to escort ships safely into the harbours of the Hanse (such as Bremen and Hamburg) or naval base and fortress. Ownership switched from Frisian to Danish and then back and forth between Denmark and the Duchy of Schleswig. In 1807 the island became British and shortly after the island tourism – seaside spa – began. With the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty in 1890, the island became part of the newly unified Germany. In exchange, the UK got the trading rights with Zanzibar (actually the deal was a little more complex than that and has been deliberately misinterpreted).

Anyhow, later on, the German Nazi regime had huge plans for the island and we can really recommend visiting the local museum (website only in German) and joining a bunker tour (English tours should be possible if planned in advance) to learn about megalomania, suffering, and endurance. After the war, the British took over and wanted to blow up all the military parts of the bunker system and fortifications. In 1947 the biggest non-nuclear explosion shook the main island to its base and changed its shape (the Mittelland was created). However, documents recently made public, show that the English didn’t intend to blow up the whole island as is often written. Nevertheless, the British and American military used the island for practising bombing. Only in 1952, the former inhabitants of Heligoland (Hallunder) were allowed to return to their island to rebuild.

The island recovers

These days Heligoland is known for nesting birds and a huge population of two types of earless seals (Düne). It started with guillemots (and seagulls of course) and in 2001 the first pair of northern gannets (which should really be named greenfoot boobies) nested on the single rock known as “Lange Anna”. Today also razorbills and fulmars nest on the red cliffs of Heligoland, leaving speckles and their odour behind. The Ornithological Station Helgoland and Verein Jordsand inform tourists in their stations and additional tours about the local wildlife some of which I shall try to tell with the following pictures.

Return to Heligoland

Our visit was in May, but every month has certain events that make a visit worthwhile. A particular interesting time is actually in December/January when the horsehead seals get their young on the beach. Unlike common seals that already have their first change of fur whilst in the womb and can get into the sea after a couple of hours, horsehead seals will spend their first 4-5 weeks on land. Common seals give birth from May to July on sandbanks out at the sea. The tours in the Alfred Wegner Institute to learn more about the marine research that’s done on Heligoland were unfortunately fully booked during our visit and it was definitely too cold to get into the water ourselves. Next time! Maybe …

An island recovery: Seals at the beach

An island recovery: Birds on the edge

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