Nestled along the enchanting Gulf of Riga, the Vitrupe Tūja unfolds as a true marine wonder within the Vidzemes akmeņainā jūrmala nature reserve. This protected area serves as a haven for unspoiled underwater marvels and coastal beauty. Here, the striking red sandstone Veczemju klintis (Veczemju cliffs) take centre stage, adorned with caves and grottos—a testament to the intricate formations sculpted by the relentless waves of the Baltic Sea.
We had the pleasure of chatting to Solvita Strāķe, a senior researcher at the Latvian Institute of Aquatic Ecology, to delve deeper into the significance of this marine protected area.
The nature reserve Vidzemes akmeņainā jūrmala and the marine protected area Vitrupe Tūja are ecological jewels in the Gulf of Riga. The coastal section within the nature reserve boasts a unique and unmodified landscape characterized by steep banks and rocky beaches. The area is home to 22 types of specially protected habitats and encompasses a diverse range of coastal ecosystems, including marine, beach, dune, forest, and grassland habitats.
The rocky sea edge is particularly valuable, hosting habitats of great importance such as vegetated sea cliffs, stony banks, drift lines and lowland hay meadows. These habitats contribute to the preservation of a variety of rare and protected plant and animal species.
The specific location of Veczemju klintis is a spectacular sandstone rock group along the Gulf of Riga's coast. The Baltic Sea's wave action has shaped steep banks that reach up to six metres high.
The sandstone cliffs have been shaped by the relentless force of the Baltic Sea, having taken shape some 350-380 million years ago. This unique substrate cannot be found anywhere else in the Gulf of Riga. What meets your eye above the waterline is a mere glimpse of the intricate formations below. The sea's waves have not only chiselled out the visible cliffs along the coastline, but they have also sculpted corresponding formations underwater.
With a depth range between 5-20 metres, a remarkable and unique reef has formed – sandstone outcrops covered with a layer of boulders. As a result of the Baltic's wave activity, the boulders have sunk into the soft sandstone substrate, forming fine, fragile sandstone structures that offer sanctuary to many underwater invertebrate species.
This concealed realm creates a seamless continuity between the terrestrial and marine environments and forms an interconnected ecosystem in which the underwater landscape mirrors the beauty and complexity of its terrestrial counterpart on the surface.
The vibrant reefs are home to a variety of species, including:
Sphacelaria arctica, a brown-coloured, slow growing perennial arctic macro algae;
Polysiphonia fucoides, a relatively small seaweed that grows in branched, cylindrical tufts;
Ceramium tenuicorne, a red macro algae found in temperate regions; and
Furcellaria lumbricalis, another red algae commonly known as clawed fork weed.
Additionally, the sandstone formations create vital habitats for numerous invertebrates, which play a crucial role in supporting coastal fish communities, particularly for lampreys. The shallower waters, especially around river inlets, attract significant concentrations of lampreys due to their favourable spawning and breeding conditions.
Indeed, the area is not only a haven for marine life but also an attraction for several bird species, especially during the winter months. Mute swans can be spotted closer to the coast, while velvet scoters and crested grebes often grace the area.
During winter, around 500 metres from the coast, long-tailed ducks start to make their appearances, joined by common gulls and occasional visits by three-toed gulls that migrate from Finland. Although the area is not abundant in avian life, it still provides a nurturing habitat for these diverse species.
Shifting environmental conditions have a ripple effect throughout the food web. The underwater sandstone structures contribute to the ecological balance by supporting a range of fish species.
However, there are challenges faced by the herring population and these also impact the food chain and, consequently, the bird species that rely on this marine life for sustenance during their winter stay.
This article is the first in our series highlighting marine protected areas in the Baltic. Future articles will continue uncovering the unique ecological wonders and conservation initiatives shaping these vital maritime landscapes.
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