Arcachon Bay: Nature at its Finest

Arcachon Bay and its famous Dune of Pilat are the main tourist destinations in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, welcoming nearly two million visitors per year. The oysters produced there make both the tourists and the locals very happy. This quasi-inland sea is impressive because of its unusual characteristics and strikingly beautiful landscapes.

Carte marine du Bassin d'ArcachonFondation du patrimoine

The origins of Arcachon Bay

The Leyre—a small coastal river stretching for 71 miles—flowed directly into the ocean over 7,000 years ago. Over the millennia, as the sea level rose, sediment gradually built up and blocked the mouth of the river, resulting in numerous channels leading to the ocean. At the same time, the marine currents of the Gironde estuary, located further north, carried silt and sand southwards. These were the elements that formed the Cap Ferret peninsula and the Dune of Pilat, creating an almost completely closed lagoon: Arcachon Bay.

Sommet de la Dune du PilatFondation du patrimoine

Facing the Cap Ferret peninsula is the Dune of Pilat. It is the largest sand dune in Europe, standing 360 foot tall, and measuring 1,640 foot wide by 8,860 foot long.

This mountain of sand is formed by the combined action of the wind, the waves, and the tides, which constantly brings sand up from the base to the top on the western side.
Under the force of its own weight, the sand falls back on the eastern side of the dune, in a slow, rolling movement.

Dune du Pilat et forêt landaiseFondation du patrimoine

As such, each year, the dune advances between 3 and 16 feet in the direction of the forested area.
This continual movement can be seen by observing the World War II blockhouses, which were originally built on the top of the dune but are now in the water.

Face ouest de la Dune du PilatFondation du patrimoine

The western side of the dune has therefore become an incredible piece of living history.

The traces of black are the remains of vegetation and ancient soils, dating back 8,000 years.

The remains of settlements from the first Iron Age have also been discovered and studied by archaeologists.

Forêt landaise vue depuis la Dune du PilatFondation du patrimoine

To the east of the dune, the Landes de Gascogne forest stretches as far as the eye can see, covering almost 2.5 million acres. It is the largest forested area in Europe, and part of it is protected by the Landes de Gascogne Regional Nature Park.

Versant forêt de la dune du PilatFondation du patrimoine

The Dune of Pilat owes its name to the Gascon word, "Pilot", which means heap or mound. Its spelling should not be confused with that of the nearby seaside resort of Pyla-sur-Mer. In the 1920s, its founder thought that adding the "y" made it seem more exotic.

The dune and its unique environment are classified as a Grand Site de France, and therefore benefit from protection and maintenance under French law.

Vue du banc d'Arguin depuis la Dune du PilatFondation du patrimoine

From the top of the Dune of Pilat, you can admire the entrance to Arcachon Bay, marked out by the northern and southern channels, which are situated on both sides of the Banc d'Arguin sandbank. These channels allow boats to make their way between the bay and the ocean.

Just like the dune, the Banc d'Arguin sandbank moves constantly thanks to the wind, the waves, and the tides. Maps are published each year to advise boaters of the safest route to take.

Vue de la réserve ornithologique du TeichFondation du patrimoine

A peaceful haven for birds

In the Leyre delta, there is a mixture of fresh water and salt water. This creates a humid wetland where wildlife is able to flourish, especially birds. It was in this special environment that the Ornithological Reserve of Teich (Réserve Ornithologique du Teich) was created in 1972, in collaboration with the Landes de Gascogne Regional Nature Park. Its artificial ponds were first used to collect salt in the 17th century, and then used extensively for fish farming over the centuries that followed. They were finally acquired by the council of Teich in order to create the reserve.

These ponds are vital for protected bird species.
The dikes make it possible to manage the tides. Each pond has a different water level depending on the type of bird. For example, a higher water level for ducks and a lower water level for shorebirds, or waders, because they look for their food in the mud.

Échasse blanche dans la Réserve ornithologique du TeichFondation du patrimoine

Since the reserve was created, more than 320 different species of bird have been observed. This is equal to half of all bird species that exist in Europe.
Arcachon Bay is located on one of the continent's largest migration routes.
Several dozen species also nest or spend the winter in the reserve each year and tens of thousands of individual birds can be seen there.

Here is a white stilt, one of the typical species found at the reserve.

Spatule ouvre-bec dans la Réserve ornithologique du TeichFondation du patrimoine

During the winter, the Ornithological Reserve of Teich is home to a large population of spoonbills—a wading species whose flattened beak allows them to scrape through the mud in search of food.

Héron sur l'Île aux OiseauxFondation du patrimoine

When it's high tide, the birds can be seen in the Teich Reserve. At low tide, they leave to feed in the almost completely empty bay.
The aptly named Île aux Oiseaux, meaning bird island, is home to a large number of birds, like this gray heron which can be seen at ebb tide.

