In the middle of the North Sea, north of the German coast, is a small island (well, archipelago really). Inhabited by around 1,100 people, it sits in an area of sea called German Bight. Best of all, it has its own grey seal colony. This island is Helgoland in the German spelling, Heligoland in English. It was the first place I went to when lockdowns lifted and Europe came somewhat back to life at the beginning of July.
I had heard about Heligoland from a dear friend who had been there and told me the remarkable story of how, once a British territory, it had been swapped for the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar in 1890. I then read about it in more detail in Charlie Connelly’s wonderful, eccentric book Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast (2004).
Long intrigued as I have been by any small island, any trip to Hamburg would not be complete without a visit to Heligoland. I wanted to stay overnight, but presumably given the COVID-19 measures still in place, there weren’t any hostel beds left. I instead opted for a day trip, taking the only ferry there from the St. Pauli district of Hamburg (close to the infamous Reeperbahn) at 9am. It was pretty pricey – around 100 euros round-trip – but definitely worth it if you want to see this special place.
Most of the journey is just getting down the River Elbe to the sea, taking us past some of the impressive industry – gigantic cranes, metalworks, wharfs – that dot the riverside.
More than three hours later we pulled up at Heligoland. It had been a long journey and I didn’t want to waste any time – I had roughly four hours before the return journey commenced. Straightaway, I walked briskly away from the harbour alongside some colourful houses, in search of the famed grey seal colony.
As it turns out, you must take another boat to get to the seals – but only a little one. You pay six euros’ return fare at a small kiosk run by a British woman whose German husband grew up on Heligoland, and with whom I had a nice chat. Then, a small fishing boat takes you across to the second island, which you can walk around easily in an hour.
One thing that struck me was that everyone around me was German, aside from the woman selling boat tickets. Perhaps exacerbated by coronavirus making people afraid to travel across borders, it nonetheless feels like Heligoland is a favourite holiday destination for Teutonic peoples.
I was immediately excited upon seeing the seals, and they did not disappoint! Someone was standing around in a bright vest ensuring people didn’t go closer than 30 metres (social distancing, anyone?). But that was still plenty close enough. I watched them for about 45 minutes, vicariously taking pleasure in their obvious enjoyment of the crashing waves and listening to the strange sounds they made as they lazed around. I didn’t swim close by, but managed to get into the cold sea for a quick dip before drying off and walking around the island some more.
After seeing the seals – which were the obvious highlight – I still wanted to explore the rest of the main island. Sadly the little museum was shut, and this definitely impeded my learning about the island. Nonetheless, I did really enjoy climbing up the hills, looking at the pyramid-esque church spire and little cosy houses, and surveying the rough North Sea surrounding us.
I wondered how many people lived here all year round, and what a spectacle it would be in winter. One advantage of coming in winter, I learned later, is that the seals have their babies around November – so you can see fluffy white seal pups at that time of year. Maybe I’ll have to come back…