The Danube Delta

At the end of the Danube, where the 2859-kilometre river meets the Black Sea, there lies the youngest land in Romania, in part formed only in the last two millennia: the Danube Delta. As a matter of interest, we should mention that in the immediate vicinity can be found the oldest land in Romania: the Macin mountain massif, which formed during the Cambrian Age.With a surface area of 4,423 square kilometres in Romania and 732 square kilometres in Ukraine, the Danube Delta is the fruit of the Danube's labours over the last thirteen thousand years, during which time this surface area has been transited by a volume of between 6,300 and 16,000 m3/s of water. The solid matter borne by the river silted up the old Gulf of Halmyris. The lowest recorded water level was 1,600 m3/s. The extremely variable water level of the Danube is also due to the laying of solid sediments in an average volume of 75,000 tonnes per annum, a volume which, in exceptional cases, can reach even 750,000 tonnes per annum. Of the approximately five thousand square kilometres of the Danube Delta, only six hundred and eighty today remain unflooded at the average water level, and in years with heavy flooding only one hundred and forty square kilometres remain dry. Otherwise, the water level of the Danube Delta does not increase by more than two metres except in exceptional cases, with high floods extending over the entire undiked surface area of the Delta. The current face of the Danube Delta is that which formed in the Holocene. In its current form, the Danube Delta has exited for around five to six thousand years. In the year 950, the settlement of Selina already existed in the area of today's town of Sulina. The climate of the Danube Delta falls within the temperate category. The average annual temperature oscillates around 11°C. The approximately 400 mm of precipitation fall above all during the spring. Yearly, around eighty days of high temperatures, above 25°C, are recorded.From the phyto-geographical point of view, Dobruja, which is to say also the Danube Delta, falls within the zone transitional to steppe vegetation, in this case the typical Dobruja steppe. At the same time, however, it should also be mentioned that it is in the Danube Delta that the world's largest expanse of reed beds can be found, measuring 2,530 square kilometres, of which 300 square kilometres are made up of massive islets of floating reed beds.Of course, in an area so subject to the influence of water, it is not possible for many inhabitants to settle. In the whole of the Danube Delta, no more than fourteen thousand inhabitants live gathered in fourteen settlements, and their numbers are in decline. Thus, in the Delta there is a population density of approximately 3.5 inhabitants per square kilometre, a very low figure. Among the inhabitants, the Lipovan ethnic group, of Russian origin, is predominant. The number of Romanians has increased only during the course of the last few decades. The Lipovans settled here around three hundred years ago, fleeing from the constables sent by Patriarch Nikon in pursuit of those who opposed the modernising measures begun by the Empress Catherine of Russia. They have preserved the beliefs and customs with which they arrived in the area, which was almost inaccessible to the police of the time.In such a sparsely populated region, human activity has never had a massive impact on the environment, and so the untouched natural environment of the Danube Delta continues to be undisturbed even today. The Danube Delta is a true oasis of living nature, a rarely encountered labyrinth of channels, pools, ponds, lakes, reed beds, and woods. For this reason, the Government of Romania decided in 1990 to establish the Danube Delta National Park. In 1993, a law was passed to this effect, and Govt. Decision 248/1994 established areas of differing degrees of protection as well as the official limits and authorities of the National Park, which in time has been declared a Biosphere Reserve. These heartening developments put an end to the poorly thought-out plan to agriculturalise the Delta area, commenced with loud fanfare in the 1970s, when intensive works were carried out in order to systematise agriculture and create large fish farms.We now come to the subject of fish in the Danube Delta. In the Delta and on the coast of the Black Sea, around one hundred and sixty species of fish have been identified, some of them extremely rare. The greatest economic value derives from a number of species of sturgeon, which produce the much sought-after black caviar: Huso huso, Acipenser guldenstaedti, and Acipenser stellatus. These fish are caught by means of lines hundreds of metres in length, to which are attached sharp, unbaited hooks. The sturgeons are hooked as they try to pass between them. In the Sf. Gheorghe area in particular, there is a well-known spot where sturgeons are caught on their way towards the course of the Danube, whither they go to reproduce. The giant of fish species in the Delta is the beluga, which in exceptional cases can reach up to nine metres in length and 1,600 kilograms in weight. The high price