Rottummerplaat, the Netherlands

The northernmost part of the Netherlands consists of two small islands called Rottumeroog and Rottumerplaat at the end of the Ems-estuary where the Wadden Sea and the North Sea meet. Originally the islands were man-made in the 1950’s in an effort to protect the northern coast from the Netherlands. But visions changed and after forty years of constant battle against the wind and the sea the engineers gave up and the islands were left to the whims of nature.

Today both islands are nature reserves mainly to accommodate huge amounts of seabirds that nest on the islands. For this reason access to the islands is prohibited except for the managers and birdwatchers who monitor the breeding birds during summer. Occasionally tourist trips are organized to the eastern island of Rottumeroog. The number of people that want to visit however vastly exceeds the number that can actually go there. Access to the western island of Rottumerplaat is however strictly limited to supervisors and birdwatchers.

I was happily surprised to learn that one of my colleagues was able to organize a trip to Rottumerplaat as a working visit of a Natura 2000 project we are currently working on. So on a windy and rainy Wednesday morning we stepped aboard the patrol vessel ‘Krukel’ and sailed to Rottumerplaat. Because the Wadden Sea is a shallow tidal sea with huge tidal flats during low tide we needed to approach the islands from the north were the North Sea is much deeper.

After almost three hours in strong winds we reached the sound between the two islands. The sandbank between the islands accommodated about three hundred Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulinea) and Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus). From there the only way to get ashore is with a zodiac, which is quite an experience under windy circumstances. The last couple of meters to the beach you go on foot, but by then you’re already wet. Fortunately the inheritage of the engineers consists amongst other things of a large shelter which once accommodated about twenty people where it’s possible to dry a bit.

The actual island actually only exists of a dune ridge and salt marshes to the north and the south. Some twenty-five years ago a levy was made to prevent the sea from cutting through the ridge and up till now the levy was strong enough to protect the dune ridge. The levy is however weakening and in the next couple of years a storm will break it thus leaving the dune unprotected. Probably some part of the island will disappear into the sea, but on other parts of the island new dunes form. So due to the forces of water, tide and wind the islands constantly change shape. The result is a very dynamic environment ideal for seabirds.

Most abundant are Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) and various tern-species (e.g. Common Tern-Sterna hirundo, Arctic Tern-Sterna paradisae). Also Spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia), Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) and many other species find the absence of humans comforting too. A lot of birds that forage on the salt flats that appear during low tide use the island as a refuge when the tide is high. Then you can sea gatherings of hundreds of birds waiting for the water to return to the sea and expose the sea flats so full off food.

 

But not only birds thrive on the islands. Various types of plants like Red Bartia (Odontites vernus), Lesser centaury (Centaurium pulchellum), Common Sea-lavender (Limonium vulgare) and Sea Wormwood (Artemisia maritima) color the salt marshes and fill the salty air with their odors.

Just after four hours on this little paradise, thunderstorms forced us to leave and seek shelter in the ship. The thunder and lightning add another dimension to the forces of nature that you experience in such a place. It makes you feel very small and humble. But even though the encounter was brief it was a unique experience.