In the afternoon of July 20th we arrived in Ormos Keri, the only permitted anchorage in Laganas Bay*. Normally it would be packed with boats of all sizes and finding mooring would be a challenge but this year is special. Less than 10 yachts, widely spaced make our life easy. As we prepare to drop our anchor a turtle surfaces 20 meters away and stays relaxing on the surface preparing for its next dive. That’s why we are here for. Caretta caretta turtles.
She didn’t seem to be disturbed by us dropping our anchor or even a couple of rental speedboats that passed by. That was a surprise as every turtle we have spotted in other places when they hear an engine close by they tend to disappear quickly. But this is only normal for turtles. When they're in the area where they lay their eggs they slow down. They need to slow down all their responses to save every bit of energy they can in order to come to shore to lay their eggs. Scrambling on the beach and digging the nest is a labour intensive and long struggle.
Anyhow, as soon as the anchor has set we took our masks and snorkels and dove in to have a look if we can find her. No luck this time but for the next day we are planning to visit Marathonisi, an island close by that is famous for its turtle nesting beach and, its spectacular caves and off course swimming with sea turtles.
So early the next morning we start preparing all the necessary stuff (cameras, masks, snorkels, ball, water, 6 kilos of water melon, nectarines, bananas, sandwiches, umbrella, sun block, beach towels, second swim suits, rubbish bag, should we take jumpers in case we get cold later? please guys and girls we are not moving for ever… and the list goes on…) and finally around 11.00… just like we are waiting for the wind to pick up… we are ready loaded on our 3m dinghy. 15 minutes later we arrive in Marathonisi. 10-15 rental speed boats are moored on the beach and about 20 more come and go around the island. A couple of larger charter motor yachts are moored near the caves and 3-4 half empty (or half full) daily cruisers pass by on sightseeing tours. After a quick swim stop in a tiny inlet with turquoise waters between vertical cliffs we head off. As we are approaching the caves, while we are debating where we will cut the watermelon, the crew of a floating canteen between speedboats starts shouting “turtle turtle” and points out to the sea near our dinghy. We spot its dark shape underwater near us and… alert! Masks, snorkels and the camera are dug out from under all the stuff and we are in the water… Venetia stays on board and with the paddles keeps the dinghy near us as many speedboats approach looking for the turtle. Underwater the sound of the engines close by makes me worry but the turtle, once again, seems oblivious of the noise and crowd. She is eating on something from the rocks and we approach her keeping a little distance. We notice that she is a relatively small female (about 50-60 cm long carapace and short tail). The depth is only 3-4 meters and the children can easily reach her to have a closer look. I hold on to a rock a few meters away from the turtle and after she finishes munching on the sponges she approaches me. She takes a close look at the camera and when I start to wonder if she will taste it she spots more sponges on the rock I am holding. She is less than half a meter away and I can hear here taking bites from the sponges.Wow!!!
I head back to the surface to take a breath. One of the sponges is stuck on the rock and she wiggles her head to free it. The kids ask me what she is eating and when they hear that it's sponges they are surprised!!! "Sponges? That's weird!!! She likes the taste of sponges? - They have a very wide diet and also eat corals, barnacles, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, sand dollars, and many other marine organisms.- Sea cucumbers? That's disgusting!!! Come on dad!!!" And they both dive away. After a few more dives we leave her and head to the caves a few meters away.
We were so amazed that we were swimming so close this ancient animal that after the first couple of dives we hardly noticed the 10-15 speedboats and the floating canteen going around.
The turtles on the other hand do notice the boats. More precisely they hear them. The Marine Park scientists just finished a project regarding just this. They submerged hydrophones during August (full season) and found out that during this period in Marathonisi the underwater noise is 10 to 20 decibels louder than what turtles respond to. They had noticed that during the last few years the number of nests on Marathonisi have been decreasing and the turtles instead choose the neighbouring beaches to lay their eggs.
So what is the problem with that you are going to say? Well, Marathonisi is one of the few beaches all over the Mediterranean that most of the turtle nests produce male turtles. So since the loggerhead turtle population is anyway female dominated losing males is a big deal.
So how do you deal with this problem? The management body of the national park has the difficult job of trying to balance the presence and effects the thousands of visitors have on the turtle population. Trying to keep the visitors, the businesses and the turtles happy and healthy, in Greece that is struck by crisis for over a decade, is a tricky job that requires support from all of us.
*Laganas Bay is part of The National Marine Park of Zakynthos (N.M.P.Z.) along with Marathonisi, Pelouzo and the adjacent Strofadia. This area is protected as consists one of the most important breeding grounds of the loggerhaed sea turtle Caretta caretta in the Mediterranean. The area is also characterized by the presence of the endangered monk seal Monachus monachus, the rich migrant avifauna and endemic flora, as well as the habitats of European and Mediterranean interest like sand dunes and halophile vegetation systems and meadows of the sea grass Posidonia oceanica.
* We want to thank the scientist of the Marine park Harris Dimitriadis for sharing and explaining all the information regarding the situation in the National park.