If you are interested in the Caretta Caretta Turtles on the Greek island of Zakynthos (Zante) and want to travel with a small footprint, you’ll enjoy my interview with Yannis Vardakastanis from the Earth Sea and Sky centre on Zakynthos.
On my holidays to the Greek island of Zakynthos, I’ve often visited the Turtle information centre at Gerakas beach, run by Earth Sea and Sky organisation, dedicated to preserving wildlife in the Ionian Islands. Yannis Vardakastanis who runs the centre, has won several conservation awards for his work to preserve the Caretta Caretta, or Loggerhead Turtles that nest on the beach near where he grew up. Here’s my interview with Yannis which will interest all of you committed to travelling in harmony with the natural environment.
Yannis, your family’s from this part of Zakynthos, so what got first got you interested in the turtles?
The thing that got me interested in the turtles was the richness of wildlife you see around you. It’s so important for us to save them, and preserve them for the next generation. The sea turtles have been here for thousands of years using the beaches of Zakynthos at Gerakas. I grew up here, and my family comes from this area of the island, so my first steps of life were down on Gerakas beach and I grew up playing with the turtles and swimming with them. In those days it was just me and my family and sometimes I found myself in the middle of the summer in July and August on my own with the turtles.
Since tourists started visiting the island in the early 1980s when the first charter flights came to the island, I saw a lot of people visiting the beach and slowly, slowly the numbers grew, and I recognised that there would be a problem in the future. So in the early 90s I made a decision to get away from the beach. I used to run the the beach bar, the sunbeds, umbrellas and pedalos and I started to feel that I was part of the problem and I didn’t want that, because this is my home, this is where I learned to walk my first steps.
So now you have the Earth Sea and Sky Wildlife centre at Gerakas, tell us about the work you’re doing there?
I started Earth Sea and Sky around ten years ago, but my work here started long before, trying to inform visitors coming here how to protect this areas, especially the turtles, the beach, the birds, the reptiles, and all the creatures of the area. Also the very important issues such as climate change, the local resorts, the bush fires. I want to educate the visitors that come to this area, to be careful how they spend their holidays in this area but also to get the right message to take back home and do the same thing back where they come from. So we try to promote tourism but in the right way.
What would you say the main threats are to the turtle population here?
The loggerhead sea turtles live in the Meditterranean and they don’t move out of it. The only predators the sea turtles have in this part of the world are humans, and the threat from human activities. The turtle’s survival is the human’s responsibility. We try to educate people to respect the turtles – if we don’t care about the turtles nesting sites or we use the speed boats here, then we are the biggest threat to the turtles – we should recognise that soon we may cause their extinction.
So if people want to come and see the turtles on Zakynthos, but they want to do it in a responsible way, what advice would you give them?
If you go on a boat trip to see the turtles, you should make sure the boat is friendly to the environment, that it doesn’t pollute the water and doesn’t allow visitors on the boat to throw litter into the sea. You should make sure the sewage system is working and that they don’t throw their sewage in the sea, because it can enter the turtles’ stomachs. They must respect the laws of the marine park. The laws are very clear – they must not be closer than 10m to the turtle, they have to slow down and not drive fast around them, and not chase them. Any turtles in distress should be left alone – this is the best way to discover the turtles by boat.
You also have volunteers who come and work with you, on these conservation projects, so how can people get involved in that?
They can contact me by e-mail via my website, Earthseasky.org, or Nature World Travel and we can organise for them to come out here, to join us and work with us to preserve the marine life on Zakynthos and also the other wildlife – like birds and the reptiles and insects. In ecology everything is connected to each other,so we have to protect them all to give a chance to these beautiful creatures.
Do you have any more projects in the pipeline?
I already started some activity holidays, with conservation work where you go out into the environment, and see wildlife, at the same time you help protect them, and preserve them – we clean the beaches and do any work that needs to be done to make sure these creatures have the right environment for survival
How do you enjoy working with the visitors who come to Zakynthos?
I really enjoy working with the visitors who come here, especially those who give us great help – not only help with their hands but also in creating an economy to support this beautiful area. They help to preserve the culture of the area, to keep the Greek families happy, bringing benefit on both sides, for humans and wildlife, especially the turtles.
You can find out more about the work to conserve the turtles and other wildlife on Zakynthos, and opportunities to join the conservation volunteer programme on the Earth Sea and Sky Website. If you’re visiting Zakynthos, you can join eco-friendly excursions and boat trips to see the turtle, through Yannis’ eco-tourism company, Nature World Travel, and if you’d like an eco-friendly place to stay at Gerakas, check out the Ionian Eco Villagers website for traditional stone built villas and apartments to rent.
Turtle photos by Rob Wallace