Tola, Pola, and Rascal went on a sailing trip down the River Danube. The Danube is one of the longest rivers in Europe, and it flows through 10 countries! It originates in Germany, crosses Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary to finish its course far in Romania and Ukraine. Rascal had heard about the picturesque national parks located along the river; about the enormous poplars growing near its banks and the habitats of extraordinary birds. So he convinced his two friends, Tola and Pola, to join him on his river trip.
‘This will be the best autumn adventure we could ever imagine!’ said Rascal, smiling widely at the helm.
Tola and Pola loved wild places. Places where you can encounter nature untouched by human hands, which not too many people dare to visit. Sailing trip down the Danube seemed so exciting!
The two girls brought beach chairs to the bow and sat down to sunbathe. It was a perfect time to relax, as the next picturesque place worth discovering was several kilometres ahead. Suddenly the tranquillity was interrupted by Rascal as he sped up without a warning. The boat jumped forward, spilling the lemonade Tola was drinking on her fur.
‘Aaaargh! Rascal! Are you crazy?! Slow down! Why did you speed up like that? I spilled the whole lemonade on my fur!’ yelled Tola in discontent.
‘Why did I speed up? You asked me to do so, you cried to give it more speed.’
‘What? I didn’t say such thing! Don’t fool around!’
‘You did, I heard you!’
‘It wasn’t me!’ insisted Tola.
Rascal slowed the boat down, thinking that Tola and Pola were making fun of him.
However, after a while, he heard it again: ‘Speed, please! Speed, please!’
‘Tola, is that you?’ he asked.
‘Did you call “speed, please” again?’
Tola looked at the doggy surprised. Either their friend had some auditory hallucinations, or he was joking. But it wasn’t funny at all. The kitten was about to speak, when she and Pola heard the same calling. But this time it didn’t sound like “speed, please”, but more like… oh no, was that really “stop, please”?! Was someone calling for help?
‘Rascal! Stop the boat! Turn the engine off! I heard something; I think someone’s calling for help!’ cried Pola.
‘Oh no! Maybe someone is drowning?’ said Tola.
The three friends looked around carefully but didn’t see anything unusual. Finally, when they were about to give up, they heard a distinct call for help.
‘Stop, please! Can you help me?’
When the three friends leaned over the port, they saw a really big fish swimming up to the water’s surface.
‘Hi! Did you call for help?’ asked Pola hesitantly.
‘Yes! Oh, I’m so glad you heard me!’ answered the fish. ‘I’m Raluca, Beluga Raluca. I got lost! I’ve been searching for my friends for two days and I can’t find them anywhere…’
‘Oh, my poor fish! Can you remember when you last saw them?’ asked Tola, moved by what the fish had told them.
‘Right in front of the Gabčíkovo Dam.’
‘What were you doing there?’ Tola wanted to know.
‘I come from the Black Sea, it’s very far away from here. To get there, I must cross Hungary, Croatia, and Romania. I came here with my friends to spawn; it means to lay eggs. You know, fish eggs are called roe, and from these eggs our children – little belugas – will be born. We’re almost 20 years old and mature enough to have children. My friends and I decided to embark on our life adventure – the one we heard of from our grandparents.’
‘So, you swam several thousand kilometres to have children? I mean… to lay eggs and wait until the little belugas hatch?’ asked Rascal hesitantly. ‘Animals usually don’t leave their homes and shelters several days before giving birth… and you crossed half of the continent?’
‘Well, fish are different,’ said Raluca. ‘Belugas always swim into rivers to spawn. We live in the Black Sea but lay our eggs at the bottom of rivers, far from the salty water. Nowadays most belugas only manage to reach Romania… sometimes Croatia… and they lay their eggs there. After that, they go back home. There are several dams on the Danube, and crossing them is virtually impossible. My friends and I wanted to cross all dams and reach Slovakia, just like our families many, many years ago.’
‘Well… if you had seen your friends before you crossed the dam, maybe they’re still there? Did you swim back to check?’ asked Pola sensibly.
