Protection of loggerhead (Caretta caretta) nesting activity on Zakynthos
Zakynthos island (also referred to as ‘Zante’) is located in the Ionian Sea, on the west side of the Greek mainland. The climate is generally warm with plenty of sunshine. The island covers an area of 406 km2, and the coastline is about 110 km. However only a small part of the coastal area is sandy.
In Zakynthos, loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) mainly nest on the beaches of the Gulf of Laganas, which is located in the southern part of the island. Systematic monitoring by ARCHELON has scientifically documented that the Bay of Laganas is the most important nesting site of the loggerhead sea turtles in the Mediterranean, leading to inclusion of the area into the EU Natura Program and, more importantly, the founding of the National Marine Park of Zakynthos in 1999. This was the first National Park created to protect endangered sea turtles and other endangered plant and animal species.
Historical background of the legal protection of the nesting beaches of Zakynthos and the marine zone of the Bay of Laganas
Due to the importance of Zakynthos as a reproductive area for the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) sea turtle in the Mediterranean, in 1984 the Greek government introduced measures for the protection of the area. The purpose of the legislation was to control and regulate development of the area, while at the same time maintaining the quality of the nesting beaches so that sea turtles would be able to continue nesting on Zakynthos for generations to come. The 1984 measures were further strengthened in 1990 with the signing of a Presidential Decree. In addition to specific limitations relative to visitor numbers and the use of sunbeds and umbrellas, the 1990 Decree includes the following protective measures:
- Development of tourism-related facilities are not permitted behind nesting beaches, and the building of residences is strictly regulated.
- Artificial lighting which detrimentally affects nesting beaches is prohibited.
- Motor vehicle use is not permitted on the beach.
In 1988, a decree by the Environmental Ministry established two marine zones (Zone A and Zone B) in the nesting area. These zones cover a large part of Laganas Bay. Within Zone A, no boating or fishing activity is allowed. In Zone B, boats are permitted to pass through the area (with a restricted speed limit of 6 knots), but anchoring is not allowed. Fish farms are prohibited in both zones.
In 1994, after sustained effort by ARCHELON and other environmental organizations, a third zone was established, Zone C, in which boat use and anchoring is allowed, but the boat speed limit of 6 knots still applies. Consequently, speedboats were almost completely prohibited from the Bay of Laganas. These marine zones are marked with buoys in order to be visible to boat users.
In 1994, night flights into and out of Zakynthos airport were also prohibited, as the runway for landing and take-off passes over the beach of East Laganas and the aircraft lights and noise disturbs nesting turtles.
Unfortunately, the laws were poorly enforced, allowing the operation of illegal umbrella and sunbed rental businesses to occupy vital nesting grounds, or the illegal construction of buildings (restaurants and holiday homes) in Daphni. However, the legislation did succeed in halting large hotel development on certain beaches: Marathonissi islet was not developed for tourism, thanks to the concerted efforts of conservationists, local communities and the local Church.
The long-standing struggle of ARCHELON and other NGOs eventually prompted the Greek government to proceed with the establishment of the National Marine Park of Zakynthos (NMPZ) in December 1999. This is the first National Park to protect the loggerhead sea turtle in the Mediterranean, and was also the first protected area in Greece with a designated Management Agency. ARCHELON, WWF- Greece, and MOm are members of the Management Board of the Park's Agency.
There are six nesting beaches in the Bay of Laganas, with a total length of 5.5km. These are Marathonissi, East Laganas, Kalamaki, Sekania, Daphni, and Gerakas. Every year, from the beginning of May until mid-August, loggerhead females lay their eggs on these beaches. On average, 1,185 nests are made every year.
The uninhabited islet of Marathonissi is in the west of the Bay of Laganas. It has a small, 370m long beach made of pale, thick sand on its north-west end. There are sand dunes at the back of the beach, which in some locations stretch inland for more than 50m. The steep hill behind the beach is covered with endemic Mediterranean flora. The remains of an old monastery, belonging to the Church of Lithakia, is the only building on this islet. Tourists visit the islet during the day, either on organized boat trips or by rented or private boats. Lights and noise from the residential areas of Laganas and Lithakia affect the beach during the night. Organized tours are allowed between 7:00am to 7:00pm from 1 May to 31 October. Visitors are only allowed to remain on the first 5m from the sea, since sea turtle nests are located at the back of the beach.
While most beaches within the Bay of Laganas mainly produce female hatchlings, the small beach on Marathonissi produces mainly male sea turtles. This is caused by the slightly lower temperature of the beach sand on Marathonissi. As is the case for all reptiles, the sex of Caretta caretta hatchlings is determined by the average temperature of the eggs during incubation. If the incubation temperature is above 29oC, the hatchlings will be females, while if it is below 29oC, they will be male. In fact, the pale color of the sand on Marathonissi strongly reflects solar radiation, causing slightly lower sand temperature at the egg clutch depth. So while the beach of Marathonissi accounts for only a small percentage of the nests in Zakynthos, the fact that they exclusively produce male turtles raises its significance as a crucial reproductive habitat for the survival of the Caretta caretta sea turtles.
East Laganas beach (2,780m long) stretches eastwards from the last hotel of the developed part of Laganas up to the cliffs of Hipsolithos. The beach is characterized by fine sand mixed with small pebbles, and an extensive system of sand dunes at the back. Visitors are allowed on the beach between 7:00am and 7:00pm daily from 1 May to the 31 October.
