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Zakynthos (Greece) Seaturtles

Erin Mc Closkey, Canada

Story photo

Walking down the main drag of this popular strip I pass fish and chip shops, pubs offering the finest stout and lager in the area, restaurants with their green chalkboards out front advertising mince and tatties, kippers and eggs, and—oh what’s that? There is one restaurant advertising a special greek night on Wednesdays. Any guess as to where I am? A street in London? Edinburough? …. Actually I am in a small town on a small island in Greece called Zakynthos. It is a tourist town that caters to British package holidays. What am I doing here? Helping a small conservation group save sea turtles.

Zakynthos is one of the small north-westerly islands in Greece. It is a lovely island in Greece with the beautiful blue sea that inspires the colour of the blue window shades of the little white houses scattered on hillsides and cliffs. The resident population through the winter is approximately 2000 people, which explodes to 200,000 in the summer. The economy here is largely based on the tourism. The most accessible beaches are shoulder-to-shoulder beach umbrellas and the gentle slope of the coastline allows people to wade out into the clear water for hundreds of meters. It is this same gentle coast that makes an easy assent for nesting sea turtles to climb ashore to lay their eggs.

The location of these beaches mark the most critically important nesting sites for sea turtles such as the loggerheads, greens, and ridleys. Sea turtles are internationally endangered species. They are threatened by many natural natural threats such as disease and predation, at sea or at nesting sites by both animals and humans, and natural events and accidents. But, the man-induced factors make a lengthier list. At sea they face subsistence and commercial exploitation, they get accidentally drowned or strangled in fishing nets, they are killed by water pollution or the blades or shear impact of boats. Then, if they survive to breeding age, critical nesting beaches may be unsuitable either for laying eggs or for hatchling success. Beaches are under constant threat and impact from numerous causes. The most obvious are development, pollution and litter, but noise and illumination make a beach unsuitable, and if these factors are not involved, nesting may still prove impossible owing to sand compaction and beach obstacles. Sea turtles stay out at sea for up to 30 years before they are of breeding age and, amazingly, after so many years they instinctively return to the location from which they themselves were hatched to lay their own nests. This ritual on Zakynthos has been going on for hundreds of years. However, things have changed here in barely a couple of decades. In these past years the turtles have been arriving to beaches covered in sun chairs, beach umbrellas and street lights backed by bustling beachside hotels spewing tourists onto the beach all day and late into the moonlit strollable nights. When a sea turtle reaches a beach in the night and sees lights, it often retreats confused or startled. If it does venture onto the beach to attempt to lay in the conspicuous lighting, it may bump into chairs or have people approach it. Again, it will make a hasty retreat. It may try for more than one night but shortly will release its eggs into the water where they will never hatch.

In recent years the beaches here have had restrictions put in place to remove all beach furniture and prohibit people from walking the shoreline between dusk and dawn. Most local hotel and beach owners and other local residents have appreciated this enforcement. The tourists generally willingly comply having only to be educated on the situation. However there is no legal policing and the enforcement has to come as a kind request and a nightlong vigil by volunteers of the conservation organisation.

On this island the group is Archelon who also run projects on the mainland and Crete (where the volunteer camp is in a beautiful olive grove) as well as a rehabilitation centre in Athens. There is no funding allotted from the government of Greece or the European Union. The revenues come entirely from the volunteers’ base. Volunteers pay a minimal fee to cover expenses and contribute to project costs and then further contribute their time and manpower. Duties include the night patrol keeping people from entering the nesting area, being the first to walk the beach at 5:30 AM to ensure all hatchlings have made it to the water and to collect data on which nests hatched

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