I had been looking forward to this trip for quite a while and at that moment it looked like it’s not gonna happen. We were sitting in the train from Bremen to Bremerhaven and kept stopping and delaying for no apparent reason. We had calculated a generous buffer of 60 minutes for a five minutes ride from the train station in Bremerhaven to the ferry dock towards Helgoland, but it still didn’t look good. Over the last weeks I have been using the trains a LOT and honestly almost every time we ended up having some kind of problems. It feels like I can’t keep up with filling out customer right forms claiming money back. As the minutes passed we slowly came to accept the fact: we are truly gonna miss the ferry.
We literally arrived the minute the ferry would have left and after a call with the office we knew it wasn’t running late. Thus we had missed the only daily option from Bremerhaven. I was pretty pissed and went towards the service point where another lady was sitting having the same problem. We combined forces and sat minutes later in a taxi sponsored by Deutsche Bahn towards Cuxhaven to take the Catamaran to Helgoland. We would still make it to Helgoland and our moods changed towards the better. It all seemed to work out fine. Armed with around 80 kg together, Amanda and I wanted nothing less than going back to Bremen and trying our luck again the next morning. The sea wasn’t too choppy but many passengers seemed to disagree: vomitting people where to be found everywhere and standing on the outside deck required the acknowledgement of the possibility of being hit by splashing vomit bursts.
I had been to Helgoland about three years back in 2014 during an excursion with my ISATEC master cohort and came to love this little offshore island. Though back then we visited in November and thus had some pretty harsh conditions (cold, rain, fog, wind), I was stunned by the amount of wildlife here. Dozens of bird species migrate via Helgoland and it is here that you can find grey as well as harbor seals, Germany’s biggest predator!! It is a tiny island only comprising of about 4,2 km2 and its little neighboring island ‘the dune’ is even smaller. Hosting the camping ground it would be our final destinations of the day . Amanda and I have been around quite a lot in our almost two years together, but one thing still missing was a camping trip . So, since we are already living up in the north why not go to Helgoland?
After a tram, a train, a taxi, a ferry and another ferry (and lots of uncomfortable walking in between) we set foot on the dune and were greeted by a blue sky and an occasional sun popping out! Whoop whoop! The camping ground is situated right within the dunes and only meters from the beach on the north side of the island. Instead of the rather common mud or grass, the tents (well, some people seemed to have more house-like tents than actual tents) are placed on sand and there are no electricity facilities. I had read all that before and brought a whole array of charged batteries of all kinds, ready for some serious photography and filming adventures.
Due to our delay in the morning and although the catamaran is almost three times as fast the ferry from Bremerhaven, we arrived late afternoon and instead of using the sunshine to go straight in the water with potential seal company, we decided to undertake an orientation stroll around the island and assess the situation. We started our walk at the north beach and made a good round on the little island. Totally different to my last visit in November, the seals were entirely congregating on the south side and there was also a great many more than last time. We had been told that in the past winter months about 300 pups were born, an incredible number that has been on the rise for years now. Seems like the seals are doing just fine up here. Good to see that wildlife still has some places left to flourish.
I had planned to concentrate more on filming than photography and started straight away capturing some great scenes of the seals in the evening sun. They are just beautiful to watch and hilarious too. Their tail stretches and occasional head nods make these guys so adorable. Half an hour in or so a big group started heading into the water probably going on a little fishing trip. It felt wonderful to escape the city and spend this time together experiencing nature. Especially the hige grey seals bulls were impressive: they reach a weight of up to 300 kg and can be as long as 3 m and more!
The next day we jumped in the water to snorkel a little. The water was cold – even in the wetsuits – and the visibility really bad. No more than two meters on that day. Unfortunately, we weren’t blessed with sun eaither which further made the conditions rather worse than better and the prevailaing winds caused a choppy sea further worsening the visibility. There was a seal or two that approached and investigated us, but not closer than about five meters. We didn’t see them underwater but saw their curious faces sticking out the water checking us out. After only 15 minutes or so we went back on land. Not too much snorkeling today but that was fine. It’s always important to keep an open mind and let things happen they we the do even if it’s not what was planned..