of sturgeon products (meat and black caviar) causes this group of fish to bring substantial incomes for fishermen, for which reason they are much sought-after. Of course, the rarity of these species has meant they are listed as protected species. Another "anadrome" species, i.e. one that migrates in spring from the sea into the Danube, is the much-prized Pontic shad (Alosa pontica), which fishermen impatiently await along the course of the Danube, with their nets at the ready.Another large species is the Wels catfish (Silurus glanis). One hundred years ago, a specimen weighing over 200 kilograms was caught. It is the largest freshwater fish in Romania, and feeds on anything it can catch. Very large Wels catfish have in a number of cases been known to attack humans. It can be caught at the bottom of the water, along the arms of the Danube and in the larger channels.Other economically important species include carp (Cyprinius carpio) and its smaller relative the Prussian carp (Carassius gibelio), the white bream (Blicca björcna) and the Atlantic pomfret (Brama brama). It is not possible to make an authentic fish borscht without tench (Tinca tinca), perch (Perca fluviatilis), or pike (Esox lucius). Also prized by fishermen are the pikeperch (Schizostedion lucioperca) and the asp (Aspius aspius).Sport fishing can be practised on the basis of a temporary permit and charges paid to the leaseholders of ponds.Transport in the Danube Delta is predominantly on water, thus by boat. There are only a few practicable roads, during dry periods, such as the track that begins from the ferry at the settlement of Nufar and passes through Ilgami as far as Maliuc. There are also usable tracks in Ostrovul (islet) Pardina, Grindurile (sandbanks) Chilia, Letea, Caraorman and Saraturi (salt marshes) Sf. Gheorghe.Another group of creatures that have brought the Delta worldwide fame are birds. There are more than three hundred and twenty species of birds known to be present in the Danube Delta, where they nest or rest during migration or winter. A large number of species, such as the white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus), Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus), pygmy cormorant (Phalacrocorax pygmaeus), red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis), ferruginous duck (Aythya nyroca), red-footed falcon (Falco vespertimus), white-tailed eagle (Haliaetus albicilla) and European roller (Coracias garrulous), as well as birds that lay their eggs in trees, reeds or the soil substratum, find nesting and wintering conditions in this region, sometimes gathering up to seventy per cent of global numbers.In pelican nesting colonies, more than two thousand pairs of white pelicans sometimes gather, forming the largest nesting colony in Europe. Moreover, it is here that we meet a few dozen pairs of Dalmatian pelicans. It is the same situation with the pygmy cormorant, as seventy per cent of global numbers nest in the Danube Delta. The usually mixed colonies of storks (Ardea) and egrets (Egretta) are particularly interesting from an ornithological point of view. There are often cases where such colonies accumulate dozens even hundreds of pairs, making up colonies of thousands of herons (Ardeola), black-crowned night herons (Nyticorax) and ibises (Plegadis). Trespassing in these colonies is completely forbidden, as it is in integrally protected areas, where entry is in any case not allowed. We should also mention the large number of wild duck and grebes. The black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) is an unusual species in Europe, but relatively common in the Danube Delta. The most common birds of the Delta do not nest in the area, but merely pass through in their thousands during their spring and autumn migrations. This is the case of a huge number of shore birds (Limicolae), which nest in the North-European and Asiatic tundra. These fascinating birds are represented by a host of pipers (Tringa), sandpipers (Calidris), godwits (Limosa), and plovers (Chaladrius). Only the stilt bird (Himantopus), the crossbill (Recurvirostra), plover (Charadrius), stone curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus), lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) and collared pratincole (Glareola pratincola) nest at such a southern latitude.However, the largest number of species is represented by the songbirds (Passeriformes). Typical of predominantly wet biotopes, we find various species of warblers (Acrocephalus and Locustella), whitethroats (Sylvia), wagtails (Motacilla), and the penduline tit (Remiz pendulinus).Other species omnipresent in the Delta space are the grebe (Podiceps), cormorant (Phalocrocorax), and various species of seagull. Terns (Sterna, Chlidonias), exceptional and agile flyers, build their nests on the sand of the islets or in the floating vegetation of the lakes. Seagulls (Larus) also build their nests in such places, often forming large colonies. The black-headed gull (Larus ridibundus) is the most frequent species. The steppe gull (Larus cachinnans) can sometimes be found in summertime, but is more frequent along the seacoast.We have