On the island of Mandø, one of the three Wadden Sea islands in Denmark, the road to the mainland is submerged by high tide twice a day leaving you stuck on or off the island until the water retreats. 12-15 million birds visit the sea bed each year, and many make it their last feed before flying non-stop to Siberia, Greenland, and other destinations up North. This continuous stretch of tidal mudflats between Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands is a resting ground for the hardcore. The winds are temperamental, the coastline constantly shifts, and the tides continually replenish the nutrient-rich seabed for birds passing through. It’s an integral ecosystem to the greater world, and it was a dream to walk through.
This was core course week, five days where all other DIS classes are cancelled and you spend the week with your core class. In Polar Biology, we spent the first three days exploring the Wadden Sea in Western Denmark. We left on Monday at a whopping 6:30 AM with a bus full of delicious snacks, crossing into the Jutland of Denmark past farmland and wind turbine landscapes. Our first stop was at the Wadden Sea Center, where we toured their museum. We learned about the high biomass that supports migratory birds and experienced the all-consuming sensation of bird flocks in a large installation.
After pulling on our classic *rubber boots* (a phrase we came to know well), we took a box-shaped bus down Ebb road to Mandø island. This road crawls out to the island directly among the wide mudflats, and is the one that becomes covered in water at high tide. Mandø is home to roughly 30 inhabitants who brave the harsh winters of this lovely little town. It’s filled with small colored houses nestled between grass slopes, and there’s one general store that opens three times a week, though you can always knock on the owner’s door in a grand emergency.
Our nature guide, Christine, gave us a tour of the mudflats, where we saw tiny snails, shrimp, cockles, worms, and egg sacs in the soaked sands. When the rain started in, the wind blew it horizontally and we started to understand the temperament of the sea. In an unexpected moment, Christine picked up a pacific oyster, a major invasive species to the Wadden Sea, and cracked open the shell to eat it raw. And then half our class did the same! I didn’t try one, but I did stick my gloved hand in the cold sea to retrieve one for a friend; sacrifices were made. Later, the sun did a complete 180 and decided to shine, lighting up a line of ripples among the mudflat pools. We ended with a quick tour of the town and the small church before taking a very bumpy ride back to the mainland.
We spent our evening in Ribe, the oldest town in Denmark, where we ate a wonderful group dinner at the Sælhunden restaurant (chicken with pesto pasta, plus a self-chosen hot chocolate) and then took a walk through the town at night with the streetlamps on. I remember a half moon above the Ribe Cathedral, which was famously built atop of the oldest church in Denmark (Ansgar’s Church) from the Viking era. We stayed in Ribe for the night in some little cabins made of wood.
On Tuesday, we took the bus out to the Gram whale museum in the morning for a guided tour of the marine fossils that had been collected in the area, including nearly-full skeletons of baleen whales. We then went over to the clay pits, covered by a steep slope of mud overlooking a still lake surrounded by pines. Gram rests over a former seabed, left from when the sea rose over the land and then retreated, and you can now look for fossils in the clay layers deposited 10 million years ago. We sloshed our way up with shovels and excavated some compact (and very cold) clay samples, which we tore apart with our hands to find and later identify little snail and mollusk fossil fragments.
It was back on the bus then, past farmland and grazing cows. We drove the bus onto a ferry, which took us to Fanø, another Wadden Sea island in Denmark. Many of us went to the top deck to see the water form a flat blue plane to the horizon. I forced a bunch of my group to take a photo, and they willingly obliged!
We spent our time in Sønderho, a small village on Fanø of roughly 350 inhabitants. Kim Fischer, our nature guide, had this incredible knowledge of the local wildlife and took us walking along the exposed mudflats and up on the sand dunes covered in soft grases, showing us panoramic views of the coast and coastal animals. We saw birds, some of them wading like the oyster catchers, and others flying around the shallow water like the eider ducks. Through the telescope, we saw seals that looked like tiny grey blobs. We passed around cookies. In a miracle against the forecast, the sun was out, and the sky blue. My phone has terrible camera quality, but you must believe that this was one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen.
In the evening, I went with a small group on an impromptu walk back to the hills. We found the sunset imminent and blazing, and decided to chase it down some small sand hills to watch it unzip over the ocean. We caught it on the hill, and also took a very cute picture, which is here:
We had another group dinner that night in a local restaurant, and celebrated Sonja’s birthday with desserts that had Danish flags sticking out of them, which was very fun. (Happy birthday Sonja!)
On Wednesday, we finished up our tour of Sønderho. Kim gave us a lecture on the migratory birds of the Wadden Sea and the threats they face with tourism. Later, Sønderho resident Gertrud Nærø gave us a spirited walking tour through the village, showing us the thatched roofs covered in moss and the traditional green doors that symbolize hope – or was it life? By Thursday and Friday, we were back in Copenhagen. We did group presentations on The Wadden Sea and then had guest lecturers Michael Stoltze and field biologist Jannik Hansen present on nature conservation in Denmark and migratory Arctic bird conservation respectively.
The whole week, I was going over very seriously in my head the possibility of finding a remote job and living in Fanø for at least a few years of my life, but I don’t think I have it in me to endure the winters and isolation. The people who live here have a real toughness against the conditions and a claim to their beauty. But I couldn’t help it; I adored these islands. I liked that you had to fight to love them.
Time seems to move differently, in the way water comes in and out over the wide flat space every 6 hours, and each time leaves an utterly different arrangement of sand and pools. You get the sense walking around on the sediment that a heavy rain could fall and leave the entire island a different shape. But these geological systems are just small and rapid examples of earth’s similar, continuous change. And when we exert inopportune change, the effects are startlingly clear here. When we came across fishing nets tangled in kelp in the middle of the Mandø mudflats, Christine explained that these particular nets are let loose by fisheries into the ocean as standard practice. There was trash, including plastic bottles and plastic fruit sleeves, scattered around from ocean tides.
As Kim explained, some of the worst human effects come from a lack of awareness of how direct human activity affects wildlife. The Wadden Sea is a UNESCO heritage site, but in Denmark this doesn’t ascribe any extra legal protections and instead often increases tourism. The excessive human activity along the mudflats – kite festivals, boating in shallow water, chasing after birds – can really disrupt the natural processes and life cycles of organisms, particularly migratory birds. As DIS students, we are also tourists here, and I was thinking a lot about how to visit this country responsibly. It is perhaps healthiest to acknowledge that we are not really fixing anything by being in Denmark. This does not mean that our travel can’t minimize harm, with research and respect. There is much to keep in mind. How we don’t always have to build, or how we can be strategic about where we build. Or how we don’t have to always make spaces hospitable for ourselves, and instead can just visit and see, and then leave and let alone.