Zakynthos island is situated in the Ionian Sea off the west coast of mainland Greece. The climate is warm with plenty of sunshine. The island has an area of 406,000 ha and its coastline is approximately 110km long. However, only a small part of the coast is sandy beach. In Zakynthos, loggerhead sea turtles nest mainly on the beaches within the Bay of Laganas, which is on the southern part of the island. ARCHELON’s systematic surveys have confirmed that the Bay of Laganas is the most important nesting area for the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) in the Mediterranean Sea. This led to the establishment of the National Marine Park of Zakynthos in 1999.
Historical background to 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 reproduction area for the loggerhead sea turtle in the Mediterranean, the state introduced measures for its protection since 1984. The purpose of the legislation was to control and regulate development while maintaining the quality of the nesting beaches so that the sea turtles can continue visiting Zakynthos for generations to come. The 1984 measures were further strengthened in 1990 with the signing of a Presidential Decree. Based on this legislation, in addition to specific limitations relative to visitor numbers and the use of sunbeds and umbrellas, the following are mentioned:
- Tourist developments are not permitted behind nesting beaches and the building of residences is strictly regulated
- Artificial lighting is not permitted to affect nesting beaches
- Vehicle use is not allowed on the beach
In 1988, by Ministerial Rule two marine zones were established. These occupy a large proportion of Laganas Bay. Within zone A, no boats or fishing activity are allowed. Accordingly, in zone B the speed limit is 6 knots, while 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 anchoring is allowed but the speed limit of 6 knots applies. Consequently, speed boats were almost completely prohibited from the Bay of Laganas. These marine zones are marked with buoys in order to be visible to boat users.
Zakynthos has the privilege to host a very large number of sea turtles in the Bay of Laganas every summer. They migrate thousands of kilometres to reproduce within the bay. Turtle spotting by beach visitors and tour boats is a compatible ecotourism activity with positive prospectives, as it empowers public awareness about sea turtles and therefore their protection, as long as this experience takes place under certain conditions that primarily respect the sea turtles.
On every encounter with a sea turtle in the water, it is very important to seek the least possible disturbance of the animal (as in every other wildlife encounter). This can be achieved when turtle spotting fulfils at least some basic standards that guarantee the calmness of the sea turtle, such as:
- doesn’t exceed 10-15 minutes near the same turtle,
- holds a distance of 10-15 metres from the animal,
- avoids crowding near it (by beach users or boats, with no more than two boats at any one time) and the observers remain calm (e.g. Low-voiced conversation),
- observations are made at a low speed in order not to disturb the animal (no more than two knots),
- any physical contact with the animal is avoided,
- the animal is not approached from the front (and the boat does not pass over it)
- the observers move away on the first indication that the animal is disturbed (e.g. Sudden change of direction, acceleration, sudden diving while basking, often emergences to breathe)
- observations are made 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 of the National Marine Park of Zakynthos should be fully informed about the existing regulations to ensure the well-being of this important sea turtle population concentrated in the Bay of Laganas. Because these regulations have been set to ensure the coexistence of humans and sea turtles to the benefit of both.