I tentatively slide my legs into the deep, cool rubber waders, pop my feet into the boots and hoist the heavy suit up my body until the straps slide over my shoulders. It’s around 40 degrees and windy outside, so I also have on a down jacket, two sweaters, gloves, a scarf and a waterproof raincoat. On my head, a wool beanie sucked tightly over my ears. My guide warns me that, although I’ll warm up once moving, there’s a chance I could get wet—even though I’m dressed like the villain from I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Once we’re fully geared up, we walk over a grassy hill and onto a plain of brown mud flats punctuated with pools of water which form Denmark’s Wadden Sea. My guide tells me there are thousands of species and plants that live in the area; birds, mammals and microscopic organisms. It’s low-tide so other than the weathered finger-like plants, which have broken through the marshy field, and a few birds soaring in the distance, there’s little life to be spotted, just a distant horizon that never ever seems to end. The only conclusion I can draw is that there must be thousands of tiny organisms the human eye can’t see.
I’m on an oyster safari in the Wadden Sea, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that extends along the country’s unforgiving west coast. It’s the greatest continuous tidal flats system on earth, home to miles of flat beaches and tidal creeks. Along with being touted as a spectacular destination to spot migratory birds and seals, it’s also known for its oysters. Or, rather, the overpopulation of them. But I’m not here to look at these oysters, as the term "safari" might suggest. I’m here to collect as many as I damn well can.
Between October and March, visitors descend upon the small neighboring town of Ribe, where they sign up for guided oyster expeditions at the Wadden Sea Centre, which can be booked ahead online. A contemporary learning and exhibition space that was opened in 2017, the building was designed by architect Johan Carlsson and has made it onto the pages of many design magazines. But beyond being a superbly slick space, the center’s intention is to educate people about this fragile environment.
“There are so many oysters, we urge people to collect as many as possible,” says my guide, as we plunge deeper into the cold ocean. The last time I experienced a free-for-all oyster party was at a wedding a few year’s back; because that’s when oysters come in abundance—at celebratory events. So why am I about to embark on an all-you-can-eat oyster safari on a regular mid-week day? “There’s a huge over-population and if we don’t manage it carefully, it will negatively affect the ecosystem,” says my guide.
The Pacific oyster, the oyster that’s found in the Wadden Sea, is an invasive species. It made its way to Denmark through a series of movements. First imported to France and Holland, it was later introduced into Germany before making its way up to Denmark. Because of the oyster’s ability to wreak havoc on the delicate ecosystem, one of the solutions is to consume them. Not a bad solution for those who love the slippery mollusks.
The waves are now lapping at my waist, the icy wind threatening to snatch my beanie from my head and it’s becoming harder to maintain my balance. To increase stability, I loop arms with a fellow safari-goer and cautiously place one foot in front of the other on the unpredictable sea bed, acutely aware of how unnatural it all feels. Intentionally walking into a cold ocean while waves whip your body, bends your brain a little bit. Like plummeting out of a plane on a skydive or jumping off a bridge with a thin rope attached at your waist; it goes against everything your body intuitively tells you to do. We finally make it onto the mussel bank, a few hundred feet from the shore, which is quite literally, a bank carpeted with oysters. All there for the taking. My guide pulls out a pair of gloves and an oyster knife, crouches on her knees and and begins scouring the bank. She collects a few oysters, snaps them open, observes them, dusts them with lemon and Tabasco and slurps them up. Just like that. The rest of the group follows her lead, shucking, slurping. One of the men in the group pops open a bottle of champagne and fills a few glasses he’d stashed in his backpack. Because what are oysters without champagne? Like kings, we toast to the ocean!
After an hour on the bank, the tide has begun to rise, so we start our journey back to dry land. By now, our bodies are cold from little movement on the bank, so the trek back is bound to be a difficult one; but we’re slightly buzzed from the champagne so no one seems to notice. Today, we are the only group on the expedition, but my guide tells of another group that filled their backpacks to the brim with oysters (the rules of how many you can collect remain unclear). Sadly, everyone in my group is journeying on to a new destination and oysters won’t do well in hand luggage, so we’re unable to traffic any out. We continue to wade through the water in our now-familiar rubber suits, squinting into the sun, bellies full of champagne and fresh oysters. Smug, because if anyone can believe it, we just did the Wadden Sea a favor.