::: People Profile ::: Swimming the Danube

Posted on 03 August 2006

Averaging 33km per day, an American triathlete has swum the Danube River, from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania, to highlight river restoration and environmental awareness along one of Europe's most important waterways. Find out more about protecting the Danube.

By Julia Reynolds*

After 89 days and crossing through ten countries, American triathlete Mimi Hughes has swum 2,800km of the Danube River, from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania, to highlight river restoration along one of Europe's most important waterways.

In her quest to reach the Black Sea, the 50-year-old school teacher and mother of four from Tennessee, USA, braved rain, cold, high water, dangerous eddies and debris as well as a broken toe, all in the name of environmental awareness. Mimi's swim has helped draw attention to the Danube and the issues that shape its future, including wetland loss and river pollution.

Hughes is the first person to swim the Danube without fins, and, as far as she knows, only the second person to attempt it at all. Throughout the journey, she has been supported by her daughter, Kelsey, who has been paddling along side in a sea kayak. WWF has been providing support with logistics and awareness raising information.

Feeling like a sturgeon
“I am beginning to understand what it must feel like to be a sturgeon,” Mimi said at the end of a long day of scrambling around dams, her body bluish and shivering from the unseasonably cold weather.

The dams — 61 of them on the upper half of the Danube — have been a major obstacle throughout the swim. 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.

During the strenuous swim, Mimi and Kelsey worked together, moving through the Danube in unison. For Kelsey, maneuvering on top of the water in a sturdy sea kayak, her role as guide and lookout was often a challenge, as she had to keep the kayak under control while finding the proper currents and keeping an eye out for other boats, debris, and other obstacles. For Mimi, immersed in the Danube, it was the water itself that was the biggest obstacle.

“Fear was definitely a factor,” Mimi said, regarding the swim through rough waters. Recent flooding in the Danube River Valley meant fast-moving currents, high water levels, and dangerous eddies that, for someone with less vigor and experience than Mimi, would prove perilous.

Flooding has become an increasing recurrence on the Danube, as on many other rivers. This year saw major flooding, especially in Romania, where estimated damage from the overflowing river totalled €1 billion.

The effect of high water on the Danube has been worsened by the loss of many of the river’s former floodplains. Over the past 150 years, the Danube has lost 80 per cent of its wetlands thanks to human intervention. These wetlands once acted as natural “sponges”, soaking up excess water and gradually releasing them, thus regulating the Danube’s water levels. And the consequences are not limited to flooding: drinking water sources have been cut off, habitats have been lost, and many species of wildlife are threatened.

Meeting the wildlife on the Lower Danube
Encounters with wildlife were a frequent experience for Mimi during her swim. One fowl-filled part of the river, for example, obliged her to “fight off” a local colony of swans.

“This river has so much character,” Mimi said, and part of what gives the Danube such personality is its incredible diversity of wildlife. Some 5,000 different animal species, including hundreds of bird and fish and 2,000 different plant species claim the Danube as their home.

As Mimi moved through the second half of her swim, she entered some of the most remarkably well-preserved ecosystems located along the Danube, with many of the river’s natural dynamics still intact. Included in this valuable natural area is the Kopacki Rit, a nature park that lies between the Danube and the Drava, an eastern European tributary of the Danube.

With its vast forests, marshes, and rare and protected wildlife species, the Kopacki Rit is sometimes called the “Pearl of the Drava”. It contains one of the largest remaining wetlands in Europe and provides a vital and irreplaceable habitat for hundreds of species, including the endangered black stork and the threatened river otter. However, even though it is a nature park, the Kopacki Rit is still under threat from humans wishing to exploit its resources: hunting, water management, and forestry are threatening the balance of this rare natural treasure.

WWF has been working with a number of partners for the establishment of a trans-national biosphere reserve encompassing parts of Hungary, Croatia and Serbia, which could help provide longer-term protection for this remarkable part of the Danube.

Further along on her swim, at the border between Serbia and Romania, Mimi passed the Iron Gates dam, the last and biggest dam before the Danube River spills into the Black Sea. The river flows freely for the last nearly 1,000km of Mimi’s swim, studded by islands and ending in the spectacular Danube Delta, which WWF has identified as one of the world’s 200 most valuable nature areas. The Delta, with its extensive network of channels and reed beds, serves as an important breeding and resting area for some 280 bird species, including 70 per cent of the world’s population of white pelicans.

The governments of Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine have committed to protect, preserve and even restore wetlands along this last remarkable stretch of the Danube. Facilitated by WWF, the governments signed the Lower Danube Green Corridor agreement in 2000, the largest and most ambitious cross-border wetland protection and restoration project in Europe and probably the world. The recent flooding of this part of the Danube in particular, with breaches occurring in a number of dykes on the Romanian stretch of the river, underlined the role that the green corridor has to play not only for wildlife, but also for humans, including flood protection.

Unfortunately, many of these areas along the Danube are under threat. The European Union has identified the Danube as an important transportation corridor and is pushing to increase shipping on the Danube by eliminating so-called “bottlenecks” along the river — shallow areas that are obstacles for big ships, which, like the Kopacki Rit, are some of the most valuable and last remaining natural areas of the Danube River Basin. Dredging and attempting to “tame” these areas will cause further loss and damage both to biodiversity and to the communities that rely on wetlands and floodplains for their livelihood and drinking water.

WWF has been working with shipbuilders to promote innovative ship designs and information technology, including low draught boats that can make it possible to increase shipping on the Danube while preserving the river’s unique natural values. In other words: for once, fit the boats to the river, not the river to the boats!

Stroke for stroke, Mimi has raised a considerable amount of public awareness of the threats but also the opportunities for long-term sustainable development along the Danube. She has come from halfway around the world to underline the fact that environmental change begins with the individual, and that only by working together can we hope to make a lasting difference.

“When the people of all cultures work together,” says Mimi, “we will be successful as stewards of peace and healing of the people and of our planet.”

* Julia Reynolds, a student of International Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is currently doing a summer internship with the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme.
Mimi Hughes and daughter Kelsey, here one-person crew, shortly after arriving in Bulgaria
© Andreas Beckmann
The Lower Danube Green Corridor is an important stop along bird migration routes and a nesting ground for the great white pelican.
Mimi Hughes and Ferenc Markus, Director of WWF-Hungary, meeting on the banks of the Danube. Markus has embarked on a 450km walk along the Danube River in Hungary to also raise public awareness of the river's fragile ecosystem.