Tourists are discouraged to swim with the seals and it is recommended to keep at least 30 meters distance. I cannot stress enough how important it is not to provoke or harass the seals! It stresses them and might eventually cause bites which do happen here. We didn’t want to be an exception to that and still had a good (and cold) snorkel in the waters off Helgoland. We spent the rest of the day walking around the dune, observing the seals and being impressed by the starting and landing little planes. The dune has a tiny airport which is quite frequently flown into and the views on the starting planes are incredible! Every plane geek will have a really good time here.
Our plan was to visit the main island the following day and walk up the “Oberland”, where hundreds of gannets can be found taking care of their chicks this time of the year. Once again, the situation was really different to the last time I was here. We had not seen a single gannet back then and frankly, I had never seen one before in my life. I was really looking forward to these birds!
There is a little ferry from the dune to the main island which runs in a 30 minutes schedule during the day and charges only five Euro for the return trip. The ride itself takes no more than five minutes and is usually quite bumpy so be prepared you prone-to-sea-sickness people. Saturday morning started with really bad weather including a storm warning and a constant grey sky delivering a lot of rain. Being in the tent surrounded by sand with all that camera equipment is a not a dream situation but on the other sand quite a cool experience. A tent can be quite cozy after all 😊
We used a little weather window, dressed ourselves in all the rain gear we had with us, slipped out the tent and made our way towards the main island. A pizza and two hours walking later we were standing on the top of the the dune looking at the beautiful Long Anna, a remarkable rock formation hosting dozens of nesting gannets. Unfortunately, the weather turned to the worse and we had difficulties keeping ourselves dry. Not to mention all that camera gear I brought. The wind was blowing quite strong and we actually had to run and find shelter in one of the cafes in the “Middleland” to avoid the worst. Unpredictable as the local weather can be, the sky then opened and offered sun and a blue sky. Helgoland weather is never boring it seems.
We saw that as an invitation to take the stairs up again (there is also a lift to the upper part of Helgoland and spend some time shooting the gannets which can be approached extremely closely up here without bothering them. They are used to the tourists and as long as you don’t try to touch them, throw stuff at them or whatever other dumb idea people might come up with, they will be perfectly fine. We quickly noticed this little chick which was entangled in fishing line, which is one of the major problems here on Helgoland. Tons of abandoned and discarded fishing gear is floating in the oceans and often birds mistake the little pieces for algae and thus collect it to build their nests. This frequently leads to birds entangling themselves and often birds eventually end up strangled and die. Taking a closer look I found many dead birds hanging in the steep cliffs. It is a horrible and sad sight.
We spend a few hours up there shooting them using a wide array of lenses. Amanda worked with her Nikon D5300 and the 35mm f/1.8 and the Tamron 150-600mm f/4.0-6.4 and I shot with my Nikon D810 using the Nikon 16-35mm f/4, the Nikon 85mm f/1.8, the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 and the long Tamron tele as well. I was going play around with my strobe as well but forgot the batteries in the tent, of which so many I had deliberately charged for that. Well, classic I would say.
Our last night had already arrived and we made sure to spend it well. Beautiful sunset, a good whiskey and good talks made it a memorable evening. Helgoland is an awesome place: so small and yet there is so much to do here, so much to observe and so much space to just relax. It is a little paradise for bird lovers and nature freaks in general and offers ample opportunities for eager photographers. On top of that we have the wildlife here besides the birds. Getting close (remember the 30 m!) to seals is a fantastic experience. Transporting all your gear to Helgoland and back might be a bit of a hassle but it is well worth the stress. As always, four days wasn’t really enough for us and we are already planning our return 🙂
There are plenty of sleep options available: besides the camping ground on the dune they also have several types of a little more expensive bungalows here and many hostels, hotels and flats for rent on the main island. Just don’t forget your spare change, as it can get a little bit more expensive here. The upside of it is, that everything can be bought tax-free, meaning 18% less than the prize that you would pay on the “mainland Germany”. So you can make some real good bargains on camera stuff (there is a little camera shop on Helgoland which I don’t really like though), outdoor clothing, booze, parfumes etc. After a long way back home again using two ferries, (this time we managed to get the right one to Bremerhaven, which takes about 3 hours) and the train to Bremen, we happily arriveda t our flat. Bye Bye Helgoland, you little pearl up in the north!
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Tom Vierus is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist based in Suva, Fiji Islands. This blog is dedicated to his assignments and to sharing some behind-the-scenes footage.