Many visitors come to Romania and make a bee-line for Transylvania, the region that houses the famous castle associated with Vlad the Impaler. You might know him as Dracula. We are going to visit the castles, but we also wanted to explore other regions of the country. After several locals recommended the Danube Delta and its incredible wildlife as a “must-see,” we figured out how to get there, booked a room, and started learning bird names.
When you visit the Delta, a boat tour is a must. Hundreds of species of birds and fish live in the endless web of channels, and the only way to see them is on the water. Our trusty helper at the resort, Vlad, convinced us not to book a boat through them. They were incredibly over-priced, and you wouldn’t see nearly as much. He suggested we take the regular bus that passes by the resort several times each day (for a whopping $1.50/ea) into town. From there we could “find somebody with a boat” and explore the Delta. My dreams of a no-hassle, bus-free bird-watching trip were shattered, but we decided to check it out. Not being one to wing it entirely, my darling husband researched and booked an official boat tour which appeared to fit our expectations – and our budget – nicely.
We set out Saturday morning fairly early by vacation standards – anticipation was high, expectations were, honestly, low. After flagging down the bus, which seemed hell-bent on careening by us without stopping, we made it into town and hoofed it through lovely, quiet neighborhoods to the port. We found the dock (with no help from the tour agency’s convoluted instructions) and made friends with a French-Romanian couple and their charming young daughter. When our tall, rugged captain gave us the go-ahead, we climbed into our low, forest-green, open-top speed boat and strapped on our bulky life jackets.
The Danube River Delta is massive to say the least – it is the second largest river delta in Europe after the Volga Delta in Russia. Its extensive network of channels and lakes seem impossible to navigate, yet our captain guided us through the never-ending waterways like he grew up on a boat (which he likely did). We identified 21 species of birds on our trip (out of almost 300 species present in the Delta), including pelicans, several kinds of herons, cormorants, storks, swans, and the huge, white-tailed eagle – the largest bird in the Delta, with a wingspan of 2.4 meters (almost 8 feet!).
Mid-way through our excursion, we stopped and had lunch in a traditional fisherman’s village. After feasting on fish ball soup, fried fish, and polenta with garlic sauce (so delicious), we walked into town and learned about the (multiple!) Olympians who had grown up there. Most of their medals were won in – wait for it – water sports.
By the time we started our journey back to Tulcea, we’d seen so many yellow herons and greater egrets that our driver barely slowed down when we spotted them in the reeds. We did see another white-tailed eagle – that got everyone all excited again – as well as many more pelicans and other birds. Cool breezes kissed our bare shoulders (we’d ditched the life jackets about mid-way through) and the sun gently warmed our faces. I didn’t get a single mosquito bite on the whole trip.
But one of the most rewarding parts of the experience was the easy friendship we formed with Giorgiana, Pierre-Yves, and their daughter Estelle, the French-Romanian family we’d met on the dock. They sat behind us the whole time, generously and freely shared their binoculars, and helped translate when our driver explained features or history in Romanian. Giorgiana is Romanian, Pierre-Yves is French, and Estelle speaks Romanian, French, and English – lucky kid! They now live in France, and we have an open invitation to coffee if we ever make it over there. They even gave us a ride back into town from the port after our adventure. It’s one of my very favorite things about traveling – sometimes you meet the sweetest, kindest people.
Exploring the Danube Delta was one of our favorite adventures we’ve had so far. It reminded me of the mangrove forests in Mexico and the rainforests of Washington State. Its lush flora and fauna, constantly moving and filtering waters, stoic fisherman hugging the eroding banks in tiny skiffs, and overwhelmingly diverse population of creatures brought us into another world. Maybe now I’ll become a birder like my grandpa and mom!