The location and geological formation of the island make Zakynthos one of the most peculiar islands of Greece. The sandy beaches, the central valley sheltered by some small mountains and the larger mountain create their own micro climates. The climatic diversity of the island provides a wide range of ecological conditions suitable for hosting a wide variety of types of flora and fauna.
It is no coincidence that whilst touring Zakynthos its landscape will remind you of both the Aegean aswell as both Northern and Southern Greece.
If you are visiting Zakynthos for just a couple of days or happen to be staying for a longer period of time there is some information you should know about our most important visitor of the summer, our friend the loggerhead turtle Caretta Caretta! It is one of seven species of marine turtles that exist on the planet, lives approximately 80 years and feeds mainly on aquatic plants and invertebrates, its favourite dish being the jellyfish. The Caretta Carretta can be distinguished from other turtles by its large head, it is also the largest hard-shelled turtle in the world with a length of 120cm and weighing over 100 pounds, the outer shell is a reddish-brown with the bottom being yellow and they first made their appearance on earth at least 130 million years ago! The first turtles lived together with the dinosaurs, although the species in its current form dates back about 60 million years.
The Caretta Caretta is extremely emotional as every year she returns to the same beach in which she was born to lay her eggs. Her favourite nesting place in the Mediterranean is the Gulf of Laganas and specifically the beaches Marathonisi, Kalamaki, Sekania Dafni and Gerekas. Marathonisi is uninhabited and any construction here has been banned, there are however organised trips that takes place during the day as it is also forbidden to visit the island after sunset, Sekani however, the most important nesting beach of Caretta Caretta forbids any access and in 1994 the Greek WWF bought 300 acres of land surrounding the beach and allows access only for scientific research. The nesting period begins in late May and lasts until August with the hatchlings making their appearance from late July to late October. Each female lays her eggs three to four times during the evening hours and once she has found the perfect conditions by way of heat and humidity she builds the nest with her rear fins.
The chicks are black, and very vulnerable what with being only 5 cms long and weighing only 17 grams. Once born they all make there way up to the surface of the sand and prepare for their maiden voyage to the sea. They usually prefer the night or early dawn to orient themselves towards the bright horizon. The first trip is the most important of their lives as it helps teach the hatchlings how to fend for themselves, to survive, how to orient themselves and this is how they are able to return some thirty years later in order to give birth and reproduce.
The chicks have to face many predators such as crabs, seagulls and fish. If we add human activity to the list you can understand how difficult it is for them to survive, statistics estimate that in every thousand hatchlings only one will survive....
What is unknown is what happens to the turtles from the moment they are born and leave the beach up until the time when they later return to lay their eggs, this period is known as the ‘lost years’. We know very little about the male turtles as they never leave the sea and so all we know is from information gathered while observing the females.
The sea turtle Caretta Caretta is listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as endangered and the Gulf of Laganas is a very important place for their protection and survival. If you are in Zakynthos you can also help to protect them! During the holiday season on exactly the same beaches that you are enjoying the sun, sea and sand at night turtles nest and lay their eggs.
The National Marine Park
In 1999 the National Marine Park was founded in order to protect the flora and fauna of the island and to ensure the protection of the wildlife, this was necessary due to the Southern coast of Zakynthos being the favorite breeding area of the sea turtle Caretta Caretta. The Western shores are also home to the endangered Mediterranean monk seal Monachus Monachus. The area covered by the Marine Park includes the sea area and islets of Laganas Bay, the nesting beaches of the loggerhead sea turtle including the land area surrounding them, the wetlands of Keri Lake and the Strofades islands which are located some 40 miles South of Zakynthos. The area of the National Marine Park of Zakynthos is characterized by different types of ecosystems of National and European interest, such as dune systems, underwater Posidonia seagrass beds (Posidonia oceanica) and coastal ecosystems. There are hundreds of species of flora and fauna found here.
Μap of the Park
It is forbidden for any boat or vessel to enter or moor within Zone A, fishing with any kind of gear is also prohibited. In Zone B is it forbidden for any boat or vessel to travel at a speed greater than 6 nautical miles per hour, it also prohibited to moor or anchor in this zone, fish farms are banned in both zones. In Zone C mooring is permitted however the maximum speed limit is again 6 nautical miles per hour, so high speed boats are banned from pretty much all of the Gulf of Laganas. Sekania beach is a strictly protected area and entrance here is allowed only for researchers endowed with special permission. Night flights are also banned as the aircraft’s have to pass over the beach of Laganas and the lights and noise of the aircraft’s would disturb the turtles during nesting.
