Îles Chausey – Archipelago in the grip of the tides

With a tidal range of up to 15 metres, the Gulf of Saint-Malo is one of the most tidal regions in the world. These strong changes of high and low tide can be experienced everywhere along the Côte d’Emeraude, which stretches from Saint-Brieuc in the west to the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy. Out in the Gulf lies Europe’s largest archipelago, at least that’s what you can read on the Chausey Islands website. While 52 islands rise out of the sea at high tide, low tide exposes a world of its own, consisting of 365 large and small rock formations.

The small harbour on the north coast of Grande Île at ebbing tide. The many fishing boats are still bobbing on the sea, which will soon have receded completely.

Grande Île, at about one and a half kilometres long, is indeed the largest of the archipelago and incidentally the only inhabited one, but it is still small enough to be explored at leisure in the course of a day.

Grande Île is the place of arrival on this Easter Sunday in sunny, pre-summer weather, but also the starting point for small excursions into the intertidal zone around the island. The tide is just going out, as can be seen from the first narrow, dark-coloured stripe on the walls and rocks all around, against which the sea sloshes smackingly. The small ferry from Saint-Malo, which has travelled the distance through the gulf in just over an hour, spits out several dozen people, who quickly spread out in all directions across the island. I stand at the dock for a moment, looking at a curious great black-backed gull. Besides this largest of all gull species, herring gulls also populate the archipelago. The tourists are very convenient for them, as they bring all kinds of delicacies that a gull can’t really resist. But this gull quickly realises that I’m not offering anything. With a deep gurgle and a last oblique glance in my direction, it takes off.

1| Great black-backed gull (Larus marinus) – 2| The dock on Grande Île
3| Plage de Port-Marie at high tide

I also leave the pier now, first in a southerly direction. The path leads past a few small houses made of natural stone, a meadow and a large, shady garden, towards the beach of Port-Marie. Between dark rocks, the golden-yellow strip of sand slopes gently down to the water. At this moment, there is nothing to indicate that the sea will soon have retreated far. The tidal range on the archipelago is fourteen metres, and since it is Easter and therefore a full moon, there are strong tidal currents.

In the afternoon, at any rate, the water is gone here, bobbing far down in the small bay between the then steep cliffs. So deep down that there would be room for a multi-storey house on the exposed beach. I simply don’t understand where all these vast quantities of seawater have flowed to. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
From the beach, a path leads through gorse bushes to a hill. The gorse, which grows everywhere along the Gulf coasts, provides the perfect breeding habitat for numerous small birds. Especially dunnocks, wrens and linnets can be easily observed here. At this time of year, the males sit on the sparse branches of the gorse shrubs and mark their territories with loud calls. So if you let your gaze wander over the thicket, you will quickly find what you are looking for.

1| Dunnock (Prunella modularis) – 2| Eurasian oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)
3| Broad thickets of gorse and broom cover the coastline of Grande Île

On the rocks that slope down to the sea from the hill, squat crows and shelducks. Here and there a pair of oystercatchers flits by. They are strangely quiet here. Their characteristic whistling call, which I am used to hearing from the Wadden Sea, does not sound all day. The breeding season hasn’t started yet, but already the birds, often joined as a breeding pair for many years, are perched in pairs in sunny spots near the water.

The air is filled with March flies, a thick, black species of mosquito that feast on the flowering gorse thickets. They are omnipresent, but not a nuisance. A few swallows buzz rapidly over the hills and bays in the midday heat, probably also in pursuit of the March flies.

As birdwatchers and family people do, I disguised this birdwatching day as a family outing. While husband and children have already left for the next beach, I have time to devote myself to my favourite pastime. After about an hour in the gorse hills, I finally get a guilty conscience and follow the family to Port Homard beach. At the eastern end of the more than two hundred metre long, crescent-shaped sandy arch stands an old fort that dates back to Napoleon III. (a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte). For a time it was owned by the car manufacturer Louis Renault. Today it houses fishing families who live on Grande Île all year round.

Gradually, it is almost noticeable how the sea seems to exhale with a deep, long sigh. The water is gone and a quiet inertia settles over the archipelago. The seabed lies open, somehow naked and defenceless, littered with empty sea shells and snail shells of all colours, shapes and sizes. But hidden in the silt slumbers the true treasure and the French know how to use them: pêche à pied!