‘No… my problem is that I can’t!’ Raluca started to cry. ‘I’m the youngest and the smallest of all my friends. Because of this, I managed to swim into a very thin fishway and get to the other side of the dam. But there were so many stones and other obstacles in this passage, that I’m sure if I went back, I would die.’
‘Oh no… this doesn’t sound good.’ Rascal was visibly worried. The three friends immediately started to think of a plan…
What can they do to help the poor Raluca? They couldn’t leave her there alone.
‘I’ve got an idea!’ said Pola. ‘Raluca, maybe you can swim with us, on our boat? We’re heading towards Hungary. We will cross the Gabčíkovo Dam on our way. There are special ship locks, that allow boats to safely cross the dam. What do you think, Raluca?’
‘We’ll pour water into the cabin and you’ll jump inside!’ added Tola enthusiastically.
‘Into the cabin?’ asked startled Rascal. ‘Wait, you mean our cabin? On this boat?’
‘Of course, we mean our boat! Why are you so surprised? Come on, let’s take buckets and pour in some water!’
Tola, seeing that her friends approved of the idea, grabbed a bucket, tied a string to it, and started to pour water from the river into their cabin. They were working fast. They were so consumed by what there were doing, that they didn’t notice a small trawler approaching their boat. There were two bulldogs standing on the deck. They didn’t look friendly at all…
‘Hello. Do you have fire on board? We saw that you keep pouring water in,’ said one of the bulldogs, trying to peek inside the friends’ boat.
‘Fire? No, there’s no fire!’ answered Tola. She was about to tell them that they were preparing the cabin for Beluga Raluca, when Pola appeared on the bow and cried:
‘We’re washing the deck! We’ve made such a mess yesterday! That’s all. What are you doing here?’ she asked, looking at huge hooks tied to the sides of the trawler.
‘We are going to the other side of the Gabčíkovo Dam. Our friends told us that they had seen a shoal of huge belugas somewhere around there. No one has seen them in the area since years. Maybe we’ll be lucky and catch one of them. Their roe is expensive, we could sell it!’
‘But… aren’t belugas an endangered species? Are you sure you can catch them?’ asked Pola cunningly.
The bulldog looked at Pola in surprise. He frowned.
‘And who are you to ask? The police or a tourist? You’d better mind your own business!’ he growled. ‘Let’s go guys!’ he called to his fellows. The trawler passed the friends’ boat and sped towards the Dam.
Several minutes passed before distressed Raluca appeared again. She quivered with fear. ‘Oh no! They’re going to get my friends! We need to warn them!’ she called, frightened.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Rascal. ‘Quick, jump in, the cabin is ready.’
Raluca swam to the back, then sped up and wagged her fin to jump on board. Tola and Pola helped her slide into the cabin. Rascal turned on the engine and they arrived at the Dam in less than an hour.
The Gabčíkovo Dam was truly huge, as it encompassed the whole river. Pola flew in for a closer look at the fishway Raluca used to cross the Dam. Indeed, it was too narrow for bigger fish to swim through; the belugas had no chance of getting through it.
Our friends finally reached the ship lock. They waited some time before the lock was closed, but soon they were on the other side of the Dam, with the remaining ships and boats.
When they left the ship lock, Rascal immediately spotted the trawler cruising in front of them. The bulldogs must have used the same ship lock. There were so many ships around the Dam, that the three friends hadn’t noticed the trawler before. Now they decided to follow them. They were afraid that the bulldogs would hunt for the belugas. The friends kept a safe distance and carefully watched the trawler.
After several kilometres, the trawler stopped. Rascal turned their boat into some reeds, to prevent the bulldogs from seeing them. They saw the bulldogs cast huge fishing nets, while two other fishermen went on the deck holding big spears in their hands.
‘Oh no! The bulldogs have begun fishing the belugas! We need to do something!’
