Agerard Sioen

Like the birds that now flock to its marshes and waterways, the Danube delta, which straddles Romania and Ukraine where the Danube River meets the Black Sea, has had to fight hard to reassert itself. More than a decade ago, the region had been nearly destroyed by Romania's Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, and his wife, Elena, who, hoping to develop the area for agriculture, fish-breeding, and forestry, ordered vast tracts of land drained to create polders for farming.

"They brought in another culture," says Marian-Traian Gomoiu, the first governor of the Delta Biosphere Reserve, an agency charged with protecting and restoring the area. "The culture of the barbarians."

In the mid-1970's, the Ceausescus embarked on their ambitious 20-year plan to capitalize on the delta's resources. Nearly 6,000 workers descended upon the delta, building dikes, pumping large areas dry, and planting wheat, maize, and rice over more than 240,000 acres. "They brought in heavy machinery and drove out herds of animals along with many of the local people," says Laurence Mee, former coordinator of the Global Environment Facility's Black Sea Environmental Program. "They turned whole villages into apartment blocks, bulldozing houses and the small holdings where people were growing their own vegetables, to create vast collective farms."

Unlike the traditional method of harvesting the delta's reeds with a scythe, the use of machinery destroyed the plants' roots, reducing the productivity of the reed beds. Because the commercial fishermen wanted to catch and sell the region's fish, they shot the birds that ate them, including the Dalmatian pelican, which was in danger of becoming extinct. Overfishing resulted in serious depletions of sturgeon and carp.

After the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in 1989, the new government stopped all work on the delta. In 1991, with $6 million from the World Bank, it formed the Delta Biosphere Reserve. Scientists set about flooding some of the drained land, focusing initially on about 9,000 acres.

To their delight, the delta has begun an astonishing recovery. A month after the dikes were ruptured and water flowed back into the first polder, nature had reclaimed the land as its own. With amazing rapidity, coots and pelicans, boar and roe deer returned from other parts of the delta. Within four months of the flooding of a second polder, reeds had grown as high as 19 feet and 18 species of fish had returned. The bird population in the reflooded areas has more than doubled. "We are very lucky that this huge project has been so successful," said scientist Lucian Ionescu. "We reached it in time."

A visit to the Danube delta usually begins in the Romanian town of Tulcea, a two-hour drive from Constantsa through some of the ugliest stretches of land imaginable. You pass a vast collection of shabby, utilitarian housing blocks before finally entering Tulcea, with its fish canneries and decrepit shipyards. Looking around me, I couldn't help thinking what an oxymoron a Romanian holiday was.

I had passed judgment too quickly. As I boarded a small, brightly painted boat and headed for the delta, I entered another world, one that seemed almost anachronistic. Here, at the gateway to the 2,200-square-mile Danube delta wetlands, I found lakes and channels with crystal-clear water, and a network of islands, covered in swaying reeds, that would be blanketed by wildflowers in summer. The delta is a haven for bird-watchers; willow, ash, and white poplar trees provide nesting sites for more than 300 species of birds over the course of a year. The silence was broken only by chirping and the sound of oars cutting through the water as fishermen rowed by.

When human activity seriously disrupts an ecological system, unforeseeable consequences usually follow. The delta was no different. Farm fertilizers added nitrogen to the water, which stimulated an explosion of certain organisms such as algae. The huge quantities of algae don't allow light to penetrate to the bottom, so aquatic weeds and other plants die, and the fish that feed on those plants fare no better. The algae then begin to consume the water's oxygen, resulting in the death of many more fish.

It doesn't end there. In building dikes to drain the polders, developers cut new canals to move water away from the agricultural areas, and widened other canals to accommodate large boats. Water moved more quickly through these channels, picking up greater amounts of minerals and debris, which it dropped into lakes, clogging them with sediment. These changes also prevented the delta from performing one of its most important functions—serving as a giant filtering system for the river's water before it enters the Black Sea.

In the end, even the government's agricultural plans and fish farms backfired. The drained soil was too sandy and dry to support crops, and the river water, thick with sediment, was not good for irrigation. As for the fish farms, they proved a disaster because the water ran right through the soil.

The Delta Biosphere Reserve has placed strict limits on future exploitation of the region. Scientists have divided the delta into three types of areas: those in which controlled fishing and hunting are permitted; those in which tourism may be carefully developed; and those that are completely off-limits to all but the scientists studying them.

In late spring and early summer, the delta, bursting with life, is a breeding ground for hundreds of bird species, including the majestic white-and-pale-pink Dalmatian pelican. Like the pelicans, a number of birds found here nest in colonies, some as many as 5,000 strong. In summer, bird-watchers can see thousands of pelicans and huge flocks of the crimson-backed glossy ibis, with its long, curved beak. During breeding time, when the birds' colors are at their most brilliant, you might catch sight of some other rare species, such as the pygmy cormorant or the red-breasted goose. Or you might hear the call of an egret, and then spot a group of pelicans lifting gracefully into the air in a blur of black-and-white-tipped wings.

"You go out on one of these boats," says Gomoiu, the reserve's first governor, describing a trip on the delta. "You leave your line over the back all day to catch your dinner, you see thousands of pelicans so close you can feel their breath, and you think how this was almost gone until we brought it back. And you feel grateful."

To get to the Danube delta, take a short flight from Bucharest to Constantsa and then drive to Tulcea, where you can book a tour of the region. Try the Automobil Clubul Roman (40-40/515-151) for a boat trip to the delta and a room on the club's floating hotel, or Ibis (40-40/511-261) for an ornithologist-guided trip.

Nina Darnton is a New York-based freelance journalist.