Romania’s Danube Delta is a region of stark beauty and stunning wildlife, yet also a place struggling to find its way in the modern world.
By Kit Gillet
Photographs by Andrei Pungovschi
From atop a 19th-century lighthouse in the small Romanian port town of Sulina, I stare out toward the mouth of the Danube, the endpoint of a river that stretches almost 2,900 kilometers through the heart of Europe. In the fading light a few others have gathered to take in the views over Sulina, the nearby cargo ships, and, in the direction away from the sea, the vast labyrinth of waterways that make up the Danube Delta.
Completed in 1870, the lighthouse, as with much of the town’s architecture, was built at a time when Sulina was home to a mix of nationalities—British, French, Italians, Austrians, Russians, Turks—who, as part of the European Commission of the Danube, monitored and maintained the entrance to one of the greatest rivers on the planet; in a nearby cemetery, weathered gravestones etched with foreign names attest to the cosmopolitan milieu of those times. That era is long gone. Today, Sulina is a largely forgotten place on the far reaches of Europe, yet it sits within one of the world’s most stunning natural regions—the “Everglades of Europe,” as some call it.
Considered by many to be the very lifeline of Europe, the Danube River flows through 10 countries as well as four European capitals. Its delta, in the Dobrogea region at the edge of the Black Sea, has been a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1998 and is considered one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, with an abundance of rare and endangered fish and bird species. Egrets, white pelicans, and great cormorants can be seen swooping over the estuarine water, while down in the depths many of the Danube’s remaining wild sturgeon live out their long lives.
I had arrived in the delta a week before, traveling up by train from Bucharest and then catching one of the little ferries that link the gateway city of Tulcea with the handful of villages that exist within the delta itself. Accessible only by boat, these communities are among the most traditional in the country, inhabited by Romanians as well as by ethnic Ukrainians and Lipovan Russians—descendants of old-rite Orthodox Christians who fled religious persecution in the 18th century—who continue to depend on the delta for their livelihood.
Sfântu Gheorghe, four hours by ferry from Tulcea, is little more than a blip on the map, a village of 860 people with few roads and even fewer vehicles; with no overland links to anywhere else, there is little need for cars. The ferry docked at a small wooden landing, where groups of locals gathered to meet returning family members, visiting tourists, and to carry off vegetables and other supplies brought in from outside. A schedule pinned to the wall of a ticket booth listed the days the ferry comes from Tulcea and the days when it returns. Wooden lotca fishing boats were moored up all around.
Most of the men in Sfântu Gheorghe continue to make their living from fishing, heading out every night to net carp, perch, pike, and bream, among other species. In the morning they bring home their catches, then gather at a rundown bar near the water to have a customary drink or two. It’s been this way for generations.
At dawn on my first full morning in the delta I sat with a group of weatherworn fishermen who, over glasses of inexpensive homemade wine, lamented the changing realities for those who rely on the waters. “It’s much harder for us than our parents’ generation,” one said. Decades of overfishing in the region has damaged the delta’s fish populations, and in recent years Romania has been tightening catch regulations to give the fish a chance to recover, notably wild sturgeon, a valuable source of caviar; in the past, fishermen could make thousands of dollars on a single lucky catch. “I once caught a sturgeon that weighed 220 kilos, with 58 kilos of eggs,” another fisherman told me. “I made 45,000 lei [US$11,600] just from that one time.”
As fishing has become less sustainable, eco-tourism has emerged as an alternative source of income, and walking along the main road in Sfântu Gheorghe, it’s easy to pick out the new hotels and guesthouses that cater to mostly domestic tourists. For the most part, however, the houses in the village are traditional, one-story reed-thatched cottages fronted by gardens and vegetable patches.
“Tourism is never going to replace fishing here, but it is becoming a strong addition for many,” confirmed Dimitru Dimanche, a 44-year-old local, sitting on a waterside bench one evening in the fading light.