Pola was standing on the bow, and recording everything on her mobile phone. She ordered Tola to immediately call 112, the emergency number used in the whole Europe. Pola knew that the emergency dispatcher would tell them where to report illegal fishing.
Soon, Tola was talking to the fish guard, calmly giving them the precise location of the poachers. This meant that within a few minutes the fish guard would find them. It was then, when Rascal noticed that all poachers were leaning over the left side of the boat. Their trawler was swaying in the water, as if pulled to this one side by some strong force. They must have caught a really big fish!
‘Oh no… Raluca, I think they caught one of your friends,’ he said distressed. ‘The boat is barely above the water.’
‘Let me out, quickly!’ said Raluca. ‘I’ll help her. By the time the fish guard arrives, it may be already too late.’
The three friends carried Raluca out of the cabin and released her into the Danube. She immediately swam towards the poachers.
‘Push the trawler to one side!’ Rascal yelled to Raluca. ‘If your friends are truly so large, they should scare the fishermen and they might cut off the net!’
Tola, Rascal, and Pola watched what was happening. They were sad that they could do nothing apart from calling for help. Then, they saw something strange happening… The trawler started to sway so hard, that it looked like a ship in the middle of a strong storm! It was moving to the sides and back and forth. Huge fish started to jump out of the water all around the ship. They were the biggest fish Rascal had ever seen. They looked like dinosaurs! Oh well… okay, maybe not like dinosaurs, but they were surely as big as whales! Huge!
The poachers were really scared. But one of them still didn’t want to give up. He took aim with a spear, hoping to catch one of the belugas. Terrified friends held their breaths. They were afraid that one of the belugas might get hurt, despite all the efforts to make the poachers swim away. But then, a loud voice echoed in the distance.
‘Attention! Everyone on the deck! Lower the spear!’ a fish guard said through a megaphone. ‘You cannot hunt fish in here. You are aiming at a beluga, a protected species. I repeat, lower the spear!’
The bulldogs, surprised by the presence of the police, didn’t want to be caught red-handed. Before the police reached their trawler, the poachers had quickly cut their nets.
‘We were not hunting, sir. It’s not our fault that a beluga got caught in our nets. We were only protecting our ship and ourselves,’ said one of the bulldogs.
The poachers tried to give an explanation, but the fish guard didn’t believe them. They realised what had happened on the trawler and wrote tickets for all the fishermen. Tola, Rascal, and Pola, seeing that everyone was safe, decided to carry on their trip. They continued down the River Danube.
In the evening, when they anchored the ship by the river bank, Rascal jumped into the water to refresh himself. Suddenly, the water started to bubble. Then a whole shoal of belugas appeared next to their quay, the small pier to which they had moored. Raluca swam up next to Rascal and carried him to the shore on her back.
‘Oh, Raluca!’ Rascal was happy to see her. ‘It’s good to see you! I see you found your friends! What are you going to do now? Are you staying, or swimming back home to the Black Sea?’
Just then, a huge beluga showed up above water. She looked like the oldest of the fish and she was surely the biggest – almost as big as the friends’ ship!
‘I think that the smallest of us will go back to the Black Sea. The rest of us will stay somewhere around here – between the dams. Until people build bigger and safer fishways, we have no chance to come back home,’ said the biggest beluga and thanked the three friends for helping Raluca and the rest of the shoal.
‘Oh dear, poor belugas!’ meowed Tola. ‘It’s not fair. As soon as we come back from our holidays, we will find out what to do to help you!’
‘Although we’re young, we can tell the adults about your plight. We can also organise a contest for picturing the rarest fish species in Europe… or for a poster presenting belugas. Children always have some amazing ideas!’ said Rascal enthusiastically.
‘We, belugas, live for 100 years. We will wait for your initiative. We hope to live long enough to be able to migrate to whole Europe again, just like our grandparents did. Goodbye!’
All the belugas waved goodbye with their fins and disappeared into the Danube.
The tale was prepared within Kids for Eco-Action Project, co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.