The Danube Delta is the biggest wetland in Europe (if you consider the Wolga to be in Asia). It is also the end and the most renown part of Hanna´s home river. Accordingly, there was no doubt that we have to visit it. So, from the Carpathians, we headed east to explore this world of water. We spent four days here and met Lucian Bolboaca and Alexandru Dorosencu from the Danube Delta National Institute for Research and Development (DDNI). By the time we left, we were overwhelmed by our experiences and everything we learned about the delta. It would take way too long to repeat all we did and talked about, so here are six reasons why the Danube Delta might be one of the most interesting places we have visited so far:
1) A different world
The city of Tulcea marks the start of the Danube Delta. At the same time, it is literally the end of the road. To get any deeper into the delta, there is only way: by boat. So, we dragged our heavy bikes on the ferry and followed one of the many channels to the village of Crisan. Crisan is 8km long, similar to many big cities. However, only 1200 people live here, along one single street. There is literally one row of houses along the channel and nothing else. No road leads into the village, so there are no cars. Therefore, houses have docks instead of parking lots in front of them. The village is completely surrounded by water and reeds without any land connection. John, our host and guide, tells us that, growing up here, instead of learning how to drive a car, you learn how to drive a boat. Gas stations are on docked pontoons and only for boats, mail and groceries are delivered by the daily ferry and instead of school buses, there are school boats.
2) The people live from what the river provides
The inhabitants of the Danube Delta are true “river people”. The Danube is the center of everything that happens here. It provides them with drinking water and water for their plants. Almost all permanent homes here have lush gardens that provide all the fruits and vegetables that they would have to “import” by boat otherwise. The Danube, that flows in hundreds of small channels here, is also the only transport way. The economic situation here is not rosy, the most important economic sectors are tourism and fishing. Since most tourists come to see this unique wetland, many locals´ profession is to show and explain them the ways of the delta.
3) The delta is the most natural part of the Danube
The Danube is Europe´s biggest river and changes its character many times from its source in the Black Forest in Germany to its mouth at the Black Sea. Countless species and habitats occur only or mainly along its course. But it is also one of the most changed rivers in Europe. Capitals with millions of inhabitants like Vienna and Budapest were built on its shores and most of the formerly endless floodplains were drained to create agricultural fields while the river was restricted by dykes and dams. In the Danube Delta, we can still see how a massive river like the Danube creates its own world made of big and small channels, reeds, alluvial forests and much more. Biodiversity bustles above and underneath the water in fast flowing channels, standing shallow lakes, impenetrable reeds, regularly flooded forests and grasslands interspersed by sand dunes and dry grasslands. Alexandru tells us that most of the Danube in Romania used to look like this, before – just like everywhere else – it was channelized and its floodplains drained. We cannot even imagine how impressive this landscape must have been when it stretched upstream for 600 km.
That the Danube Delta remained so natural is partly thanks to the DDNI that has studied the delta for over 50 years. Until the 90s, their research was used to economically develop the delta, but in the 90s this changed fundamentally. After the fall of communism, the DDNI changed their focus on the preservation of the natural values. The delta was designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1998, which secures international recognition and protection. Nowadays, the DDNI conducts many projects in cooperation with the administration of the biosphere reserve to restore the parts of the delta that have been degraded.
4) Europe´s biggest wetland
Freshwater ecosystems have suffered the most from destruction and biodiversity loss. Everywhere in Europe and around the world, water bodies and the wetlands surrounding them were drained or covered in concrete. Big cities, ports, industrial areas and fertile fields were created in their place and they were “optimized” as waterways for shipping. However, if remaining intact, they are some of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the planet. Birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, insects and many others need them to breed and feed. The Danube Delta is the biggest wetland in Europe and the only natural delta of any big European river. It you want to see how differently it could look, just look at the second biggest river in Europe, the Rhine, that flows into the Atlantic pressed into the artificial channels of the biggest European port in Rotterdam.
5) The Danube Delta is influenced by the activities of 19 countries
We have already admired the Danube in Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. But this time, we see its conclusion, the accumulation of everything that came before. The Danube drains the Alps, the Carpathians and the Balkans but also endless agricultural fields, cities and everything else. Along its course, it is polluted, cleaned again, channelized, dammed and, unfortunately only in few places, still wild. The Danube is the most important waterway and fish migration route of Europe, hosts the biggest hydropower plant of Europe and provides drinking water for 20 million people. Whatever happens in the Danube basin that covers 800,000 km² (twice the size of Germany) and 19 countries influences the Danube Delta. Many toxic chemicals, medication, pesticides, fertilizers, microplastics and much more that end up in one of the thousands of tributaries of the Danube eventually end up here. This is more so since most wetlands, that naturally retain them, have been destroyed.
The Danube Delta bears the consequences of everything that happens upstream. The amount of sediment and water that arrive here as well as the water quality determine the ecology, landscape and development of the delta. The Danube countries acknowledged this in 1994, when they agreed on the “Danube River Protection Convention” and founded the “International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River” in 2000. This organization is responsible for coordinating nature protection efforts along the Danube to protect its entirety.
6) Constant change
Because the delta is the result of everything that happens upstream, it constantly changes. If the Danube would still be completely natural, every rainfall in the Danube basin would increase the discharge and each drought would reduce it. Similarly, the amount of sedimentation would change depending on erosion and discharge. Human influences have however changed this. Big hydropower plants in the Danube keep water levels stable and prohibit the transport of sediment. Nevertheless, the delta is still constantly changing.
The water level changes throughout the year and has been unusually low already for several years. That influences plant growth underwater and on the shores, and the movement of animals. At the same time, the water level of the Black Sea is rising, which means that brackish water is pushed into the freshwater lakes of the delta.
Sediment from the Danube normally flows through the delta and is deposited along the sea shore, because currents wash it on the shore. This is how the delta grows. It is also deposited in the delta raising the land in the upstream section. Here, forests start replacing reeds and the typical wetland vegetation disappears. Nowadays, because of the low sediment transport and water level, the land upstream rises faster than the wetland grows downstream, which means that the overall area of reed is decreasing. Because less sediment arrives, the water also becomes clearer and more light reaches the ground, which consequently increases plant growth and productivity.
7) The birds
The Danube Delta is world-renown for bird watching and we can confirm that this is justified. Everywhere along the channels sitting on trees, bushes and reed, we see herons, egrets, cormorants and many other birds. Ducks, geese, swans, grebes and loons swim on the water or sit on the endless fields of water lily and water chestnut. Some even build their nests right on the leaves of the water lily. During an amazing tour with John, we cross lakes that are vast, but shallow and a labyrinth of channels, where everyone who didn´t grow up here would get lost. We see raptors like the marsh harrier and white-tailed eagles, as well as the symbol bird of the delta, the great white pelican. We really feel like we entered into their world. While we need a motor boat to get anywhere – rowing is possible, but very slow – they can fly over dense reeds and forests hopping from lake to lake that are full of fish, amphibians, insects and everything they feed on.
There is so much more to say about the Danube Delta and even more to see. We would have loved to spend weeks here exploring each small channel and lake on the search for birds and other wildlife. We thoroughly thank Elena and John (find them on Booking, Facebook and Tripadvisor) for being incredibly kind to us and to Alexandru and Lucian from the Danube Delta National Institute for Research and Development for teaching us more about the Delta than we can remember. Go see it for yourself!