Way before the party-goers descended on Laganas Bay in Zakynthos (better known as Zante to us Brits), it was the Caretta Loggerhead Sea Turtles that chose this place as their mating ground every summer.
In fact, Zante is the most important nesting ground for the turtles in Europe with 80% of the Mediterranean population returning every summer.
The stories of prehistoric animals still walking this earth is not just mythos, I mean myths. The turtles are contemporaries of the earliest dinosaurs and have been on the earth around 250 million years! But, unlike the partygoers who may also choose to mate in Zante every summer, these turtles are endangered. And, the sad fact is tourism isn’t helping…
Tourism in Zante is critical, yet harmful for the resident turtles who have lost over half of their beach nesting ground as the popularity as a holiday destination has grown.
Mating in Zante
The usual rituals of courtship, males competing for the same female (at loggerheads literally) follows on to nuzzling, biting, head movements with the successful male succeeding by mounting the chosen female. As the largest hard-shelled turtles in the world, they also have very horny beaks (known to be thicker than other sea turtles) and as you can imagine, the mating season can be a somewhat drawn-out process; lasting from late March to early June.
Nightlife in Zante
After a successful mating period, producing two-three nests, the baby turtles are guided by the moonlight reflected in the ocean as they crawl disoriented along the beach to the sea for the first time. Similarly, to the partygoers staggering back to their hotel rooms in the early hours, the turtles making their way to the small stretch of land to the ocean often find this can be a dangerous process. Artificial lighting from this busy tourist area can cause the turtles to go in the wrong direction, which can ultimately result in their death.
For this reason, bright lights should not be used near nesting beaches with no access given to beaches along the Gulf of Laganas from sunset until sunrise. That means any nighttime beach shenanigans are left to the turtles.
One thing we all crave after a night out in Zante is gyros but imagine if after one bite we realised it wasn’t gyros we were eating after all…
This is a common factor for the loggerhead turtles, who don’t eat gyros but do feast on jellyfish. Only to find when they do, it may not be a jellyfish at all, it could be a plastic bag. Pollution in the ocean causes many problems for the turtles and ingesting one plastic bag will kill a turtle as they twist in the gut, causing the turtles to grow weak and lack of eating results in them starving to death.
Any waste left on the beach can have a direct impact on the turtles that nest nearby as it can be disruptive to the turtles crawling across the sand. Think about the plastic you use. All the straws that get thrown away after every drink you consume…
How to help the Caretta Loggerhead Turtles
Whilst more can be done to stop building in nesting areas, restrict boats in the bay and fishing in critical areas, being a better tourist will also help save these turtles.
Sunloungers and umbrellas placed on nesting areas can cause a female turtle to abandon her nest and return to the sea aborting her eggs.
Speedboats hitting turtles cause the most damage and cuts to the shell and internal organs make for a slow and painful death. The only option for emergency treatment is a busy 6-hour ferry to the Rescue Hospital in Athens. Be mindful of your speed if you hire a boat, a speed of 5mph in critical areas is advised, as well as turning off any propellers if turtles are seen to prevent the common occurrence of turtle fins being damaged.
Zante may be a Greek Island favourite for tourists but it is for the turtles too, and unlike us, they have no other options. Loggerhead turtles only return to the beach where they hatched, making these turtles indigenous to the island. If their habitat continues to be destroyed or if they die out, the island of Zakynthos will not be repopulated by turtles from other areas in the Mediterranean. As only 1 or 2 in 1,000 turtles survive to reach adulthood, adjustments in tourist behaviour can make all the difference, along with government intervention, to preserve their natural habitat.
The National Marine Park actively works to protect the turtles. A scheme was in place to create an urgent care centre for the turtles right here in Zante but a lack of support locally meant these plans never got off the ground. Instead, the turtles are transported on a long ferry ride to Athens to receive medical treatment.
Despite being up against it without government-backed support, Archelon Sea Turtle Protection Society uses volunteers as support to care for injured turtles.
If you love seeing the turtles and want to help protect them for future generations head to Archelon Sea Turtle Protection Society to donate.
Don’t be a lager-head in Laganas, it’s all about the loggerheads!
Special thanks to Michael Papanikitas of Peter Tours who arranged our trip with BigBlue Keri Beach to see the turtles before they head off on the ocean road. It was a dream come true to see them swimming happily in their natural habitat. One day I may even face my fears and go deep-sea diving with the turtles, watch this space!