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Ship Watching and Seal Spotting in the Mouth of the Elbe



The mouth of the Elbe is one of the world's most frequented water 'highways'. All ships both to/from Hamburg and to/from the Kiel Canal (Nord-Ostsee-Kanal) have to pass here.

The navigable channel in the mouth of the Elbe runs very close to Kugelbake and Cuxhaven port. Huge container carriers, up to 400 metres long, pass directly in front of you. These vessels ARE impressive!

Ever since I was a little girl I have been fascinated with ships. Not so much about the idea to be on board myself and travel the seas, but watching these huge things moving on the water.

My Grandma lived in Kiel, and Dad and I were well known visitors to the canal locks then. While everyone else had to stay safely on the visitors' platform, we were allowed to sit on a bollard on the quay!


This fascination has always remained very much alive in me. I live far away from the sea, but whenever I am on the coast or in a port city I stare at the huge vessels with the same amazement as the four-year-old kid once did. I hope I'll still do when I'm 94!

The combination of beach and mudflat walking together with ship watching is what makes Cuxhaven a unique experience.

Ship spotting requires the right timing. The largest vessels can only travel the river at high tide or the water will be too shallow for them. They plan their timetables according to the tides and travel with the highest. Not only to mudflat walkers but also to ship spotters the tide calendar is of highest interest.


Some tricks of perspective can create funny snapshots. My favourite ship photo is the one with the Airbus carrier. A ship that transports an airplane is running on top of the dyke... or is it?

Alte Liebe



In the port area, most quays are off-bounds to visitors. The best viewing point that takes you right onto the waterfront is known as "Alte Liebe". The platform is perhaps the best place to observe the ships on the Elbe, as they are passing really close by.


The romantic name "Alte Liebe" (old love) derives from one of three old shipwrecks that were used as a foundation of the construction. It also refers to people waving the last Goodbye to their loved ones who left Germany for good on an emigrant ship to the new world.

This is the tourist part of the port. Here is where the boats depart for the port tours and the seal spotting tours depart, as well as the boats to Neuwerk island and the Katamaran to Helgoland. The modern building next to Alte Liebe hosts souvenir shops, a restaurant and facilities.


The Semaphor: Weather Forecast Anno 1904


The Semaphor is a technical monument in the port next to Alte Liebe. Like an optical telegraph it delivers data about the wind situation, which can be read with a looking-glass from passing ships. The North Sea is known to be tricky and dangerous. Knowing what weather conditions to expect out there was important to outgoing ships. A first semaphor was erected already in the 1880s but destroyed in a gale in 1903.


The present one, originally preserved, dates from 1904. In times of radar, satellites and digital media it is not needed any more but kept in operation by a private association.

How does it work? The mystic thing provides data about the wind around Borkum ("B", left side) and Helgoland ("H", right side). The arrows in the large circles point in the direction of the wind. The strength of the wind is indicated by the "arms" or "signals" at the top of the mast. Each arm means two wind powers, so here we have force 4 winds at both islands.

Light vessel (Feuerschiff) Elbe 1



The light vessel “Elbe 1” spent decades moored far out in the North Sea waters to show incoming ships the right way. It has been turned into a museum and is waiting for visitors next to Alte Liebe. You can explore the ship on your own and poke your nose into all decks and cabins.


You could even get married on board; civil weddings are done in the former officers' mass (not spontaneously, of course). Open Tuesday to Sunday 11.00-16.00 (not in winter).

The Strange Box in the Distance


The view from the shore, given clear conditions, often reveals a strange “box” far out at sea on the horizon which does not move.

This is an oil-drilling platform on the so-called Mittelplate, a sea area where the water is rather shallow. The platform brings up oil from a depth of about 2000 metres. The oil is then delivered through a pipeline to the port of Brunsbüttel.

Harbour Cruise and the Seal Sandbanks (Seehundsbänke)



Cuxhaven's harbour is not too big, but a visit would be incomplete without seeing it from the waterside. Harbour cruises on small ships depart at Alte Liebe. They take you round the different harbour bassins and out onto the Elbe mouth.

The harbour hosts mostly smaller ships. Fishing is still a predominant business here.




Some harbour cruises visit, in addition to touring the port, a sandbank where seals are resting. This can only be done at low tide because these sandbanks fall dry for two or three hours, hence it is not included in all cruises. Check the tide calendar for the hours of low tide, and watch out for signs that mention something about “Seehundsbänke”. There are three different companies and boats which do the trip, it does not matter which one you take.

The Seehund is the most popular and more or less emblematic animal of the North Sea. Seal souvenirs of all varieties are available in any souvenir shops. They are probably the cutest of all seal specieses with their big dark eyes and spotted fur. Unfortunately they are critically endangered. Seeing live wild ones requires knowing where, and caution not to scare them. At low tide they rest on certain remote sandbanks far out in the Wattenmeer. The cruise boats take you past such a sandbank out in the Elbe, approaching to about 20 metres which is the closest the boat can get without scaring the seals. As the boat goes against the current, find a place on the left side of the boat.


Important: Instructions are given how to behave while the boat is close to the seals, but these instructions are in German only, so I am repeating them here. Observing them is important, otherwise the animals will disappear in the water in an instant, be stressed and perhaps even hurt themselves.

No sudden moves. No screaming or loud talking - talk in whispers only. No smoking or perfumes because they smell it. Take as many photos as you want but strictly no flash. These are wild animals and easily frightened, if anything looks dangerous to them they will panic and flee into the water, maybe even injure themselves, so plase take these rules seriously. The boat captains know exactly how close they can go without disturbing the animals in their well-needed rest.


Posted by Kathrin_E 04:38 Archived in Germany Tagged wildlife north_sea cuxhaven niedersachsen lower_saxony

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