On our recent trip to the Greek island of Zakynthos or Zante we took a boat trip through Laganas bay, famed as a nesting area for the Loggerhead or Caretta Caretta turtles. Sadly we didn’t spot any turtles on this trip but we did have a great day out sunbathing, swimming and snorkelling around the little coves and sea caves along the coast.
We started at Porto Roma where there is a hotel and terrace overlooking the small harbour and beach. The catamaran was waiting for us moored off-shore and we were ferried from the jetty by a tiny rubber boat that you could just squeeze four people into. “Don’t worry – it’s very safe” quipped the skipper as I clung on to my rucksack with all my camera equipment inside – “we call it the Titanic!”. It didn’t bode well when the rung of the ladder on the side of the boat collapsed as my husband climbed aboard. With 20 people I wondered how we would all fit on to the catamaran, but soon everyone had arranged themselves around the front of the boat, on benches along the side and under cover at the back. I liked the fact that the boat had a cabin and a shady area where you could get out of the sun, unlike some of the completely open boats we saw going out into the bay with no room to move around or any shade.
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On the way out Yannis Vardakastanis, whose company Nature World Travel had organised the trip, talked to everyone about his work with the sea turtles and the Earth Sea and Sky volunteer and information programme he runs to conserve their habitat. Unfortunately the numbers are dropping every year due increasing tourism and development on the turtle nesting sites. Laganas bay has a wide sandy beach that was perfect for turtle nesting with warm, shallow water for turtles to soak up the sun and develop their eggs. Now the large beach is less used by the nesting turtles as half of it is built up with apartments and hotels and the other half has a busy airport runway behind it. The turtles have been forced to move their nesting sites to other smaller beaches like Dafni and Gerkas, but even these beaches are under threat from development due to tourism.
We powered along past the cliffs and rounded the Gerakas headland with the protected turtle nesting beach, where no development is allowed and into the wide sweep of Laganas bay. We crossed the mouth of the bay, past two islands that even looked like turtles – the second one called Pelouzo has a small beach that is a protected nesting site for the loggerhead turtles. We passed around the furthest end of the bay and round Keri point where there’s a lighthouse. I’d been here before to see the view from the cliff over the sea, but this time we were looking up at the tall limestone cliffs and into a semicircle of cave with a small beach inside. The water is intensely turquoise and we jumped off the boat and snorkelled around to see the small shoals of fish darting through the water. As we swam into the cave over large round white stones, another small boat, rented from Laganas or the harbour at Keri bobbed up and down, keeping us company.
After everyone had swum around the catamaran and jumped in as many times as they like, we moved back the way we had come past sea arches and small caves that are perfect for a small boat to explore. We stopped again by the sea caves on the Pelouzo island, but Yannis explained that we would not stop on the beach there as it was protected for turtle nests, even though we saw other boats ignoring the ban and landing. It seems that the Government funded National Marine Park is overstretched and does not have the resources to stop local businessmen pushing the boundaries to make a living.
Last year Yannis and his volunteers counted 800 turtle nests, a decline from the 1000 they counted the previous year and the 1300 of a few years before. As each female turtle may make 2 or 3 nests in different locations, Yannis estimates that there may only be 250-300 female turtles coming to nest in the area now. The statistics didn’t bode well for the turtles – only one in 1000 hatchlings will survive and then will take 25 years to reach maturity before returning to lay eggs on Zante. With estimated numbers dropping so low, it’s no wonder that Yannis feels that every turtles is precious and is angry when he finds turtles that have been injured or even killed in fishermen’s nets or by boat propellers.
I jumped off the boat with my family and enjoyed swimming into the sea caves, although the caves on Pelouzo island were wild and less inviting. Then once again we returned to the boat and the catamaran turned into the bay, moving slowly through the waters, hoping to spot some turtles. There were several other boats around and as on other safaris and whale watching trips I’ve been on, they are in radio contact with each other if they spot any turtles. Although we kept a sharp look-out, we didn’t see any, although on most trips they do spot one or two. Yannis doesn’t guarantee a turtle spotting on his trips, preferring to make the whole day an enjoyable experience with the emphasis on the scenery and the swimming. However, many boats offering shorter trips from Laganas do offer a money back guarantee to see a turtle, which encourages the boats to harass the turtles and pen them in so that people can get a good view.
I would have loved to see some turtles, but was a great day out regardless and I prefer to support the sustainable approach to tourism that Yannis advocates. We returned back to Porto Roma by 4pm feeling relaxed and sun soaked but thankfully not burned. Although these trips are an expensive treat for a family at €50 per adult and €25 for children, I think it’s worth doing something like this once on your holiday, especially if you can be sure that the organisers are taking a responsible approach to conservation. You can book the catamaran tour we took through Nature World Travel in advance – contact details on their website, but be prepared to be flexible on the day, as sometimes trips are postponed when the weather is windy and the seas rough. Shorter trips also run from Laganas, but you should try to book with a responsible operator that respects the rules of the National Marine Park, and doesn’t harass the turtles or venture into prohibited areas of the bay.
Disclosure: Yannis kindly gave me a free place on the boat trip although I paid for my family.
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