Did you know that the Dutch Wadden Sea is on the UNESCO World Heritage List? The landscape here is formed by wind and water and is full of life. Every year, millions of migratory birds make a stopover in the Wadden region on their journey to warmer or colder places. Countless bird species, seals, porpoises and many other animal species live in the Wadden area. The most special way to explore the Wadden Sea is during a running aground and mudflat walking excursion. In this article I’ll tell you all about it! Before you continue reading, check out the short video I made:
Arrival in Harlingen
It is a cool September morning when I get in the car to drive from Arnhem to Harlingen, a journey of about two hours. I leave well before sunrise because the ship that I go on an adventure leaves at 9 am. As I cross the Ketelmeer I see the sun rising to my right over a low hanging cloud of fog. Not much later I’ve arrived in the Friesian town of Harlingen, all the way up north. I park my car just outside the center and walk, while the sun rises further, to the sailing ship the Noordfries, with which I am going on an expedition today.
Leaving the harbor
Skipper Maria welcomes me and the other guests on board. She gives a short explanation of what we are going to do today and hopes that there will eventually be enough wind to put up the sails. We sail out of Harlingen on the motor and into the Waddenzee. The sun is now high in the sky and we consider ourselves lucky that today is such a beautiful day to go on an adventure.
Hoisting the sails
Finally the sails are hoisted and the wind slowly blows us towards the mudflats. We can help with the sailing and have also plenty of time to relax on board and enjoy the beautiful weather. Meanwhile, Wadden expert Tom explains the Wadden Sea and tells more about the history of the area and what we can expect from mudflat walking. Dog Basta also joins in.
After about an hour on the water, the Noordfries comes to a stop. We have run aground. The bottom of the ship has hit the sandbank and now we have to wait until the water sinks and is low enough to disembark. The water is sinking at about half to one centimeter per minute and since the water is now about a meter high, we have to wait another hour and a half.
The high tide and low tide is an interesting phenomenon. We will soon be able to see the tide even better. This phenomenon is caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and other planets. We are located just west of Harlingen and the water that runs out here comes and goes to the tidal inlet between Texel and Den Helder to the west of us. The total tide difference is about 2.5 meters.
On the Zuidwal
The bank where we are located is called the Zuidwal and is a few kilometers away from an unmanned oil rig. This sandbank is part of the Zuidwal volcano, a dead volcano located about two kilometers below the water surface. While the sea is slowly sinking lower, we see the first birds appearing on the mudflats in the distance, a sign that the lowest water level is approaching.
A delicious lunch is served and not much later it’s time to hit the mudflats. The water is still about 30/40 centimeters high, but the sand is already visible below. I put on my water shoes, but this turns out not to be a convenient choice. After just a few meters of wading I get stuck in a deep channel and get sucked in. With the help of Tom I get out again, but I almost lose my shoe. So it’s definitely better to continue barefoot and it is more pleasant for sure as well.
We are allowed to walk around freely and take pictures on the mudflats. I see thousands of bird’s feet in the sand, look for shells, eat seaweed (because I learned that in the Oosterschelde) and find starfish and crabs. It’s a very special feeling to walk on the bottom of the sea like this.
In the distance ships sail and Tom says that they are about 2.5 meters higher than us, in other words the difference in height of the water is enormous in my opinion. However, it seems like it is less big, partly because of the distance.
After spending some time on the mudflats I walk back to the Noordfries, which has since completely fallen dry and is surrounded by sand only. Also on the way back you have to be careful not to step into the gullies (if you do, then it is slippery) and after I have made some pictures of the ship from the mudflats, it is time to climb back on board via the rope ladder.
Waiting for the high tide
There are tasty snacks waiting for us once back on the ship and we fully enjoy the sunshine on our faces. I browse through the Bosatlas of the Wadden. Very slowly the water level starts to rise again, but it will take another two hours for the ship to be released. It is very special to see the water flow around the ship again and to see the water level rise. Crabs are carried away by the current and a few hours later it is no longer visible that we have just stood here at the bottom of the sea.
Back to Harlingen
After a delicious dinner, the Noordfries sails back to Harlingen. I may try to navigate for a bit, but this is so much harder than sailing a small boat, which is all I have done before.
While the sun slowly sets, peace returns to sea. There are hardly any other ships left and every now and then a seagull passes by. Just before sunset we reach the harbor of Harlingen, bringing a special experience to an end.
Conclusion and disclaimer
The running aground excursion is a special way to get to know the Wadden Sea. I can truly recommend you to join this excursion. You do not have to be very fit, but to get on and off board you have to use a sturdy rope ladder. You wade through the water for a while and are free to come and go wherever you want on the mudflats. You can stay with the Wadden expert, but you can also go on a discovery tour yourself.
Hopefully I have inspired you to visit the Wadden Sea once when you are visiting The Netherlands. For dates and prices of this excursion, please visit the Historical Zeilvaart website (in Dutch). I experienced this micro adventure in collaboration with Holland National Parks. All opinions expressed are of course only my own.