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The crew joined Archelon staff and volunteers Nicola Briggs, Silvia Moll, Victoria Shearman and Michaela Jancy at dawn to monitor Kalamaki beach in Laganas Bay, Zakynthos. Kalamaki is one of six beaches along a 5.5 kilometer strip used as a nesting site by the endangered Loggerhead sea turtle - Caretta caretta. The team mark and record newly hatched nests, while newly laid nests are posted and monitored for incubation rates and hatchling success.
Photo : Chris Johnson

September 8, 2004
Conservation and Tourism at 'Loggerheads' - Zakynthos, Greece
Real Audio Report

Watch a short video of Loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings -
Real Video
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  * To view a special expanded view of the photographs in this report - click here

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in Zakynthos, Greece.

On Kalamaki Beach, the first rays of light pierced the darkness at around 6am. This morning some of the staff of Archelon invited us to join them on a beach survey in search of sea turtle hatchlings. Founded in 1983, Archelon is a non-governmental organization whose purpose is to preserve sea turtles and their natural habitat through monitoring, research and environmental education.

Every morning Archelon staff and volunteers patrol the beach. We walked with the team, fanning out across the sand in search of tracks and newly laid nests. The team found several nests that hatched last night, the tiny tracks of the hatchlings path to the sea giving away the location of the nest The team mark and record newly hatched nests, while newly laid nests are posted and monitored for incubation rates and hatchling success. Adults are also tagged in an effort to learn more about their migration routes and nesting habits.

The volunteers finished counting the number of tracks leading from a nest when a loud engine caused us all to turn - a garbage truck drove down the beach along the waters edge.

A jogger came past and told us there were hatchlings nearing the water 50 meters ahead. The truck drove on and the team ran toward the water. We scanned the sand with much dread and saw a hatchling compressed into the sand amid the tire tracks of the truck. Several other hatchlings continued their determined charge for the sea, oblivious to their lucky escape. The truck had driven across the path of the entire clutch. We crowded around the hatchling, which began to move - it was alive. The sand was so soft, it was merely packed into the sand where it had been caught by the edge of the tire and was slowly digging its way out. This is just one of many hazards and illegal activities the turtles of Zakynthos face before even reaching the water.

Vehicles are banned from the nesting beaches at all times. The researchers and Odyssey crew watch a garbage truck drive along the waters edge toward a group of hatchlings.
Photo : Chris Johnson

Together, we watched as the last twenty turtle hatchlings raced to the sea. Streaming from a nest about 50 meters from the water, the 2-inch turtles are full of energy, but clumsy, defenseless and vulnerable. They struggle to make the water quickly or they will die under the heat of the burning sun. Resisting the temptation to help the little reptiles - the Archelon staff recommend that they make the water on their own, we stand by, willing them along, removing any debris and garbage inhibiting their path.

These are loggerhead turtles - Caretta caretta. About two months ago, their mother came ashore to lay her eggs in the soft sand and on one of the six flat beaches in the Bay of Laganas on the island of Zakynthos. The islands of Zakynthos and Kefallonia in the Ionian Sea, offer the most important nesting areas for loggerhead sea turtles in the entire Mediterranean.

It is estimated that there are only about 2,000 loggerheads in the Mediterranean. Because they form very distinct sub-populations, they are considered endangered. Usually they only nest in the eastern basin and of the 2,000 animals, Zakynthos hosts about 1,200 to 1,300 nests on average, which is about 25% of all nests and the largest known aggregation in the entire Mediterranean. The nests are spread over less than 5.5 kilometers of sand, including Sekania beach, one of the densest loggerhead nesting areas in the world.

/ Nesting turtles prefer large tracts of flat uninhabited beach. Unfortunately, so do the tens of thousands of tourists who flock to Laganas Bay in Zakynthos every summer. The summer is also peak nesting and hatching season for the loggerhead sea turtle. This fateful convergence is threatening this turtle with extinction.

This hatchling was lucky to survive. The depression at the top of the image shows where the edge of the truck tire pushed the turtle into the sand. Vehicles on the beach are one of many illegal activities threatening the survival of this endangered species.
Photo : Chris Johnson

Thankfully, the turtles have a welcome ally in Archelon.

In 1999, a Presidential decree was signed to establish a National Marine Park in Laganas Bay. It is the first National Park in Greece and the first Marine Park established in the Mediterranean to protect sea turtles.

