The clear, warm, shallow waters of Laganas Bay, on the island of Zakynthos, make it one of the most fascinating places to swim in all of Greece. It is among the only remaining habitats of the endangered loggerhead turtle Caretta caretta, and late spring provides a rare opportunity to see hundreds of the animals mating in the warm waters.
In summer, 1,200-2,000 turtles crawl out of the sea to lay their eggs on the soft sand beaches. Sea turtles nest where they were hatched and the Caretta caretta have been returning to Laganas for more than 10,000 years.
Scientists consider Zakynthos the most important endangered turtle habitat in Europe and among the most important in the world. In 2000, Greece created its first ever managed national wildlife park at the center of that habitat, 135 square kilometers in and around Laganas Bay.
The park came out of a 1992 European Commission (EC) directive decreeing that Greece must conserve the Zakynthos nesting grounds. On paper, Laganas Bay, along with a handful of other sites around Greece, was already protected. But in practice, that meant next to nothing. National parks existed, but no one managed them. There was no staff, no budget, no legislation and, in many cases, no mapped boundaries of protected areas, explains Theodota Nantsou of WWF Greece.
Nowhere was that problem more evident than Laganas Bay. In the early 80s, scientists started going there to study the Caretta caretta. At about the same time, the tourist industry discovered the island. By the 1992 decree, much of the so-called protected area had exploded into a beachfront strip of bars, restaurants and hotels where British package-holiday tourists continue to descend en masse.
The EC directive eventually forced Greece to put legislation into action on Zakynthos, and European Union funding ensured that it happened. In 2001, close to e290 million from the EU and around e118 million from the Greek government funded a full-time staff and management program for the new park.
Setting up the first managed national park in Greece was a challenge, and Laganas was rife with complications that would have stumped the most experienced ecologists and legislators.
"Zakynthos is a very special case," says Christos Chrisomalis, an environment ministry advisor who helped set up the park. "These are very specific animals, and there weren't other examples of the best way to protect them. As a marine park, we had to manage both land and sea. That meant more habitats, more species that need protection. Also, most wildlife areas are uninhabited, but this area is thickly populated, with a large local community heavily invested in tourism."
Protecting turtles from the intense tourism development and trying to develop a working relationship with the local community proved tough assignments, says the park's director, Kostas Katselidis.
Last summer, the staff, plus a crew of 38 volunteers, patrolled the turtle-nesting beaches day and night, counting turtle nests, giving out information to tourists, and keeping people away from the most important nesting areas. They stopped hotels and visitors from using beach umbrellas (the poles can plunge into buried nests), prevented access to some beaches at night, and patrolled beachfront bars, restaurants and hotels, making sure they kept the music and lights low.
Many beachfront business owners protest that the park affects their livelihoods. Katselidis says the park is now working with locals, giving talks and slideshows on activities throughout the area and developing eco-tourism enterprises, aimed at bringing in turtle-watchers with minimal environmental impact. The government also expects to prepare compensation offers within the next year.
"We have learned, for next time, that the participation of local authorities is very important," says Katselidis.
But problems or no problems, says WWF's Nantsou, "The point is that it's been set up. It's the first in Greece, and it sets an example for the future." CD