Les deux cabanes tchanquées du Bassin d'ArcachonFondation du patrimoine

Bird huts on stilts: a symbol of Arcachon Bay

The term tchanquée comes from the Gascon word tchanca, which denotes the stilts that the shepherds in the Landes region used to perch on while guarding their sheep in the marshy areas. This name perfectly captures the appearance of these huts, embedded in the silt of Arcachon Bay at the foot of Île aux Oiseaux.

Ancienne cabane tchanquéeFondation du patrimoine

At the behest of Emperor Napoleon III, oyster-breeding was developed in the bay. The first hut on stilts was built in 1883 for watching over the oyster beds to protect them from potential thieves.
It was swept away by a storm in 1943.

Cabane tchanquée n°3Fondation du patrimoine

Two local figures who loved the bay and all its history decided to rebuild not just one but two huts on stilts!
The huts were opened in 1946 and 1948, respectively. They ended up becoming exclusive holiday spots, losing their original purpose as surveillance outposts.

Cabane tchanquée n°53Fondation du patrimoine

The hut on stilts known as number 53 was abandoned in the 1970s following the death of its owners. Very dilapidated and dangerous for passing boaters, it was acquired by the town of La Teste-de-Buch, and in 2007, they decided to demolish it.

Intérieur restauré de la cabane Tchanquée n°53Fondation du patrimoine

It was immediately rebuilt exactly as it used to be with support from the Fondation du Patrimoine (Cultural Heritage Foundation).
The central chimney in today's rebuilt hut is the original one that had been previously dismantled.
Managed by the Conservatoire du Littoral, the French organization for coastal protection, its purpose is to enhance both the natural and the man-made heritage of Île aux Oiseaux.

Cabanes sur l'Île aux OiseauxFondation du patrimoine

Île aux Oiseaux, with a surface area that varies from 470 to 4,200 acres depending on the tides, is largely public property under the management of the Conservatoire du Littoral.
Its 42 huts are allocated for a period of 7 years, to occupants who are selected based on their proposed improvement plans.

Rencontre avec Anaïs Lucas - Responsable des Prés Salés et de l'Île aux OiseauxFondation du patrimoine

Meeting with Anaïs Lucas, manager of the salt marshes and Île aux Oiseaux. She talks us through the history of the huts on stilts in Arcachon Bay, and the importance of preserving these buildings in terms of their connection to Île aux Oiseaux.

Pinasses sur le port ostréicole de La Teste de BuchFondation du patrimoine

Arcachon Bay oysters

Arcachon Bay is also famous for its oyster farming. A large part of its surface area is taken up by oyster beds. The bay's waters are warmer than the ocean, providing very favorable conditions for the development of young oysters known as spats, and the constant tidal currents allow their shells to form properly.

The boats typically used for oyster farming in Arcachon Bay are called pinasses, examples of which can be seen here in the oyster farming port of La Teste-de-Buch.
This name comes from the Gascon word pinaça, which means "made from pine boards".
Today, these boats are mostly used for recreation.

Bateau plat d'ostréiculteursFondation du patrimoine

The 315 oyster farmers, spread out over 23 ports in the bay, now use these flat-bottomed barges.
However, oyster production is currently in decline, owing to a lack of food in the water, which is necessary for the oysters' development.

Maël Fontenay ostréiculteurFondation du patrimoine

Maël Fontenay is one of the oyster farmers facing this decline in oyster numbers.
Like many other local producers who are determined to overcome this issue, he starts his oysters off in Arcachon Bay, but then sends them away to grow for several years in the colder waters of Normandy.
The oysters are then returned to their beds in the bay for a few weeks before being sold.

Huîtres FontenayFondation du patrimoine

In order to get closer to his customer base and promote his activities, Maël had to turn his hand to other things.

After working on the oyster beds, he goes to the local market in La Teste-de-Buch. He has a stall there with his partner, where they sell shellfish and local dishes that can be eaten on the spot or taken away.

Paillote d'ostréiculteur : le CaillocFondation du patrimoine

As with many other oyster farmers in the bay, Maël also sells some of his oysters directly to customers from a little cabin on his boat.
These cabins, with their colored shutters, are part of the charm of the oyster harbors in Arcachon Bay.

Cap Sud Ouest Bassin d'ArcachonFondation du patrimoine

Watch this video showcasing the splendor and diversity of Arcachon Bay.

Credits: Story

We would like to thank Myriam Darracq and Marine Delarette from the Syndicat Intercommunal du Bassin d'Arcachon, Anaïs Lucas from the Conservatoire du Littoral, Louise Poupin from the Grand Site de la Dune du Pilat, Véronique Hidalgo and Cyril Forchelet from the Réserve Ornithologique du Teich and the Comité Régional de Tourisme de Nouvelle-Aquitaine for their invaluable help in creating this content!

If you would like to support the Fondation du Patrimoine (Cultural Heritage Foundation) in its efforts to preserve France's cultural heritage, click here.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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