Since 2000, Archelon has been cooperating closely with the National Marine Park whose 8 staff and 36 wardens ensured the beaches were guarded 24 hours a day during nesting season and that regulations relating to tourist activities on the beaches and in the bay were strictly enforced.

According to Kostis Grimanis, a spokesperson for Archelon things have changed dramatically over the past year.

    "The problem is that for the past 11 months now, the permanent employees along with the seasonal personal of the Marine Park have not received any pay from the former or current Government."

Marine Park employees have been on strike since the beginning of May after the Greek Ministry of Environment and Public Works, which is responsible for the Park and much of the infrastructure for the Olympic Games, cut all funding. As a result there is a huge gap in enforcement of regulations, and a major increase in violations in the Park. Kostis feels in many ways the hard work of the past several years has taken a step backwards and he cannot predict what the future may hold for the Caretta caretta of Zakynthos.

Researchers cannot assist the hatchlings who must make the journey from nest to sea under their own strength. However, stragglers like these that should have made it to the sea well before dawn are given a smooth track clear of debris.
Photo : Chris Johnson
    "Until 2003, the marine park had wardens on every key entrance to the beach in order to inform the visitors to let them know about the current legislative measures. None of these wardens are on the nesting beaches as we speak. As a result we have cars, mope heads, horses - whatever you can possibly imagine - quad bikes in the morning and at night that disturb the nesting turtles. The numbers of sunbeds and umbrellas has exceeded the legal quota provided by the Presidential decree. So far nothing has been done to minimize the negative effects due to the absence of the Parks."

Archelon staff and volunteers do their best to take on a lot of the duties unfulfilled by the absence of park wardens. In particular, they try to ensure people are informed about the regulations protecting the turtles. However, the role of Archelon is research and conservation, they do not have the resources to enforce the law, nor do they have enough staff to ensure all beach users comply with the rules. Consequently, local tourism bosses are aggressively expanding their bars, cafe and restaurants out onto the very beaches required by the turtles to nest.

According to Judith Zbinden, a turtle biologist from the Department of Conservation Biology at the University of Berne in Switzerland and a member of Archelon, the problem for the turtles begins with tourism.

    "At the moment the problem is, first of all, there are just too many tourists, just the sheer amount of tourists packed into this resort. It is just too much. They change every week, so once you inform one bunch they leave and the next ones come. Most tourists are well intended, they just simply don't know. They go to their travel agents and say, I don't care where I am going I just want a cheaper holiday and that's Zakynthos. These are people that if they have the sea and they have the sun and a bit of nightlife then they are fine and they don't really care that much about what is happening."

A lack of awareness about the vulnerability of the turtles, the fragility of their nesting habitat due to tourist activity, and the lack of law enforcement means tourism and conservation are at 'loggerheads' on Zakynthos. Today the turtles are suffering under a range of threats on their nesting beaches and in the bay.
Judith explains -
A loggerhead sea turtle hatchling - Caretta caretta. This hatchling makes it to the edge of sea. If the hatchling is female, she may return to Laganas Bay in 20-25 years to lay her own eggs. If the hatchling is male, this will probably be his last time on land. Males have no need to return to shore.
Photo : Chris Johnson

    "Turtles stay about two weeks between nests in the bay and they just bask on the surface, they just have to produce the new bunch of eggs, they are not feeding on anything here so they are just really dependant on having a good rest and are not in a state of actively swimming away all the time so they are very easily hit by boat propellers.

    A lot of turtles come ashore (to nest) and get disturbed by light, noise and people on the beach they will go back to the water and try another night and maybe another night, but then they can no longer hold the eggs back and they will just deposit them in the sea. Quite a lot of times we get turtle eggs washed up on the beach so obviously that is a nest lost. Sometimes people take umbrellas to the beach and if they stick them through a nest, even if it only pierces one egg, the whole nest will be infected by bacteria and will certainly be destroyed."

    Also at Marathonisis (Island), the beach is orientated so that if the hatchlings crawl towards the light on the horizon to orientate themselves to where the sea is, they will actually crawl 150 meters up, instead of 15-20 meters to the sea because they are attracted by the lights of Laganas beach. They spend a lot of their yolk sack, which is supposed to get them out of the bay so they reach ocean currents, they lose that energy just walking on the beach.