In summary there are six nesting beaches altogether located within the Gulf of Laganas covering a total length of 5.5km, and every year from early May until mid August an average of around 1200 nests are made on these beaches.
If you are over 18 years old, love nature, proficient in English and would like to experience something different during your holidays why not try volunteering. By volunteering in Zakynthos you will indeed experience something unique! Apart from meeting people from all over the world and learning their different cultures and habits you will also acquire knew knowledge and be lucky enough to have access to some magical places that you wouldn’t usually be able to visit. So prepare yourself for, morning observations everyday at dawn where you will protect the nest from external hazards, to transfer those nests made in unsafe places, there is also night observation of the nests and the excavation of nests after the chicks have hatched in order to estimate the number of chicks that ultimately came from the nest. Alongside all of this you will also actively participate in the public campaign to help protect the turtles that of which is done from special kiosks that are located on the popular nesting beaches, in addition to this you will also help guard the nest which are on these beaches, and it doesn’t stop there! Back at the camp you will work with other volunteers to ensure the smooth running, organization, and general collective coexistence. If you have artistic interests such as photography or drawing this is great as here you will have the opportunity to develop them - and all this is available for a small fee. The summer volunteer program for the Caretta Caretta in Zakynthos runs from May up until October with the minimum length of stay being two weeks.
Monachus Monachus Monk Seal
Apart from the loggerhead turtle Caretta Caretta, Zakynthos is also home to another endangered species, that being the monk seal Monachus Monachus. The Monachus Monachus is threatened with extinction in the Mediterranean sea and its only population in the European territory of the European Union is found on the Greek coasts. It is one of the 12 most endangered species in the world, and the most endangered species in Europe. Worldwide there are about 400 seals left with Greece hosting about 50% of the Mediterraneans population, Zakynthos being the permanent home to around 15 seals, those of which have taken up residence in the caves on the west coast of Zakynthos.
The Monachus Monachus took its name from the Catholic monk, this is because the skin on its head and the folds in her neck resemble that of a Catholic monks hood. Its coat is short and glossy, pale brown or dark grey with a more open tone on the abdomen, they can reach a length of up to 3 feet and weigh between 260 and 440 pounds, they live up to approximately 30 years. They have a torpedo-shaped body which enables them to move gracefully and efficiently in the water. Adaptions to life in the marine environment include the transformation of extremities to flippers and the replacement of ear-lobes by small acoustic openings, they also have long whiskers which function as sensory organs. They feed on fish, octopus, molluscs and other seafood. So do not be surprised then if you spot seals on the south-western and western coasts of Zakynthos, another significant concentration is found around the capes of Skinari and Katastari. In the area of the Gulf of Laganas seals appear mostly around the cape of Marathia, Keri and Marathonisi, some years ago the cave of Keri was home to at least one seal.
The ‘Strofades’ consists of two small islands, the smaller of the two is named ‘Arpeia’ and the larger ‘Stamfani’, they are located approximately 20 nautical miles from the southern most point of Zakynthos and 22 nautical miles from the west coast of the Peloponnese and can be visited by boat. The ecological significance is extremely important as it is here that more than 1200 different species of migratory birds arrive exhausted and hungry and to make their nests (especially during the months of March and April), it is for this reason that the islands are protected by the National Marine Park of Zakynthos. Even more so, the presence of large populations of seabirds in conjunction with the sightings of several cetacean species in the region such as blowers, dolphins, bottlenosed dolphins and stripped dolphins have led to a shift in the characterization of the islands as ‘wildlife sanctuaries’ and ‘nature conservation area’ under the N.M.P.Z. It is also an important region of the European network of protected areas Natura 2000. The Strofades are also known as the ‘floating islands’, this is due to the flat landscape and the fact that their height reaches no more than 20 meters above sea level.
The islands were once considered to be one of the most fertile parts of Greece as the gardens once produced enough fruit to meet the needs of all the monks that lived there. Today, apart from the rich natural vegetation that covers the entire island you will also find lemon, orange and fig trees as well as over 250 species of plants and flowers, and a dense forest of cedar trees. The coastline is rocky, there are sandy beaches, and in between the two islands there are reefs. On Stamfani, which has a small port you can visit the monastery dedicated to Panagia Pantohara (Virgin Mary, the joy of everyone). According to tradition the monastery was built in 1241 by the Byzantine princess Empress Irene. It was also here where St.Dionysios, the patron saint of Zakynthos spent some years of his monastic life. If you have the opportunity to visit you will see the empty tomb of St.Dionysios and you can meet the monk who watches over the monastery today.