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Living Planet

The Wadden Sea: Diving into Nature’s Mysteries

The Wadden Sea National Park is renowned for its commitment to leaving nature to its own devices. Millions of visitors come to the coastal region each year to enjoy the peace and solitude of nature in its purest form.

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The sky above the Wadden Sea appears endless.

The Wadden Sea National Park on Germany’s northern coast was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve site in 1990. As such, it restricts access to certain parts of the land to ensure protection for the plants and animals, which inhabit it.

But a trip to the Wadden Sea isn’t just about learning why we must preserve our natural heritage for future generations. It’s about diving into the world of nature -- and discovering its mysteries -- right now.

The Wadden Sea is the largest unbroken stretch of tidal mudflats in the world. It is an ecosystem with tidal creeks, mud flats, sand banks, salt marshes, islands, bays and rivers. A "tidal flat" means a nearly flat coastal area, alternately covered and exposed by the tides. When the tide is low, visitors can meander along the shore for hours, walking for miles out into the sea, and discovering an abundance of aquatic life forms along the way.

Westerhever Leuchtturm, Biosphärenreservat Schleswig-Holsteinisches Wattenmeer

The Wadden Sea Biosphere Reserve

The land protected under the National Park Service is of significance to over two million migratory and coastal birds as a feeding and resting ground. It is also an important area for a diversity of fish. In total, 3,200 species of animals can be found in the park, including various mussels, snails, worms, as well as larger mammals, like seals and whales.

Salt marshes are home to plants and animals that have especially adapted to survive in the saline environment. There is nowhere else in the world where this size and combination of sands, dunes, salt marshes and islands exist.

A controversial issue

But whether the national park should even exist is a sensitive issue in the region. When an area of land is designated as a national park, plants are put under protection, the fishing industry is closely observed, access is restricted to tidal flats, and ships are prohibited from sailing in certain areas, so as not to endanger seals and whales.

Fishermen, for one, may not be happy with the new rules and developments. Henning Hansen, who has been a park ranger and field worker for the National Park Service for the past six years, explains that some people do not see the need to have a national park on the Wadden Sea.

Hallig Nordstrandischmoor

The Wadden Sea Biosphere Reserve

"They say that they have always protected the land themselves, and don’t understand why someone else needs to tell them how to take care of it."

According to Hansen, the need for the land to be protected does exist, and that’s where the National Park Service comes in. And yet the acceptance of a natural park is often a slow process. It takes time for the wishes of the locals and the objectives of the park service to come closer together.

"Nature is working perfectly."

The best way to fully experience the Wadden Sea is to take a guided walking tour along the tidal flats. Along the tour, you can spot crustaceans, mussels, crabs, shrimp and barnacles. According to Andrea Lütwick, a volunteer for the national park service, a tour allows you to discover life’s little mysteries.

"The miracles of nature in the Wadden Sea are not obvious here," she says. "Many of them are underneath the soil, or hidden in some grass bundles, or flying somewhere. So, you really need somebody to show you, otherwise it’s not so fascinating."

Briefträger geht durch das Wattenmeer

Walking through the Watt

A walking tour along the coast allows you to see the habitats of tidal flats through the tour guide’s trained eyes. "You get such an understanding of how nature is working perfectly," says Lütwick. But it’s also a good idea to take a guided tour to avoid running into danger.

To walk on the mud flats is an adventure for many tourists: the land has a silty quality, not quite soil and not quite water, either. At low tide, visitors can walk easily along mud flats and sink quite deeply into the mud. But high tide can come in quickly, so it’s best to tour the mud flats with an experienced park ranger.

Experiencing the Wadden Sea from the inside

For those who prefer to spend at least part of their visit to the Wadden Sea indoors, the Multimar Wattforum also gets you "into" the Wadden Sea without disturbing it. Not your typical museum, the national park information center, located in Tönning, presents life in the deep of the ocean, and offers another way to experience the Wadden Sea.

Didactical elements, like sounds from under the sea, an underwater camera, and the sound of sea storms, allow you to closely experience nature. You can put your hands right into selected water tanks. According to museum director Dr. Gerd Meurs, the idea is that presenting the exhibits in an interactive manner has a greater effect on visitors.

"The museum offers a different entry point to nature, meaning that when you yourself become an active participant in the exhibit, you become a lot closer to it," Meurs explains. "You develop more questions, and receive more answers."

The point of the Multimar Forum, as well as the Wadden Sea national park, is that with nature, you have to look closely to see what’s really there. But if you look closely enough, you suddenly see life.

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