Das Wattenmeer: Exploring the mud flats of the North Sea coast

At low tide, the North Sea coast is a sea of mud. From the Netherlands to Denmark, the slope of the sea floor is shallow, resulting in huge differences in the water level between the tides. At low tide, the water peels back, sometimes as much as 15 kilometers, revealing acres and acres of intertidal mud flats. This is known as the Wadden Sea, or Wattenmeer in German, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Das Wattenmeer, or the Wadden Sea, pictured here off the coast of Cuxhaven, Germany. Despite how far from shore I am, the water is only at most a few inches deep.

At high tide, the North Sea looks like any other sea – blue-gray, restless, and infinitely long and flat. The seashore varies from sandy beaches to rocky jetties and man-made harbors and is home to the various birds, shellfish and crustaceans you’d expect to see at the beach. Waterfront property, however, is scarce: due to the North Sea’s propensity to flood, particularly during harsh winter storms, nearly every stretch of the coastline has a man-made dike separating the town from the sea, to protect the people and the things they build from the treacherous waters.

A sea bird looing for its next meal out on the mud flats of the North Sea at Cuxhaven, Germany
Bring a walking stick to test the
ground if you plan on walking out
into the mud flats.

But at low tide, the landscape changes. The sea pulls back, further and further, until miles of land becomes visible that was previously underwater. While a thin sheen of water may give the appearance of a smooth, glassy surface, the floor is actually soft and lumpy, full of craters and holes like the surface of the moon. Sometimes there is hard-packed sand with a firm, rippled surface from the tide pulling away. More often, there is deep, sticky mud, where the unsuspecting Wattwanderer (mud hiker) will sink in up to their ankles, or deeper. For this reason, it is advised to wear rubber boots for walking in the Watt, and it’s not a bad idea to bring a walking stick as well to test the firmness of the ground in front of you.

At low tide, some parts of the beach look like the surface of the moon.
Wadden Sea, Cuxhaven, Germany
My boyfriend Christopher walks out on the mud flats of the North Sea. Despite how low the water is, this photo was taken just 2-3 hours after high tide – it gets even lower. The city of Cuxhaven in Lower Saxony, Germany is visible in the background.

Being out on the Watt is a surreal experience. You walk straight out towards the ocean for ages, constantly expecting to reach the edge of the ocean and to see the edge of the surf lapping at your toes, but it never comes, the water never gets deeper than a few inches. You look back at the shore and marvel at how far you’ve come, at how small the people look back behind you. In the vast, flat, expansive landscape, you can see for miles, the sun and the clouds reflected on the shimmering surface of the water, giving the impression you’re walking on a giant mirror, or glass. You’ll be walking on firm sand, only to suddenly find yourself in over the ankles in sticky mud. Only with lots of yanking and pulling can you get your boot out again, and when it finally pulls free, it does so with a loud sucking sound. I have to admit, it’s fun splashing in the water and playing in the mud – I felt like a little kid.

In some places, you can sink into the
mud down to your ankles – or more.

Due to the danger posed by the extreme tides, it’s best to visit the beaches of the North Sea when the tide is going out. Many an unprepared visitor has found themselves trying to outrun a rising tide, a dire situation to be in. The thin layer of water over everything can make it difficult to determine which direction the shore is, and the most unlucky beachgoers get disoriented and wind up running in the wrong direction. Some drive their cars out onto the mudflats, only to get stuck, and when the tide comes in, they have no place to go except to climb on the roof of their car in hopes of being rescued via helicopter. Because of this, it’s best to time your visit so you’re following the tide out, and for deeper excursions into the Watt, take a tour with an experienced guide. Though the North Sea has its dangers, if you plan your visit carefully, checking the tide tables and the weather report beforehand and following the posted rules in the area you’re at, you should have no problem.

A container ship goes into the North Sea after exiting the Elbe River at Cuxhaven, Germany. On the mud flats of the Norht Sea, looks are deceiving – the water where I’m standing is barely a few inches deep, but seemingly just a few meters further a container ship is driving by. It’s impossible to tell how far away the ship actually is!
Christopher goofing around in a
puddle on the mud flats while
I admire his reflection

My boyfriend and I visited Cuxhaven, a small city about 2-3 hours away from Hamburg at the mouth of the Elbe river. We traveled by car, taking the scenic route through the Altes Land (old country) along the Elbe river and watching the apple orchards and farmland go by, then took the Autobahn via Bremen on the way back, a route which was longer but faster due to the lack of speed limit. From Hamburg, a train goes directly to Cuxhaven every hour. It takes 1.5-2 hours and the price starts at €28 round-trip with flexible departure times if you buy a Niedersachsen Ticket.

As the beach is quite long, I’d recommend taking a bicycle, especially if you travel to Cuxhaven by train as the train station is a bit of a ways away from the beach. Alternatively, you can rent a bike there, or take a little beach train from Alte Liebe (an observation deck near the Port of Cuxhaven, just 1.6 km from the Cuxhaven station) all the way out to the Watt and the dunes, the furthest of which is a nude beach (FKK-Düne). Officially called the Jan-Cux-Strandbahn, to locals it goes by the cutesy name of “Bimmelbahn.” At a distance of 7.2 km, it’s not too far to walk, but if you want to see the whole beach AND spend some time out on the Watt, I’d recommend a bike or the train – otherwise it’s just too far. The train costs €3.50 per adult for a short journey and €6 for its entire route.

The Jan-Cux-Strandbahn, affectionately known as the Bimmelbahn, which drives along the lenght of the beach in Cuxhaven, Germany. Photo: Cuxhaven Tourism

I went in early October, when the summer tourist season was just winding down. The beach baskets were being taken in for the winter and the waterfront restaurants were welcoming their last guests before closing for the season. Late summer and early fall have the advantage of the water being warm, and if you catch a sunny-ish day like we did, doing a beach trip away from peak season is actually quite pleasant. As it was a Sunday, not raining, and the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown in spring had shifted peak domestic travel season to a bit later in the year, there were still plenty of people in the restaurants and on the walkways, but it wasn’t as crowded as it could have been.

What: The Wadden Sea at Cuxhaven Beach
Where: Cuxhaven, Lower Saxony, Germany – where the Elbe River meets the North Sea
What to bring: Rubber boots and a waterproof bag to put them in, spare shoes and socks, tide table and weather report, weather-appropriate clothing, a bicycle if you fancy a bike ride along the dike
What does it cost: From Hamburg, train tickets start at €28. There is a €3 per person fee to use the beach (included in most hotel stays). Plan €15-20 per person if you want to eat at a waterfront restaurant, less if you bring your own food or want to seek out a non-touristy restaurant inside the city.

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