The beach of Kalamaki (500m long) is the easternmost extension of East Laganas beach, separated from the latter by the cliffs of Hipsolithos; there are low, clay cliffs at the back of the beach. A hotel has been constructed above the western part of the beach. The area is easily accessible and is visited by many people during the day. Visitors are allowed between 7:00am and 7:00pm from the 1 May to 31 October. Visitors are only allowed to use the area within 5 meters from the sea, as sea turtle nests are located at the back of the beach.
According to the law, only 150 umbrellas and 300 sunbeds are allowed on the nesting beaches of E. Laganas and Kalamaki, and these must be removed every night so as not to interfere with the nesting turtles or hatchlings. Unfortunately, despite this progressive legislation, problems with sunbeds and umbrellas still occur in the area.
Sekania beach (650m long) is the one that stands out not only because of its natural beauty; the beach also has the highest nesting density for loggerheads in the Mediterranean. In fact, Sekania supports well over 50% of the total number of nests made in the whole Laganas Bay area. Due to its importance, ARCHELON has been urging the Government to expropriate or buy the private land behind the beach in order to preserve it as a totally protected area. Finally, in 1994, WWF Greece, following recommendations by ARCHELON, purchased a large part of the land behind the nesting beach. This was achieved with partial funding from the European Union and the support of the Greek Ministry of the Environment. According to existing legislation, public access is prohibited in the area.
Daphni (600m long) stands out as the beach with the most problems. During the period 1986-1993, fifteen buildings were illegally constructed behind the beach of Daphni. In accordance with the Council of Europe recommendations, the removal of illegal buildings at Daphni has been an obligation of the Greek government since 1986, when only two prefabricated buildings existed. Unfortunately, nothing has been done by the Greek government to date to comply with these regulations. Illegal embankments, street laying, planting of exotic fauna species, and natural corrosion of the beach have destroyed the beach profile in many locations. Since 2006, the Management Agency of the Zakynthos National Marine Park reached an agreement with the building owners and imposed measures on the operation of the buildings and the management of the beach. As a result, visitors are allowed to use the beach from 7:00am to 7:00pm from 1 May to 31 October, and the maximum number of visitors must not exceed 100 at any one time. Finally, visitors are only allowed within the first 5m from the sea, as sea turtle nests are located at the back of the beach.
Gerakas is a 600m long, 15-30m wide beach with fine, soft sand. The beach is backed by clay cliffs which shield it from the lights of the two tavernas and several houses that have been recently built further inland. A paved road comes very close to the beach, and vehicles park there. There is only one access to the beach, and that is by a trail coming down through the cliffs. Due to its relatively easy accessibility, Gerakas attracts hundreds of visitors every day during the summer season. According to environmental protection legislation, only 60 umbrellas and 120 sunbeds are allowed at the western end of Gerakas, and the number of visitors on the beach at any one time should not exceed 350. Visitors are allowed from 7:00am to 7:00pm between 1 May and 31 October. As in the case of Daphni beach, visitors are only allowed within the first 5m from the sea, as sea turtle nests are located on the back of the beach.
Turtle spotting in the sea
Zakynthos has the privilege of hosting a very large number of sea turtles in the Bay of Laganas every summer. They migrate thousands of kilometers to mate within the bay. Turtle spotting by beach visitors and tour boats is an activity compatible with ecotourism and has a positive result, as it increases public awareness about sea turtles (and therefore their protection), as long as this experience takes place under certain conditions designed primarily to respect the sea turtles.
On every encounter with a sea turtle in the water (as in true for every type of wildlife encounter), it is very important to disturb the animal as little as possible. This can be achieved when turtle spotting fulfils at least some basic standards that guarantee the calmness of the sea turtle, such as:
- The amount of time spent near the same turtle doesn’t exceed 10-15 minutes.
- There is a distance of 10-15 meters between the turtle and the observer.
- A small number of observers are present at any one time (i.e. beach users should avoid crowding around the turtle, and there should be no more than two boats near the turtle at any one time).
- The observers should remain calm and quiet (e.g. low-voiced conversation).
- Observation boats should travel at a low speed (i.e. no more than two knots), in order not to disturb the turtle.
- Any physical contact with the turtle MUST be avoided.
- The animal MUST not be approached from the front, and the boats MUST not pass over it.
- 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).
- Observations are made ONLY during the day (and not during the night).
However, sea turtle observation activities carried out in the Bay of Laganas do not always follow the above basic rules of sustainable observation, nor do they follow the regulations for this special area (e.g. the speed limit of 6 knots to avoid collision with a sea turtle), often placing the turtles in danger.
All visitors to the National Marine Park of Zakynthos should be fully informed about the existing regulations to ensure the well-being of the important sea turtle population concentrated in the Bay of Laganas. These regulations have been set up to ensure the harmonious coexistence of humans and sea turtles to the benefit of both.
The work of ARCHELON in Zakynthos
ARCHELON has a branch office on Zakynthos to promote, on an annual basis, its objectives for the conservation of marine turtles and their habitat. Every year since 1983, extensive fieldwork is carried out by ARCHELON during the nesting season, and since 2000 this is done in cooperation with the Management Agency of the National Marine Park. The fieldwork consists of monitoring both turtles and the beaches, active beach management, and raising public awareness.
Since 1987, the 150 volunteers that participate in ARCHELON's Zakynthos project every year contribute to public awareness of visitors through the seasonal operation of Information Stations in cooperation with the local authorities and, in recent years, the National Marine Park of Zakynthos Management Agency. Every year, around 70,000 visitors are informed at the Information Stations, at live presentations held at hotels, on tour boats, and on the nesting beaches. ARCHELON volunteers also work cooperatively with Park wardens to safeguard the nesting beaches and ensure compliance with the regulations on a 24-hour basis.