Mimi Hughes speaks about the need to protect the Danube | WWF

Mimi Hughes speaks about the need to protect the Danube

Posted on
12 August 2013
In the summer of 2006, American Mimi Hughes spent 89 days swimming down the entire length of the Danube River from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, travelling an average 33 km per day. The then 50-year old high school teacher and mother of four became the first person to swim the Danube without fins and only the second to attempt the feat at all.

On Saturday Mimi Hughes recalled her amazing journey in front of an audience during Bodrog FEST 2013 in Bački Monoštor on the river Danube in Serbia. Mimi Hughes wrote the book “Wider than a mile” about her adventure.

According to Mimi, the Danube is an incredible river with a very diverse personality. It begins narrow and dynamic, and by the end it is wide, calm and tranquil. She compares it to the Tennessee River, which she swam in 2003.

"The Tennessee River is so controlled, there is little to write home about,” she says, before adding with a grin, “but it does smell better than the Danube.”

Johann Strauss Jr was exaggerating the Danube's water quality when he composed its anthem in 1867 - Vienna and other cities on the 2850 kilometre long river were already ingrained into the habit of using the river as a convenient sewer. More intensive industry, agriculture and navigation accelerated adverse effects with the low point being reached in the mid 1980s.

Like the fish that swim the Danube, Mimi Hughes became intimately acquainted with the quality of the river’s water. Although pollution from chemicals has improved over the past decade, biosolids – Mimi’s euphemistic expression for sewage – remain a problem. Throughout the swim, Mimi took an anti-biotic effective against E. Coli bacteria, and wore a full wetsuit, swimming cap, goggles and ear plugs. 

This emphasises the need to ensure the sufficient treatment of wastewaters - something listed as a priority in recent river initiatives. The situation should improve in coming years thanks to massive investments in wastewater treatment especially in the EU member states which make up the majority of Danube countries.

Today, limited monitoring by a few concerned scientists and some health authorities have been replaced with a network of 79 monitoring locations with up to three sampling points each across the Danube and its main tributaries measuring water quality up to 12 times per year.

Like a sturgeon

“I began to understand what it must feel like to be a Sturgeon,” Mimi remarked at the time about the dams that lacerate the Upper Danube. Dams – 61 of them on the upper half of the Danube – were a major obstacle, not so much for Mimi as much as her 1-person support crew: 21-year-old daughter Kelsey and their 17-foot, 150 kg kayak, laden with most everything needed by the two to survive for three months.

The dams are mainly for the purposes of hydropower and navigation, but they come at a high cost, especially for the Danube’s Sturgeon populations, whose migratory routes have been cut off. Long gone are the days when the giant Beluga sturgeon, which can reach the size of a small bus, migrated up the river as far as Vienna. Today, one species of Danube Sturgeon has already become extinct and four more are facing threat of extinction.

The most dangerous part of Mimi’s swim was on the Upper Danube in Austria and Slovakia, where flood waters created dangerous eddies and strudels. The flooding, caused by heavy snow melt and rains, was exacerbated by canalising of the river and loss of some 80% of its former floodplain areas, which normally serve to store and soak up regular flood waters.

Caring for the river

“Many people take the river for granted and may not realise that their actions, not just on or near the water, but anywhere in the watershed, can be harmful to the river,” Mimi added. “Whether it’s preventing soil erosion along streams or just helping keep trash and pollution out of the river, everyone can do something to help.”

In June 2007, Mimi Hughes swam the Drava River from Austria to Serbia. You can read more here.
Mimi Hughes with friends from WWF and the organizers of Bodrog Fest, 2013.
Mimi Hughes at Bodrog Fest in Serbia, 2013.
© Milan Djurdjevic