Unraveling The Delta's Treasure

excerpts Whether you travel through the Delta on water, or view it from the air (from a helicopter or a plane), the reed is the dominant element of the landscape. It occupies a foremost position in the Delta's treasure, and constitutes an immense source of richness. It stretches over seemingly endless surfaces, but these wonderful "reed forests", characteristic of our Delta, are in fact made of a complex association of water plants. Ion Simionescu, one of those who passionately studied the Delta, gives us a suggestive description of this complex flora: "…If you travel through the Delta in June, or let yourself wander among the rocks surrounding the eastern part of Tulcea, you can hardly believe your eyes. The most diverse shapes and colors lie in front of you on a limited surface, ranging from the rosy pond lily, to the saffron yellow of the sword flag, and the blue of the bundles of forget-me-nots on the bank. Above, the wide sky spotted with whitish clouds, flying like fantastic birds; in front of you, the brightness of the water, troubled from time to time by the joyful jumps of playful fish; a greenhouse with all kinds of flowers lies ahead of you. Everything is surrounded in the complete silence of a secluded corner of the world." (Romania's Flora). And if we open A guide to the Danube Delta by Traian Săvulescu, it will be easier for us to make out way through and identify this diversity of aquatic plants. If we take a closer and more careful look at the vegetation of the brooks and canals, we can see it is made of white and yellow water lilies which open up the chalice of their flowers above the water. In the same biotope, meaning in the same life environment, that of the vegetation floating on the brooks and canals, we also find frogbit (Hydrocharis morsus ranae), fringed water lily (Nymphoides peltata), water knotgrass (Polygonum aviculare), water soldier (Stratiotes aloides), water lentil (Lemna minor), floating fern (Salvinia natans), and water chestnut (Trapa natans). Of all these, the floating fern is the only one with no flowers, being only a little fern multiplying itself through the spores which grow at the base of the leaves transformed into roots. The submerged plants (those living underwater or on the bottom) are to be found under the thickness of the water; their excessive growth raises insurmountable obstacles in the way of the boats sailing on small brooks and lakes with muddy bottoms. The aquatic flora from the thickness of the water is composed of horsetail (Equisetum arvensis), bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris), horned pondweed (Zannichellia palustris), hornwort (Ceratophyllum), water milfoil (Myrophyllum spicatum), toadflax (Linaria), tassel grass (Ruppia maritima). The bladderwort is a most strange plant, as it feeds on live animals: water bugs (Nepidae), cyclops (one-eyed crustaceans) and water fleas (Daphnia pulex). The nourishment is captured with the help of small swells on the leaves – utricles – inside which the small insects are trapped and then dissolved with a juice secreted by the plant. Plants that emerge from and rise above the water grow at the edge of the Delta's lakes and islets, namely reed, great reed mace (Typha latifolia), bulrush mace (Typha angustifolia), Dutch rush (Equisetum hiemale), common arrowhead (Sagittaria sagittifolia), water fennel (Oenanthe aquatica), water plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica). Different small animals roam through the vegetation on the banks of the river, such as: mosquito larvae, water bugs (Notonecta glanea), crustaceans, worms. Leeches also live in the same area, together with a lot of shells and snails, frogs and turtles, etc., each species with its own peculiar manifestations and playing a specific part in the great biological mechanism of the Danube Delta. These creatures, as well as those living in the universe of a drop of water, visible only under the microscope, are carefully studied by researchers, constantly adding new scientific elements regarding the Delta's fauna. Among these creatures, some groups are not yet completely studied, such as the group of delicate water insects named dragonflies. It may be interesting to know that up until 1960 only 13 species of odonates (dragonflies) were known to be living on the Sf. Gheorghe and Sulina arms. Following some recent studies, their number rose to 23 species, and the list is not yet complete. Let's now meet the islet (plaur), a characteristic feature of the Delta, whose composition is described by the well-known Romanian biologist Grigore Antipa in his work titled "The floodable region of the Danube – its current condition and means of exploitation". "The islet, a floating formation of reed (Phragmites communis), only forms on deep ponds and usually on those ponds where the clear, not muddy, water either decants itself in other ponds before getting there, or enters the pond already filtered by the banks or a permeable bottom. Islets are not formed on solid spits, but only in those parts where the bottom of the pond is soft and muddy, where the bottom is covered by that delicate, black mud found in ponds with clear, decanted and slightly oxygenated water; islets are formed of decomposed aquatic plants, mud, named Sapropel by Potonié. In this case, the reed on the bank produces horizontal rhizomes, stretching over wide surfaces on the bottom of the lakes' when digging in islets from the Sulina canal, rhizomes as long as 14 meters long were found. Tiny roots grow on these rhizomes, trying in vain to anchor them in the fine mud on the bottom of the lakes. The same happens with the reed stems beaten