With buckets, baskets, shovels and rakes, they march to mussel beds, search for crabs in rock crevices or dig up every conceivable type of mussel from the wet soil. Whole families set off as if they had waited for no other moment of the day than the approaching peak of the low tide in order to be able to penetrate as far as possible into the otherwise hidden marine world. You feel silly just standing there on the beach looking at the distant sea, satisfied with the empty shells for the souvenir glass. But the French have no eye for ignoramuses like me. The foot-fishing is simply too important, after all, it’s about supper. You can scare me away with just about anything that comes from the sea. Mussels, crabs, squid – nothing has ever made it onto my menu. But here on France’s Emerald Coast, I’m seriously starting to rethink this strategy. Thousands of French people can’t possibly be wrong. Later, when my son finds a live scallop at the beach of Port-Marie and I see the slimy inside, I postpone the decision.

The small bay on Port Homard beach – 1| at high tide and 2| at low tide

On the beach of Port Homard we dare, my husband and I, and leave the children to their fate for a while, which they know how to use decently and build a gigantic sand castle, decorated with everything they can find on the beach. We hand the children one of the walkie-talkies and always stay in touch this way. Here on the island, the devices are extremely practical. We, on the other hand, make our way to some offshore rocky islands that can only be reached on foot at low tide.

We walk through Neptune’s front garden and quickly forget that we are adults. Our hands filled with seashells, we work our way over rivulets to the rocks overgrown with bladder wrack. As if on cotton wool, we stagger across the carpets of plants. At the top of the hill of rocks, we look down at more rocks and some herring gulls, which we pull out of their daydreams and which eye us appropriately scowling. We understand that this is their world, not ours, and descend over the big rocks back to the bay. In the meantime, the boats there are lying half-slanted in the sand or bobbing in the last remaining centimetres of water.

Suddenly a movement on the rocks. Completely unexpectedly, a small ruddy turnstone stands just a few metres in front of us. Where the water was metres high just a few hours ago, it too now finds plenty of food in the scree fields and limp kelp meadows. It’s the first time I’ve seen a turnstone, and although I would have liked to bow down gratefully to this small bird at that moment, it holds an even more exciting surprise for me at the end of the day.

Ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

We return to the children, who find it difficult to say goodbye to the beach, also because they realise that a sandcastle is not a structure for eternity and that it will soon fall victim to wind and waves. We climb over the dunes to the next beach – Grand Grève – the largest on the island. Opposite it on the north side is Anse à la Truelle, a small bay. Actually, this is the narrowest part of Grande Île, about seventy metres at high tide, but now it is all land, up here on the dune and down among the rocks.

The Grand Grève beach offers a panoramic view of the islands and rocks of the archipelago. While Grand Île also reaches its westernmost point here, the mostly undersea rocky world extends about another 3.5 kilometres to the north and west.

The sun is past its zenith and I begin to long for shade. It is quite rare on Grande Île, because only between the fort and the former farm are there trees and tall wild hedges. We take a break at the small Notre-Dame chapel and the shade provided by the old, cool stone walls is soothing. Wall lizards crawl out of the cracks and warm their bodies in the sun. So the little house of God benefits everyone in its own way.
At this moment it is still three hours until the return journey. We decide to walk around the eastern headland with the lighthouse and the fortress. From the harbour, the circular route leads past the social centrepiece of the island with a post box, hotel, restaurant, bar and boutique. Here you can find all kinds of souvenirs as well as culinary delights that the archipelago has to offer.

Charming gatekeepers at the entrance to the Forteresse des Matignon. This is as far as visitors go, because the fortress is privately owned.

The history of the Îles Chausey goes back several centuries before they became permanent French private property in 1778. Ownership changed frequently through inheritance and sale until, at the end of 1918, they became the property of the Société Civile Immobilière – SCI – which consisted of three families. Until 1978, the Renault carmaking family was also one of the co-owners, but sold its shares. Today, SCI is represented as owner by three managing directors who manage the company’s capital in equal shares on behalf of the three families.

The islands are a protected landscape area and the SCI has made it its task to promote and preserve the nature and culture of the archipelago. Over the centuries, three economic sectors have been important on the islands: granite quarrying, soda extraction from bladder wrack for the glass industry and fishing. Fishing has been preserved, which is mainly supported by the fact that fishing families can live permanently on Grande Île, for example in the fortress or the old fort. A new challenge is the increasing tourism.

