Heligoland rises out of the sea as a red rock, up to 60 metres high, and the deep-sea island is 50 kilometres from the German mainland – that’s equivalent to 200 feet and 31 miles respectively. Beneath sea level, a fragmented rocky landscape extends for miles. It’s home to the richest marine animal and plant life anywhere on the German coast. Even two centuries ago, the prospect of exploring the secrets of that world attracted famous scientists to the island.
The naturalist Alexander von Humboldt visited Heligoland, the poet Goethe had rocks from the island sent to him in Weimar, and in 1835, the zoologist Gottfried Ehrenberg solved the mystery of marine luminescence around the island. Many people had marvelled at the phenomenon, which is generated by microscopic single-cell organisms. As recently as the 1960s, children on Heligoland were delighted to find the water in the toilet basin glowing in the dark. In those days, people still flushed with sea water, and August was a particularly good time for bright flushes.
In 1837, the painter Heinrich Gätke arrived in Heligoland from Brandenburg. He wasn’t interested in the water, however, but in the air, or more precisely, in the birds. His interest in them was twofold: he enjoyed both hunting and painting them. Soon, Gätke became so enthusiastic about local bird life that he embarked on a detailed study. He was especially fascinated by the change in colour – in other words, the moult. He wrote a book on his collected studies, entitled "Die Vogelwarte Helgoland". This was translated into English as: “Heligoland as an ornithological observatory”. Gätke remained on the island for the rest of his life. His legacy, a notable ornithological collection, was purchased by the Prussian state and presented to the Royal Biological Institute, the predecessor of today’s Biological Institute. Gätke’s research also forms the basis of our own museum, and of today’s Heligoland Bird Observatory. It’s the second-largest in the world and provides vital insights into sea bird migration.
All depictions: © Nordseemuseum Museum Helgoland