Text Barbara Hinnen
Photo Mylène Sopacua
MS Krukel cuts a smooth wake through the Wadden Sea. Golden-yellow plankton, teeming in these waters, dance in the air bubbles. Manning the ship are Bert Meerstra and Arjen Dijkstra, both members of the Wadden Unit. This morning, they are bound for Engelsmanplaat, a shoal where four volunteers spent the past week counting birds.
A faint haze shimmers over the Wadden Sea off Lauwersoog, as the chill dissolves under the sudden warmth of the spring sunshine. It is high tide when the Wadden Unit makes its way to Engelsmanplaat. "When the tide is out", says Arjen Dijkstra, "you can walk to the shoal in two hours, provided that you set out early, you know the way and you are a fast walker."
Life in the mud
As well as working for the Wadden Unit, Dijkstra is also a Wadden guide. "When we take people out on the mud flats, we have them close their eyes for a couple minutes and simply listen. What do they hear? Often, there are disruptive noises, such as helicopters flying over. Just the other day, however, I had a group with a boy who was blind and much more receptive. 'The shallows are alive under me', he said. He could hear the rustling whistle of the cockles, the ooze and suck of the silt. The islanders hear that too; 'the shallows are singing', they say of the young cockles."
Who eats what where
The Wadden Unit keeps tally of fish, crustacean, shellfish and other animal species, monitoring which ones eat what when and where. "Look there, a common scoter. They should be able to feed and rest here undisturbed. We survey where they are and Rijkswaterstaat sets off the area with buoys."
Blauwe Balg open for recreation
The Wadden Unit is also working on a pilot to open up specific areas where possible. One example is Blauwe Balg, a fairway between Ameland and Terschelling which used to be closed from 15 May to 1 September when seals are born and the mothers moult after their pups are weaned. "However, as the young seals are already independent by mid-July, part of the area can open earlier", Bert Meerstra explains.
Trusted by fishers
"Because we're out here daily, we understand the area better than anyone else and know exactly what's happening", says Dijkstra. "This fact also enables us to advise on fisheries policy. At one point, there were 12 cockle boats piled together on a single shoal. We drew up maps to spread them out. Fishermen trust us."
Input on recreational fishery
The Wadden Unit also informs local municipalities about rules for recreational fishing. "Gill net fishing is very popular here, but it's subject to certain rules on net length, where you can and cannot fish, and so on."
Having arrived at Engelsmanplaat, Meerstra collects the bird counters in a dinghy. Perched on piles in the water is the hut where the volunteers stayed. Dijkstra also spends one week a year counting here. "When you're there all by yourself, it's unlike anything else – utterly peaceful." Far off in the distance, greyish-white shapes lie scattered across the shoal. Viewed through binoculars, they crystallise into seals lazing on the sandbar.
Helping 300-kg seals
"Those animals are grey seals", Meerstra points out. "They're larger than ordinary seals, up to 300 kilogrammes sometimes. We count them as well and help to free them whenever they get caught in nets. Look, there's a black one, which is unusual... Actually, it's just a form of melanism, the opposite of an albino."
As they board the boat, the bronzed volunteers are praised for a job well done. For the birds here, keeping tourists out of the high-tide refuge areas where birds rest after fattening up is vital. Their presence causes the birds to fly up, which burns calories and prevents them from making it to their overwintering or breeding grounds. Instead, they drop right out of the sky when their fat reserves are used up.
"I'm still amazed by the landscape and wildlife here, and it's good that tourists visit", reflects Meerstra. "However, it is getting busier and we worry whether this vulnerable ecosystem can handle all the traffic. Although we can enforce lots of things, we're powerless when it comes to disruptive light and noise."
The volunteers alight from the Krukel. Alongside us, something suddenly splashes down into the water. "A tern", says Meerstra, without glancing up. Clearly, the Wadden Sea is in expert hands.