Situated at the south of the island of Zakynthos is the National Maritime Park of Zakynthos. It runs from Laganas all the way across to Gerakas on the most south eastern tip of the island. It also includes the island of Marathonisi (Turtle Island). The park is home to endangered loggerhead turtles (Caretta Caretta), who can often be spotted swimming in the bay, during nesting season (when they lay their eggs) or when they hatch. The turtles are classed as an endangered species, and are highly protected. Many who visit the island love to be able to catch a glimpse of them, as they think of it as a special part of their holiday, but how much contact should we really have with them?
Many companies offer boat trips to see the turtles. This sounds like a wonderful idea – why not see a turtle in it’s natural habitat? – and for some it’s a once in a lifetime experience. Sadly however, in the height of summer some boats can crowd the turtles and this can stress them out. They get used to the sound of propellers and swim to investigate, and they can get struck and injured by them, especially if lots of boats jostle for viewing space in the water. It’s a difficult thing to try and balance, as boats trips bring revenue to those who live on the island, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the turtles health and well being.
Unfortunately however, not all boats offering trips to see the turtles are licensed, this means they’re being operated by users who do not know the Marine Park rules, which include strict speed limits, and last year alone thirty-six boats became stranded due to being piloted by these inexperienced users. There are some good travel companies on the island that do have environmental issues at the forefront of their business, and it’s worth checking them, or other recommended and licensed trip companies, out. Some of them even do trips with National Marine Park Wardens onboard.
Some boat owners will entice turtles to come closer to their boats by feeding them, often with tomatoes. This isn’t to be advised as not only are tomatoes very bad for the turtles health, but turtles are actually wild animals, and disturbing them in such a way can cause issues for them in their natural habitat. Also a turtles bite can also be quite strong, so it’s best to keep your fingers well away from their mouths so that you don’t get bitten. Sadly, the situation of turtles being fed has become so bad in the last few years that fines may now be implemented for anyone who does feed them.
Plastics are also bad for turtles. Their normal diet is jellyfish and they often mistake plastic bags for food, which has a detrimental and often tragic affect on the animals, often killing them. The introduction of the plastic bag charge on the island is helping, but reusable bags such as cotton etc., are a much better option. Cigarette butts and other rubbish, such as plastic straws, should not be left on the beaches as they are also very harmful to the turtles health and environment, and in some case can prevent them from nesting.
As with boat trips, many tourists would love to have the chance to swim with a turtle, but swimming with them isn’t allowed. It is true that they are curious creatures and so will sometimes come up to you if you’re already in the water, but being too close to them, especially if there is a group of you, can be incredibly stressful for them. You should always be cautious and respect them and their habitat. If you are swimming and a turtle comes up to you, it is advisable to keep a good distance between you and the animal and not splash about, or make lots of noise. You should remain quiet and calm, allow them to investigate and then move on.
During the summer months turtles lay their eggs on the beaches at Laganas, Kalamaki, Dafni Beach and Gerakas. During this time, there are restrictions in place for various parts of the beach and it is necessary that during (hatching), the baby turtles are allowed to make their own way along the beach and down into the sea. Whilst it may seem kind to pick up a hatchling and help it into the sea, it’s the worst thing you can do. You should allow them to make the journey alone and not interfere. Marathonisi island is also a nesting place for the turtles so anyone hiring boats to visit it should be aware that the island also has restrictions in place.
Whilst it’s lovely to sit on a warm beach under the stars, by moonlight, there are restrictions on many of the beaches noted above. Visitors should not walk in any of these designated areas at night. There is a risk of stepping on nests and disturbing turtles. Artificial light is also very disorienting for turtles as is light from torches, mobile phones and other light sources. So they should all be avoided on these beaches at night. Noise should be kept to minimum too, so as not to disturb or stress the animals.
ARCHELON and continued turtle protection
Nesting sea turtles were first discovered on the island in 1977, data was collected by a local couple and a campaign to protect them began which involved local newspapers, magazines and the Greek Government. A monitoring project took place in 1981 with assistance from WWF International. New nesting sites were discovered and finally, in 1982, the Ministry of Environment brought in rules to limit development on Laganas Bay. In 1983 The Sea Turtle Protection Society was created which later became known as ARCHELON.
ARCHELON are a Greek nonprofit organisation that was set up to oversee the protection of the turtles, they are still very active, and do what they can to protect the sea turtles in their natural environment, their aim is also to study them, via habitat, as well as educate the public, and they do an excellent job of looking out for these beautiful creatures. ARCHELON is also responsible for monitoring important nesting sites of the Carreta Carreta all over Greece and has a rescue Centre in Athens which people can visit to learn more about the injured turtles.
ARCHELON have some great guidance on their website that helps explain some of these issues more in depth. There are also National Marine Park Wardens who walk the beaches of Gerakas, Daphni, Laganas and Kalamaki advising beach users what not to do whilst on the beach, and they also hand out leaflets. During hatching, ARCHELON volunteers also do their best to be on site and ensure that hatchlings aren’t disturbed whilst trying to make their first, important, journey down to the sea.
ARCHELON have their own guidance, as noted below, that they suggest visitors adhere to, further information can be found on their website: On every encounter with a sea turtle in the water (as in true for every type of wildlife encounter), it is very important to not disturb the animal at all. This can be achieved when the turtle spotting fulfils at least some basic standards that guarantee the calmness of the sea turtle, such as:
1 – The amount of time spent near the same turtle doesn’t exceed 10-15 minutes.
2 – There is a distance of 10-!5 meters between the turtle and observer.
3 – A small number of observers are present at any one time (i.e. beach users should avoid crowding round the turtle, and there should be no more than two boats near the turtle at any one time).
4 – The observers should remain calm and quiet (e.g. low-voiced conversation).
5 – Observation boats should travel at low speed (i.e. no more than two knots), in order not to disturb the turtle.
6 – Any physical contact with the turtle MUST be avoided.
7 – The animal MUST NOT be approached from the front, and boats MUST NOT pass over it.
8 – Observers move away on the first indication that the turtle is disturbed (e.g. sudden change of direction, acceleration, sudden diving while basking, often surfaces to breathe).
9 – Observations are made ONLY during the day (and not during the night).
Can we learn more?
Visitors to Zakynthos can always learn more about the island turtles. As well as ARCHELON, who work closely with the Management Body of the National Maritime Park of Zakynthos and local authorities, there is The Exhibition Centre of National Marine Park situated in Daphni, Vasilikos. It is dedicated to education and the protection of the turtles, where visitors can get a better understanding of the lives of the turtles, their habitat, nesting sites and the incredible work that happens in order to protect them. There are local companies on Zakynthos who work closely with ARCHELON in order to try and support the turtles, as they have the interest of the endangered species at heart, especially when it comes to seeing the turtles close up.
We understand that everyone would love to experience the incredible sight of a loggerhead turtle, whether it be by boat, swimming alongside them or watching them emerge from a nest. For some it truly is a once in a lifetime experience, but we must remember that the turtles are endangered and highly protected animals. We must also remember that the bay of Laganas is their world, their home, it’s where they live and rear young, and have done so since before tourism took over the area. Visitors are just that, merely visiting, merely short-term interlopers in the turtles world.
So please try your best to give them some space, allow them to swim stress free and live/start their new lives with the best possible chance of survival. As a protected animal their life is hard enough as it is, so every bit of help we can give them is hopefully a chance that one day they may have the chance of being removed from the endangered species list.
Author note: We would like to extend a huge thank you to ARCHELON, for their help with this article and for the use of their observation rules and all photographs. To learn more about ARCHELON and the excellent work they do, or to become a summer volunteer, please visit their website.