    On Laganas beach there is a lot of vehicles, also during the winter and also during the spring, the sand gets so compacted the turtles can't nest, or they might still nest but they might not nest where they really want to. But, they might crawl higher up in the dunes where you might have plant roots that invade the egg chamber and suck up the water off the eggs and obviously the eggs die. These are impacts that are very hard to measure."
A hatchling swims toward an uncertain future. An estimated 20,000 juveniles are caught on longlines annually, while adults are taken in dredge nets and gill nets. Archelon is working with fisherman to raise awareness about the plight of sea turtles. Some fisherman see turtles as competition for fish and kill them deliberately.
Photo : Chris Johnson

According to Kostis violations are taking place everyday and injured or distressed turtles must be flown to the Archlon rehabilitation center in Athens. Signs outlining regulations are knocked over, garbage bins on the beach have disappeared and buoys marking 'no go' zones and speed limits in the bay are removed. Vehicles drive up and down the beach, boats speed in prohibited zones, sun beds and umbrellas are set up in protected areas and cafes and bars creep farther out onto the sand to accommodate more tourists - all illegal activities.

    "These people (locals) have taken advantage of the Marine Parks absence, either to increase sunbeds or umbrellas in order to make easy money during the season."

Judith is unsure what the future holds for the turtles on Laganas beach.

    "All the tourism development was in the 1970's, this whole stretch of Laganas beach was perfect nesting habitat. Now just half of it is protected and when you talk to locals they say it was packed with turtles here. It's hard to judge the numbers but they certainly have gone down. What happens to the turtles that want to nest here? They probably just dump their eggs in the sea, I don't know.

    Once we see the nest numbers are really dropping here, it will be the last call to do something about it."
The National Marine Park of Zakynthos is situated on the southern coast and encompasses Laganas Bay and the adjoining area. The six beaches and four islands receive varying degrees of protection dependant upon the zone - A,B or C. Only the small beach of Sekania is completely off limits to tourists (see red area). The rest of the park is an attempt to protect the environment while balancing local needs and tourist demands.
Photo : Chris Johnson

So there are different beaches with different problems. Only one of the six beaches, Sekania is totally protected and off limits to tourists since the land behind it was bought by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1993. Sekania attracts more than 60% of the nesting turtle population; probably as a result of compounding disturbances on the other beaches whose nesting populations have dropped. Unfortunately the nesting density on Sekania is now so high a lot of turtles are digging up each other's nests and destroying them in the search for space.

Due to the lack of wardens policing the beach, the plight of the sea turtles of Zakynthos are receiving worldwide press this season, but Judith feels there is still hope. There are things we can all do to help from writing to the Greek Government to restore funding to the National Marine Park, to volunteering for a season with Archelon, or as Judith advises even the tourists can help -

    "When they (tourists) book their holiday they should ask critical questions and make sure they book into a hotel that is either not directly on the sea or has lights that are turtle friendly, it's really easy to just exchange the lights. They are a little bit more expensive but they don't have the wavelength that the turtles see. They should book into a hotel where the sewerage is treated properly and the garbage is treated properly. Try to make the locals aware that they (tourists) won't pay for something that is effecting the environment. Sadly I think that's the only way local people will change if they feel they are not making money if they are not turtle friendly or environmentally friendly. I think really it is just making the locals aware that they (tourists) do care about what is going on."

For Kostis and the Archelon team, all they can do is continue their dedicated work.

Sun beds and umbrellas surround one of dozens of sea turtle nests on Gerakas beach. The absence of Marine Park wardens means tourist operators on some beaches are putting out more sun beds than are permitted by law to accommodate more tourists. In addition, tourists are not allowed on most the beaches between 7pm to 7am.
Photo : Chris Johnson

Kostis Grimanis -

    "At the end of the day, all European countries are obliged by law to comply to local legislation and to protect endangered species. Therefore it is the only way forward.

    All we can be now is optimistic, it can't possibly get any worse. I mean we just have to hope for the best and that is what we are here to do."


  • For more information about ARCHELON, go to their website -
  • Join the crew as they spent a night with a nesting Green turtle on the island of Aldabra in the Seychelles.
  • In Sri Lanka, the Odyssey scientist and crew rescued two Olive Ridley sea turtles entangled in disgarded fishing gear - read more.
  • Learn more about the ecology of Sea Turtles from biologist Dr. Jeanne Mortimer -
  • The Odyssey crew rescued a sea turtle that was caught in discarded longline fishing gear in the eastern Pacific Ocean over four years ago.
    Watch the video report - Real Video: > 64k   > 200k
As the Odyssey left Zakynthos, the crew encountered a large, barnacle clad adult male loggerhead sea turtle basking at the surface a few miles outside Laganas Bay possibly waiting to mate with females.
Photo : Chris Johnson

Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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