1| Eurasian wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) – 2| Common wall lizard (Podarcis muralis)

Protecting the rich natural environment, on the other hand, is more complicated. Growing numbers of visitors, increasing boat traffic, even foot fishing (there are regulations on when and how much of which species may be caught and with which gear, but hardly anyone controls this) on an ever-increasing scale present the islands with the difficult task of reconciling the many different interests of economic sectors, politics and conservationists. The idea in the 1980s to make the islands a national marine park failed because of these many conflicting interests and a lack of political will. In the future, it will therefore depend on whether compromises can be reached: Limiting the number of visitors and tourist offers, limiting boat traffic, education and information work to protect the special conditions of the natural areas of the archipelago. Currently, the number of visitors is estimated at 200,000 per year. With the development of connections to the mainland, such as the port at Granville in Normandy or Cancale in Brittany, popular leisure activities such as sailing are also increasing on the archipelago. What the future will bring is currently completely unclear. There are many different interests, many parties to the talks, but above all there would need to be a common goal to talk about. One is aware of these developments on the Îles Chausey, but economic and political decisions are made elsewhere.

Sailing boats off the beach of Port-Marie. Increasing individual recreational sailing poses a problem. On the one hand, the number of visitors can no longer be precisely quantified, and on the other hand, more people are causing more disturbance to the maritime natural areas, including through the popular pêche à pied. Sailing boats are only allowed to anchor on the large beaches of Port-Marie and Homard, the small bays are reserved for the Chausiaises. This also applies to bathing, by the way.

The headland on which the lighthouse stands is quickly circumnavigated. From here, in the shimmering air above the bay, I can even make out Mont Saint-Michel – more than thirty kilometres away. The path ends again at the beach of Port-Marie. The water is now far down at the end of the bay. A few sailing yachts anchor there. What seems picturesque in the peace of the pre-season afternoon becomes a problem in the abundance of high summer. That’s why the three big beaches on Grande Île are left to the tourists, while the small bays are reserved for the residents. But the water is still too cold for swimming anyway. Explorations between the rocks covered in bladder wrack are always possible, however. A veil of clouds has drawn across the sky, making the light milky-white and the landscape coffee-coloured from latte to mocha. A curious herring gull sits down with me on the rock. Perhaps I am sitting in its favourite spot? More likely, the bird is hoping for a tidbit. It seems to have learned that much about tourists and their afternoon exhaustion here on the beach. The gull looks a little embarrassed when there is nothing from me and nibbles at her feathers.

The return journey to Dinard is varied. Saying goodbye to the Îles Chausey as the water level rises again feels like a departure at the same time. Moving on, discovering new land. Everywhere, the large and small ships cast off and sail back across the bay to Granville, Cancale or, like us, towards Saint-Malo.

1| The atmosphere of departure in the afternoon from the Îles Chausey – 2| At the pier in Dinard, the fishermen have put spiny spider crabs on display for the tourists

The bay is smooth as a mirror, shags fly close over the water beside the ship. Further out, guillemots drift offshore. The water becomes choppier and as we pass the Fort Nationale in front of the old town of Saint-Malo, a short rain shower suddenly starts. Then we sail into an eerie fog bank and the captain jokes, when he has steered the ship safely the short distance to Dinard, that he himself is relieved to have found the quay.

There, fishermen have draped some spider crabs decoratively on rocks for the tourists. In a pool in front of it lies a thornback ray and where the water has not yet reached, several dismembered crab bodies lie on the wet sand. Around them scurry three ruddy turnstones – I told you, today is my turnstone day! They don’t seem to be interested in the spider crabs themselves, because they pick at anything in the sand. It’s rare to get this close to birds in general, and I take the opportunity to finish off the wonderful day on the Îles Chausey with an extraordinary 1-minute movie:


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Links

The tourist season on the Îles Chausey lasts from April to October.

Getting there
The best way to visit the Îles Chausey is by ferry from Granville, Saint-Malo or Dinard. Information on times and prices can be found at:
www.vedettesjoliefrance.com (for departures from Granville, Normandy)
https://compagniecorsaire.com (for departures from Dinard or Saint-Malo, Brittany)

Another option from Cancale is a full-day sailing trip on a replica of a traditional Breton fishing boat, the so-called Bisquines. In addition, half-day trips through the bay of Mont Saint-Michel are also possible with the Cancalaise. For more information, see:
www.lacancalaise.org/balades-nautiques

La Cancalaise

Îles Chausey
The SCI runs an informative website – but only in French.
There you will also find tips on where to stop and where to stay on Grande Île. But the tide calendar is also important everywhere along the coast! I got reliable information about the weather here: https://tides4fishing.com/fr/basse-normandie/iles-chausey
In addition to the family-run Hotel with 8 rooms, there are 18 holiday flats for 2/3 up to 8/9 people on Grande Île.
There are two restaurants and a snack bar, which offer mainly local seafood cuisine. Reservations are recommended for the restaurants. The snack bar is open continuously from 8 am to 10 pm. For more information, please read on here:
Le restaurant Contre VENTS et MARÉES and snack bar
Hôtel du Fort et des Îles restaurant and bar


MERCI for reading!

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