deliberately left until last a number of the most beautifully coloured birds of the Danube Delta: the common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), the bee-eater (Merops apiaster), the roller (Coracias garrulous), the hoopoe (Upupa epops) and various species of woodpecker (Dendrocopos, Dryocopos, Picus). With the exception of the woodpecker, the other species usually excavate their nests in the steep banks of the Danube or in the ravines of Dobruja.Because there is a plentiful trophic supply in the region, there are sufficient insects to serve as food for so many birds. Even the insufferable mosquitoes, after having provided aquatic larvae to feed the fish, will as airborne adults sate the hunger of birds and bats.Now a few words about the flora and vegetation of the Danube Delta. The Danube Delta is a predominantly aquatic biotope, in which the most widespread plants grow in the water. The white lily (Nymphaea alba) grows in large numbers, and it is often possible to observe entire plains of hundreds of thousands of white flowers. The plant is protected and it is forbidden to pick its flowers. In areas of shallower water heated by the sun, smaller, yellow lilies can be found growing (Nuphar luteum). The shallow water of the marshes, rarely deeper than two metres, is overrun with aquatic plants, including the carnivorous bladderwort (Utricularia). However, the most widespread are the lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), whose fruit is eaten boiled by humans and raw by the wild ducks which assiduously graze it. We find a wholly unusual vegetation in the two large forests of the Danube Delta: Letea and Caraorman. The forests extend over large surface areas in the form of strips up to a few hundred metres in width, but a length of many kilometres. They are made up of oaks and poplars. In the two forests can be found growing Europe's only species of liana: Periploca graeca.Other species originate in far-off regions, such as a species of sand bindweed (Convolvulus persicus). Other species include Salicornia, Suaedia, and Salsola, which grow above all in saline soil. We should above all mention the sea grape (Ephedra distachya), the only representative of this family in Romania.Finally, the medicinal herb sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is widespread in the Letea Forest region.The Letea and Caraorman forests extend in the form of narrow strips that can reach more than twenty kilometres in length, separated by strips of sands with steppe vegetation. They are home to the largest sand dunes in the Danube Delta region. In the Letea Forest the dunes can reach heights of over eight metres. Only Popina Island, a block of Triassic limestone in Lake Razelm, exceeds this altitude, with its forty-nine-metre peak.Also very interesting is the mammal fauna. The wolf (Canis lupus) was exterminated here in the 1970s, when hunters tracked down the last existing pack during wintertime in the Letea Forest, shooting the last wolves of the Danube Delta. Only Wolf Island still recalls them today: a long sand bank where the wolves used to return in springtime after wandering through Dobruja. However, another predator rare in Europe still survives here: the otter, much sought after for its valuable pelt. In the Danube Delta, the mink also survives, having vanished from the rest of Europe. It was not hunters who caused its disappearance, but rather its American cousin, which escaped from mink farms and replaced them in their natural habitat. Another predator that has settled in the Delta is the enot dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides). This versatile animal, the size of a fox, is quite common. Wildcats can also be found. I have even observed them swimming across the Old Danube, downstream from Mile 23. Foxes and boars are to be found in many places. Deer and rabbits are found mostly in the two large forests of the Delta. The largest species of European stag, i.e. the elk, has twice appeared in the forests of Caraorman and Letea. Also widespread is the bison, which came to the region between fifty and sixty years ago. Other occasional guests include the coypou, undoubtedly escaped from farms.If we are talking about the Danube Delta, we should not omit to mention the sandbank named Sakalin Island. It formed more than half a century ago to the south of the point where the St George Arm empties into the sea, following a violent storm. Today, it has grown to a length of twenty kilometres and a width of between fifty and a few hundred metres. Between Sakalin Island and the Danube Delta there extends the Sakalin Strait, an area of shallow, almost fresh water a number of square kilometres in area: it is a veritable nursery for fish fry. At its highest points, the island is only a little over a metre above sea level. As it is uninhabited, the island has an extremely rich and undisturbed birdlife, especially gulls, but also shore-dwelling species. The area is extremely attractive, in spite of the fact that drunken tourists burned down the century-old oak-wood Turkish lighthouse which once stood near the strait on the Turkish Channel.

by Peter Weber