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Biological Institute Helgoland (BAH)

Research on Germany’s deep-sea island: the Biological Institute Helgoland (BAH) of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research studies biotic communities in the North Sea

For a deep-sea island it does not really provide enough draught. Nevertheless, Helgoland is considered to be Germany’s only deep-sea island. Located around 60 kilometres from the northern German mainland, its rock massif of red sandstone rises impressively out of the sea. “Lange Anna”, as this landmark on Helgoland is called, welcomes the masses of tourists who come for a visit and a breath of sea air every year. For scientists, on the other hand, the island in the middle of the German Bight offers a great deal more: the rocky tidal flats and landscape measuring over 35 square kilometres are home to the richest marine animal and plant world along the German coast. This habitat is unique in the North Sea and a dream in terms of ocean research for biologists: most of the inhabitants of Helgoland’s rocky underwater world cannot survive in the bordering silt and sand soils. Therefore, they exist solely in the “marine oasis” around the island. For this reason changes in the local species diversity are particularly conspicuous and can be utilised as an indicator of natural or anthropogenic environmental changes. The Biological Institute Helgoland is the scientific platform for research on the island’s underwater world. It was established as the Royal Biological Institute back in 1892 and has been part of the Alfred Wegener Institute since 1998.

  • Helgoland Research Station – the advantages
  • Research objective and focus of BAH
  • Services of BAH
  • Logistics relating to BAH
  • Scientific offerings of BAH
  • BAH – a look back


Helgoland Research Station – the advantages

Thanks to its location in the middle of the sea, the BAH offers ideal conditions for marine biology research: investigations in the water around Helgoland can be optimally complemented by experiments and cultivation tests at the on-site laboratories. Constantly supplied with fresh seawater, the laboratories and seawater basins in the island’s open space also make it possible to keep and cultivate sensitive microorganisms. Research is primarily conducted on the lifecycles of marine organisms: algae, crabs, mussels and bristle worms of the North Sea are the centre of attention for the scientists. Organisms from other shallow seas are also studied here.


Objective and focus of research

The objective of the BAH is to understand the ecological interrelationships between the species better and obtain an overall picture of the complex ecosystem in shallow seas. For example, long-term ecological studies have been documenting the input of harmful substances and nutrients into the North Sea via the large rivers around the shallow sea and the atmosphere since the 1960s. Researchers can identify the impacts of agriculture, fishery, shipping and climate change at an early stage and assess potential consequences in connection with a regular survey of the species.

Commercial fishing also profits from BAH research. One of the aims of laboratory tests on breeding and way of life of the European lobster is to increase lobster stocks around Helgoland in cooperation with local fishermen. Work at the BAH focuses on natural marine substances. Whether sun protection agents from algae, disease-inhibiting substances from sponges, fungi and bacteria or ship coatings that mimic dolphin skin: nature provides the basis for numerous marketable products. At the BAH natural substances in marine organisms are characterised and examined with respect to possible use in close cooperation with industrial partners.


Services of BAH

Besides conducting research, the BAH performs a number of services. The Helgoland scientists advise political and economic decision-makers on current questions of marine ecology and supply institutes and universities on the mainland with biological material.

Furthermore, the research, teaching and experimental aquarium presents numerous marine animals and plants in their natural environment. The 20 seawater basins have often been the location for instructional and television documentaries. They have been accessible to the public since basic renovation work in 1998. Moreover, publication of “Helgoländer Meeresuntersuchungen”, the scientific journal with a long tradition, will continue in cooperation with Springer Verlag. The BAH additionally possesses an extensive specialist library.


Logistics relating to BAH

Various vessels are available to the BAH for research and scientific services. The motorboats 'Aade' and 'Diker' are primarily deployed in waters near the island. The research cutter “Uthörn” carries out measurement and fishing voyages in more distant parts of the German Bight. The flagship of the small research fleet is the 'Heincke', which went into service in 1990. It is a modern research vessel with an operating range of 7500 nautical miles and has laboratory rooms and accommodations for up to twelve scientists. Its areas of assignment are determined by the steering group “Medium-sized research vessels” in Hamburg.


Scientific offerings of BAH

More than 100 guest researchers and 700 course participants take advantage of the BAH offerings every year. Workstations in six laboratories, including modern facilities for microcellular and molecular biology work, are available to guest researchers from Germany and abroad for their own research projects. In addition, there are two guesthouses for overnight stays. For instructional purposes the BAH offers two course rooms with seating for up to 50 persons as well as organisational support. A special offer: the BAH regularly conducts in-house marine biology courses for junior researchers as well as for teachers at higher schools. In addition, a training course on research diving takes place on site once a year.


BAH – a look back

The BAH looks back on a 150-year history. In 1835 natural scientist Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg demonstrated that the marine luminescence around Helgoland was caused by the microscopically tiny unicellular organism “Noctiluca scintillans“. Scientist Johannes Müller also perceived the potential of the island: he founded plankton research there in 1845. Helgoland was designated as the Royal Biological Institute by the Prussian Ministry of Culture in 1892. In the following years it developed into an internationally recognised site for marine biology research. Entirely destroyed during World War II, the Biological Institute Helgoland was reopened in 1959. It has been part of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven since 1998.

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