Helmut Ignat is a National Geographic photographer who shot Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve as no one else. I could say he is addicted it. Below Helmut is telling us about his love story with Danube’s Delta.
The Danube Delta Seen From Above
Text and photographs by Helmut Ignat
Ever since I was a child, I have pictured the map of Romania as a giant turtle, with the Delta being the head, obviously. Many years later, I had the privilege of flying several times across this region, at an altitude too low to distinguish its outer boundary, but very suitable to discover its details.
In good weather, you can see a true living map, with real shapes and colors, lacking only the „legend” and the toponyms.
Before your first trip to the Delta you might think that, in „Birds’ paradise”, thousands of specimens of the more than three hundred species found here would constantly fly around your boat, as in a sci-fi movie. In reality, you’ll be able to recognize only a few species, and the specimens you’ll meet (more than anywhere else, but fewer than you had expected) will sooner or later disappear behind the curtain of reeds and willows – a frustrating scene, repeated over and over again. You’ll surely ask yourself: what’s behind that curtain? As it is almost impossible to pass through it, the only way of finding that out would be to fly across it, preferably in silence; but it’s hard to believe a glider or a hot-air balloon would venture across those vast marshy areas. That leaves the engine flight option, but, unfortunately, aboard an airplane or a helicopter you will not be able to feel like a pelican elegantly floating on the currents, because of the infernal noise of the engine (which also makes you feel guilty for intruding). I think that also goes for an ultralight aircraft, as you need even more courage to fly at a few dozen meters above water feeling like you’re in a winged kayak, as my guide Iliu]` called it after an experience like this.
A good teamwork with the pilot is essential for creating a balance between the need to reduce this intrusion to a minimum and a vantage point to take some good pictures. There’s no time for contemplation up in the air, everything is against the clock, the fuel and budget run out fast. An open-door helicopter gives you the best opportunities; a small airplane – more accessible – is a more realistic approach. Here, the scenes unreel quickly, and the flight maneuvers can induce some quite unpleasant states, especially for the person looking through the camera’s viewfinder. The same maneuvers might make a wheel or a wing appear in your frame exactly at the wrong moment; after regaining balance, you might find yourself right above the largest reed bed expanse in the world that has a monotonous and lifeless appearance (it’s a false impression, of course). The nicest thing is recognizing the places you have visited over the years and, perhaps, remembering minor events, not necessarily spectacular in the usual meaning. I find it incredible how fast your mood improves when you’re out on the water, in a state of „energetic relaxation” that usually lasts throughout the expedition. To all friends of the Delta, fishermen, photographers or mere nature lovers, every visit is an instant adaptation to this maximum relaxation environment, so that going back home always involves a small shock of reintegration into the hectic and noisy environment of the city.
An affective map
If you want to truly understand the Delta, don’t rush to see everything in one day; stop the boat in a beautiful place and stay for at least an hour, relax, see, smell, listen, feel. Next – a few reference points.
Although a traveled area, it remains very beautiful due to the areas that are constantly changing their pattern, depending on the water level. It can be almost dry or, on the contrary, you can take pleasant boat rides among shrubs and trees whitened by the cormorant colonies. A ride by kaiak or canoe would be ideal, but there is the risk of crossing paths with a speeding yacht fitted with roaring speakers and an engine more adequate for the Black Sea, and operated by a „captain” who doesn’t care about navigation rules and has no sense of decency.
Merhei, Babina and Matita Lakes
Pelicans are very frequent here, calmly keeping a safe distance; if you insist, they’ll take off heavily, but once in the air, they’ll surprise you with their elegance and ease of flight. Only one time did I find a few more cooperative pelicans that seemed willing to accept us incredibly close – on a partially sunken tree trunk, in a splendid sunset light. It all shattered when, out of nowhere, appeared the largest and noisiest group I’ve ever seen in the Delta: five or six big boats full of tourists, all talking at once, loud enough to cover the noise of the engine. The image of pelicans taking off was somewhat trivialized by the thousands of similar photos, but when seen live, it is a memorable scene, especially if you’re lucky enough to get a bit closer to them. The image of the enormous flocks gliding on ascending currents, at an altitude of hundreds of meters, is equally impressive.
Sulimanca, a beautiful channel lined by old willow trees, takes you to Periprava, situated on the bank of the Chilia branch. If you set out to the sea on this branch, you run the risk of ending up in Ukraine. You can easily miss the small Musura Channel, appearing very discretely on the right and representing the border (a GPS is helpful here as well). The channel discharges into the Musura Gulf, a wetland with abundant vegetation, resembling a rice paddy. We had an interesting trip back to Periprava, on a small boat, against the strong current, the adverse wind and waves that were more adequate for a better boat. It was only with the help of the Border Police, who lent us a few liters of gasoline, that we reached our destination.