by the wind and bending towards the water, etc., forming the so-called "Legehalmen" – bent stems – (Reissek* was the first to notice them in Hungary); staying permanently in water, especially when they're young, the leaves of these stems become rudimentary and the knots start growing little roots, thick just like hairs in a moustache; the stems grow very quickly, developing 30-40 cm long inter-knits; then they sink to the bottom and their roots seek to catch on the bottom of the lake, where they find that fine mud to which they cannot get attached, and even if they do, they get swept away and uprooted by the high tide. Both the rhizomes and the bent stems get close one to another, and such a strong anastomosis is formed between their thin roots that they turn into a sort of thick felt, so the entire formation floats on the water; afterwards, plant seeds land on the "floating felt", they start vegetating, and in a few years, following the decomposition of annual vegetation, a layer of humus is formed, which thickens the islet continuously." The islet, between 0.5-1.5m thick, shelters a wide range of flowers, consisting especially of: reed, great reed mace, grey willow, great water parsnip (Sium latifolium), fern, lace, sedge (Carex), bent grass (Agropyron repens), water radish (Rorripa amphibia), water willow (Lythrum sallcaria), water hemlock (Cicuta virosa), water fennel, cherry pie (Epilobium hirsutum), creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), hedge bindweed (Calystegia / Convolvulus sepium), forget-me-not, blackwort (Symphytum officinale), manna grass (Glyceria aquatica), sword flag, common arrowhead, flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus), bur reed (Sparganium ramosum), cursed buttercup (Ranunculus sceleratus), scarlet berry (Solanum dulcamara), brook mint (Mentha aquatica), cervine, skullcap (Scuttelaria altissima), hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabium), milk thistle (Sonchus oleraceus). The rich flora of the islets is accompanied by an extremely rich fauna, especially micro-fauna; on a 10 mm cube, our researchers found 30,000 beings – insects, water bugs, mollusks, etc., without taking into account the multitude of microscopic beings. Wild cats, foxes, minks and otters, weasels and ermines populate the wide reed plots on the spits and islets. Some "recent" guests of the islets are the enot or raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procynoides) and the muskrat (Ondatra zibethica), which emigrated here from the Soviet Union. The former comes from the surrounding area of Amur river, Northern China and Japan, and the latter is an amphibian rodent originating in North America. THE SILVERY STREAM The crystal palace of ponds, the green carpets on the bottom of the lakes have been taken over by silence for a couple of days. The spring fishing in the lakes from the floodable plain of the Danube has been stopped, as well as that in the rivers from the hills and plains: prohibition has been installed. But not all fishermen put aside their tools until the next time they will be allowed to fish. During this period, they are free to catch the Danubian herring (Alosa ressleri pontica). The net fishermen's boats slide downstream, their nets varying in size depending on the fish they want to catch. The Danubian herring may well be considered the most sensitive of all species of fish: once caught in the net and taken into the boat, it dies. Being so fragile when trapped in the fishing tool doesn't mean the fish is easy to catch: on the contrary, it's not easy at all to track it down. Industrial-scale fishing of this type of fish is in fact based on its migration, which still has many unknown aspects to science. The herring's reproductive journey from the sea to the river is well-known and acknowledged, but nobody knows how many itineraries it follows through the muddy waters, at different depths and covering different distances from one year to another, and how many "surprises" it has in store for the fisherman! That's why only well-experienced fishermen can match with the herring when it starts its journey – like a silvery stream – from the waves of the sea into the waters of the Danube, at the time when the willow buds are starting to burst, swimming for about 500-900 km to fulfill one of the most important vital acts: reproduction. The herring migration doesn't last for too long – 4-6 weeks – but it raises some serious fishing problems. Having the right tools ready is not enough; you also have to search for the places where the catch could be as big as possible. The satisfaction will therefore belong to the one who takes the trouble to chase the fish, and not to the one who spares his efforts… This year, as before, the Sulina net fishermen came out to welcome the herring as close as possible to the threshold between the sea and the Danube, given the fact that herring fishing is done more at the beginning of the migration period. I met most of these fishing teams out at sea, the cutters pushing their boats all the way, so that they wouldn't get too tired from rowing, and seeming to turn the depths upside down with their tools. In the hazy sunrise above the water, they looked like sowers – holding and throwing their nets into the water. Of course, a special harvest corresponds to this special kind of sowing in which the seed of diligence and competence germinates and bears fruit amazingly quick. Out there, in the field of the sea, the fisherman lifts his net full of "water silver" – herrings. But fishing for herrings also takes place at night, because the brave fisherman won't have the patience to wait for the day and good weather to catch the herring. The silvery stream passes through the Delta, swimming upstream the Danube, as I was saying, for about a month, a month and a half, and then it disappears into the depths of the sea. The night veil had descended over the quiet flow of the Danube. The prolonged whistling of bald coots mingled with the loud noise made by frogs and this music of a night in May accompanied fishermen throwing their nets for herrings. Under the cover of the night, the fishermen's boats, with the lights at the stern, looked like Venetian gondolas lined up on a wide water boulevard. Almost all teams had pulled a couple of nets full of fish. And since the herring is best caught in a net during the night, fishermen don't think too much about resting during the herring season. Indeed, night fishing is very tiresome and difficult. The humid air and the cool of the night sting you with thousands of needles, but fishermen are bold people. Wrapped up in their rain coats, they never leave their nets, not even when cold and small drops of rain are sieved down from the sky, nor when the wind slaps them with its sharp whip. Yet net fishing on the Danube has its charm; it seems to be somewhat effortless under the light of the moon, during quiet nights, full of the poetry the month of May equally confers to the earth and water… ON THE SPITS In the Delta "documents", the spits or sandbanks (grinduri) are mentioned under the "new born" heading. They appeared as a consequence of the Danube Delta's natural evolution in time, being the youngest land of our country. They have the highest altitude in the Delta, meaning they are the most evolved pieces of land, which surpass the marsh state due to the rich alluvium deposits. The action of marine currents executing a circular counter-clockwise movement, as well as that of the waves, have built, over thousands and thousands of years, another type of dry land characteristic of the Delta – maritime spits. These processes, going back to the distant past, are still going on today. Besides these categories of spits, there is also a third form of dry land in the Delta – continental spits – which are in fact leftovers from continental terrains. Agriculture and forestry are interested in using these three categories of dry land. The Danube Delta has only about 14,000 ha of high, un-floodable spits and about 30,000 ha of seldom flooded terrains. Even if the latter are flooded in some years, the water does not linger for too long on them. Spits are either covered in woods (Letea and Caraorman forests, as well as those on the river spits along the arms of the Danube), or used as pastures or hayfields, or even plowable fields; some of them are entirely sandy. The Chilia spit is the highest (6.5 m above sea level) and largest (about 6,500 ha) among these pieces of dry land. It formed in the northern part, from a light-brown steppe soil (as proof of its continental origin). The soil becomes salty towards the edge of the spit, changing into strongly-salted types of soil at the surface. This spit, which is in fact the most populated one (one of the oldest settlements in the entire Delta – Chilia village – established itself here), is useful due to the exploitation of pastures (partly floodable and salted) and plowable fields, on which mainly wheat and rye are grown. The Letea spit is part of the maritime spits and is made of sandy soils, some of which are in advanced states of turning fallow. At the moment, the Letea spit is used as plowable fields, permanent pastures, floodable pastures, forestry terrains and unproductive sands. Rye, wheat, barley, etc. are grown here, and even vineyards exist on some reduced areas. The Caraorman spit is part of the same category of maritime spits. Its soils are made up of quicksand and moving dunes. In some parts, such as the more humid places where the dwarf pine grows, the soil is sandy. Besides the already-mentioned spits, the dry surface of the Delta is completed by the Ivancea spits, the salty and maritime spits on the island of Dranov. Of the terrains suitable for agriculture, yet subject to floods, some areas, namely Zaghen – Ada Marinescu, Mahmudia, Beştepe, Dunavăţ, the islands of Babina, Cernovca and Tătaru have been protected by dams and, as a result, re-included in the agricultural circuit. They have a high productive potential. These works, pretty restrained until now, have led to the conclusion that the current agricultural terrains, as well as those obtained from in-submersible dams, over which water cannot pass, are the most suitable for irrigated crops. After all, nowhere in our country do we have better conditions than those in the Delta to cultivate irrigated crops, using the optimum and specific agricultural techniques established by thorough research and experimentation. Although the area used for agriculture in the Delta is apparently small and therefore exploited intensively, it could yield, depending on the volume of resulting products, two or three time more than an equivalent surface inside the country. Woods also find their place on the Delta spits. The forestry patrimony in the Danube Delta was estimated to about 18,903 ha, of which 7,387 ha of woods proper, 536 ha of clearings, 10,671 ha of deteriorated and unproductive terrains and 309 ha of protection shields. Locust trees are predominant in these forests (63%), followed by the hybrid black poplar (11%), the grey white poplar and black poplar (8%). 