From Periprava you can go to Letea Forest. But do not set out without a guide or at least a local who owns a wagon. Walking on the sand dunes is exhausting, especially in the summer. The tree clumps are extremely beautiful, and meeting a group of wild horses is unforgettable. I had such an experience, when the total silence was suddenly interrupted by the western movie-ish hoofbeat of a real herd of horses, of all ages and colors. On the way back (after I got lost a couple of times), a few more passed like ghosts among the dense trees. I’ve read that they’re too many, that they destroy rare plants, that they must become fewer or be exterminated… But how beautiful it is to encounter them!
Usually, there aren’t any tourists on the artistically shaped beach of the Sacalin Island (now a peninsula, actually), only “natives” looking for food or only resting: cows, horses, donkeys, as well as thousands of birds. Here, I had the misfortune of having to disembark barefoot after getting stuck in a shallow but very cold water (in March), as well as, on a different occasion, the fortune of witnessing from the helicopter an aerial fight between two white-tailed eagles at a high altitude, then close to the ground, and ended with the flight of the loser across the sea. At the same time, a huge flock of pelicans was using its habitual fishing tactic by pushing the fish into shallow water areas – a genuine spectacle seen from above.
Walking along the shore, among PET bottles, ropes, nets, crates, canisters, shoes (and everything the sea has deposed over the years), I was frequently under the impression that I wasn’t advancing, because the flocks of seagulls manage to maintain a constant distance from you, not through a strong group motion, but through rather discrete movements of each individual.
Cormorants, who blacken the morning sky, then the beach, lining up like a perfectly trained army, attack in waves the enemy fish, then they return, with discipline, to the shore or to the colony.
The Black Sea meets the Z`toane lakes off the coast of a splendidly shaped beach, constantly altered by the ever changing ratio of forces between the clear waters of the lake and the troubled waters of the sea, their different shades overlapping artistically. The lake usually dominates and thrusts its blue water into the sea’s green one. There are many swans and ducks in the area, but I’ve also seen otters, jackals, wild boars and buffaloes.
From here, I went back to Peri[or in the dark, on a beach with crushed seashells that seemed to have come alive after nightfall, with black objects of different sizes appearing and disappearing in front of me along the 6 km distance. No need to mention that I had no light source that day…
When the water is high, you can take a boat ride in the woods, in the midst of a chirping concert, covered from time to time by the typical sound of flying swans. Sometimes, among the trees, a swan comes floating, then leaves gracefully behind the vegetation.
It’s an incredible labyrinth, with absolutely no reference point, only identical reed “walls”, wherever you look. After a few tours, even a local may have difficulties; there were times when I had to use the GPS to find the narrow passage to the channel again. Otherwise, the locals’ orientation ability is amazing – of course, it’s also based on a lot of experience.
For an inexperienced eye, from the middle of a big lake it’s impossible to see a way out on the line of the trees or of the surrounding reed, but a local or a guide will always go precisely to the right place, while avoiding the dangerous areas (too shallow water or various obstacles under the water surface). The GPS can be useful in low visibility weather conditions (fog or delays on route after dark).
The Delta – with the good and the bad
Of course, economic sharks, big and small, teem here as well – brutes who shoot anything that moves or kill swans with the oar, and serial killers who electrocute or gas fish of all sizes, people for whom the value of the Delta’s natural heritage, although acknowledged worldwide, means nothing. But fortunately, as a tourist on a short vacation, you will not see an apocalyptic image (massively cleared areas, shoals of dead fish floating on the water or shot birds hanging in the trees). Except for the new “freestyle” architecture that hurts the eye and the recurrence of various debris, you’ll be able to avoid any other significant negative elements, provided that you carefully choose your deltaic service provider. But not all is gloomy. I, for one, have met many good people in the Delta and had extraordinary meals. I’ve been many times in the same group with true sport fishermen, who can humorously recount how an otter takes the fish from the angle and unhurriedly scales it, in spite of them.
Things to know before you go
Follow the access and traffic rules within the perimeter of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reservation.
Where In order to avoid unpleasant experiences and surprises, it is preferable to rely on recommendations, not on brochures (or traveling randomly).
Guide It is extremely important to use the services of one of the few competent guides; otherwise, the trip to the Delta could mean, besides a questionable accommodation, a speedy pass by a few very similar channels, and viewing a carpet of water lilies and a few frightened birds.
Price Tourism in the Delta, especially individual transport, is not cheap. A round trip from Tulcea to a village and a few longer tours may cost as much as an airplane ticket to Paris (also round trip, or maybe city-break). The good part of the high costs is the unlikelihood of mass tourism in the Delta, which would destroy its main attraction (contemplation of unaltered nature, away from human to-and-fro.
How to help
You can give a hand, without too much effort, through a civilized behavior, eliminating any kind of aggression against the environment, respecting other visitors of the Delta, and even by selecting accommodation and asking for professional services, specialized in showcasing nature. The demand for such services may show the right way to the people of the Delta.