7% of the wooded surface is occupied by oak, wild pear and wild apple trees, elm trees and ash trees, together with a series of bushes; the same percentage is covered by ash trees alone. Among the animals living on the spits and which capture our attention, it's worth mentioning – besides birds, which will make the subject of a different chapter – the Renardi adder, venomous; in some dry years, when there is no big flooding, rabbits and foxes can reach high numbers on the spits. The fauna of the spits is quite interesting and full of curiosities. On the Letea and Caraorman spits you can also see superb green lizards (Lacerta viridis), and tree frogs (Hyla arborea) – little singers dressed in green coats – next to the extremely rich array of insects coming in different shapes, sizes and colors, each with its own habits. Many grass snakes (Natrix natrix) crawl through the spit forests, and a desert lizard can be seen on the hot sandy dunes; the spits in the Danube Delta are the only place in Romania where this type of lizard lives. Its defense weapon against the enemies – raptor birds, mostly – is the color of its body, which resembles that of the sand. Also very interesting is a species of frog (Pelobates fuscus) living on the sands of Caraorman spit, which remains hidden all day long and only goes out hunting during the night. The sand of the dunes is host to many insects with strange habits, such as the sand wasp. It buries its egg in a sand nest, where it also deposits some caterpillars as food for the future larva. The curious thing is that the caterpillar on which the larvae feed themselves is not dead, but only "put to sleep" by the venomous needle of the wasp. In the woody parts of the dunes "roams" another insect, the ant lion (Myrmeleon formicarius), whose larvae are sheltered in a sort of miniature craters dug in the sand. In here the larva of this insect "operates" on its victims, injecting them with its gastric juice through the mandibles and then absorbing the dissolved tissues. THE DELTA'S PEONIES NO LONGER WILT I have an elder friend in Crişan – old man Serghei. I visited him in the fall. It was around the time when the sun set, gently coloring the clear waters. I found him on the porch, smoking. You could see how happy he was from a mile away. His trembling hand was holding a telegram which he read and re-read a dozen times. The text was very short: "Nastea gave birth. You have a grandson! Pavel." The news, coming all the way from Tulcea, was given to the neighbors, and then spread all around the village; another peony bloomed in the house of old man Serghei, the grandfather. The joyful news brought back many memories to the old fisherman, nowadays retired. I sat and listened to him, right there next to the wet lip of the Danube, remembering secret pains which cannot be forgotten over the years. "More than thirty autumns have passed since then. I was strong and fought the bitter life a poor fisherman was destined to. My wife, God rest her soul, was swimming next to me amidst hard work and bitterness, thinking that the time will come when we'll be bound for better days. But, the hope of the poor man is not that strong, and our companion was the hail of pain falling upon us ceaselessly. The thorns of suffering kept stinging our hearts, whenever those who never got a chance to smile at the sun found their eternal rest under the yellow clay between the waters. The Delta's peonies wilted, overcome by illness ever since infanthood. That's how my Marusea passed away on the way to Tulcea, bearing in her womb the child she could not give birth to. For hours on end I had rowed up the Danube to get to the doctor, but it was all in vain, nobody heard my curses drowned in the water and lost in the restless movement of the sea. Back then, the silent Danube swallowed the tears of the man living in the Delta. That's why, you see, the victory of joy is so loud today, making itself heard all across our Delta, awoken to a different life. We, the ones who got used to having only the birds as guests, are now taking part, all year long, in the doctor's visits. Now doctors come to visit us with the two sanitary ships roaming the dustless roads in the kingdom of reed and water. Together with their servants – sent by our (communist) Party – they manage to stop the Delta's peonies from wilting." Listening to the words of the old fisherman, an old friend of mine, I was tempted to step aboard one of the two sanitary… seagulls of the Delta. The visit, as much delightful as it was interesting, gave me the chance to make some notes which speak for themselves. The ships called "Sanatatea" (Health) and "Sanitarul" (The Orderly), launched on the water in 1959, have everything the doctors need; we may even consider them some a sort of floating clinic. Specially designed, they have plenty of space for consultations, and an operating room equipped with the necessary furniture, an X-ray machine, electrocardiograph, oxygen balloons, dentist's chair and instruments. During the voyages made in the Delta, different doctors of various specialties are on board: internists, surgeons, otorhinolaryngologists, dermatologists, dentists. Their logs are of a special kind, with short notes on the activity registered ever since the two Delta "sanitary" ships were launched on the water. Since figures tend to be convincing, we shall let them speak. In only a few years, over 10,000 consultations and various interventions were performed on these two ships. The two ships also play a cultural and sanitary part. Conferences about sanitary education are held aboard, and many documentaries and films are projected with the help of cinematographic devices. …Come rain or wind, under clear sky or in the melting heat, the Delta "sanitary" ships are always on duty.

CRCA Dobruja, 1966
* Reissek: Vegetations-Geschichte des Rohres an der Donau in Oesterreich und Ungarn, Wien, 1859. 

by Ion Alexandrescu