South Along the Ionian – Zakynthos of the Sea Turtles

South Along the Ionian – Zakynthos of the Sea Turtles

Last time we got to know the island of Ithaca, home of Odysseus. In mid-July, we continued further south. We anchored in a little cove on the southeastern side of Kefalonia. Two goats, a mother and a kid, provided our evening entertainment. They effortlessly jumped from rock to rock along the seaside. In the morning we continued towards Zakynthos.

Ge…
…ronimo!

We anchored in the Laganá Bay on July the 13th. This large bay stretches the whole width of the southern end of Zakynthos. It’s a great marine conservation park, with the largest population of loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) in the Mediterranean. Two peninsulas shelter the bay: Keri to the west, and Vasilikos to the east. Near Keri lies a small island, Marathonísi, known as Turtle Island because of its turtle shape. Perhaps the turtles use the island as a means of navigation, to help them find their way to Zakinthos.

The Caretta sea turtles always come back to nest on the very same beach where they were born – after many years, as they reach maturity at the age of 16-28. Their busiest nesting period is in June-July. The females come on land at night and dig a nest in the dry sand. They lay over a hundred eggs, and cover them with sand. The baby turtles hatch about 50 days later and find their way to the sea at night also. They are guided by the moonlight reflecting on the water, and that’s why they can easily be confused by lights on the seaside and lose their way. In 2020, a record number of 1800 turtle nests were counted on the beaches of Zakynthos. Only one out of a thousand hatchlings will survive into adulthood.

I photographed these turtles last year in the fishing harbour of Messolonghi. Who knows, maybe they too were born on Zakynthos!

The turtle nests in the area are protected and marked with sticks, so they don’t get trampled on. The most popular nesting areas, such as Marathonísi island, are restricted from people, leaving only a narrow strip of beach for sunbathers and swimmers. Floating ice cream and soda stands come to the beach every morning, and in the evening they leave. Nighttime is reserved for the turtles only.

Below, Turtle island. Click the images to see bigger pictures.

There are strict rules for boating and anchoring in the marine park, but they don’t seem to be very strongly enforced. To us, the day tourist mayhem seemed pretty wild at times. The villages around the bay sell turtle watching tours, some claiming to be eco, others not. Many of the boats chase turtles, and the glass bottom boats that abound, actually ride over them and force them to dive, so their passengers can admire them through the glass. What a nuisance it must be to the turtles, exhausted from their breeding business.

A cluster of tourist boats chasing one poor turtle around the harbour

We saw a lot of nests on the beaches, but only a couple of the turtles themselves – from our anchorage, far away. We rode our dinghy to Marathonísi island, full of exciting caves and steep, rocky shores. We went over to see the small island of Agios Sostis, or Cameo island, with strips of canvas hanging over a secluded, horseshoe-shaped beach. There’s a fancy cocktail bar, a popular place for luxurious beach weddings and stag parties.

We had been hanging around the anchorage in Zakynthos for a few days when our boating buddies from last summer came and anchored next to us. They had sailed their boat from Preveza, and how jolly it was to speak our own language with Finnish friends again! We had rented a car, and once the essential visits to Lidl and other supermarkets had been made, the whole gang set out on a tourist trip around the island.

Navágio beach, with the shipwreck on the left

The most popular sight in Zakynthos is probably the Navágio Beach, where a freight ship was wrecked in 1980. The ship called Panagiotis was smuggling cigarettes, and little did the captain know that it would end up one of the most photographed sights in Greece. People stand in a long queue so they can get to see it from a small platform on a hill above. Well, this is a tourist trap we would not recommend to anyone, but by the time we had stood in the queue for a while, it was too late to change our minds. So, we waited and got our one minute on the platform, and we took our photo – the same picture that is printed on every postcard sent from Zakynthos. I felt sorry for the young woman a little ahead of us who fainted in the heat just as it was her turn to step on the platform.

The boat trips to the beach didn’t strike as exciting, either. The beach was just swarming with tourists and day boats. Of course, we could have visited the bay on our own boat, but it seemed like a very tight, busy anchorage.

Near the Navágio beach, there’s an old monastery of St. George Kremnon. We stopped there for some fresh fruit and beautiful views over the blue sea.

The central plateau of Zakynthos, airport to the right

The tour then continued south, along the large central plateau and olive groves. We drove past our anchorage to the Keri peninsula, where we enjoyed coffee and ice cream on the terraces of a beautiful lighthouse restaurant. We all seemed to agree that the views from up here were much better than the shipwreck beach.

The day ended with a sunset dinner in a mountain village, where big spits of meat were cooked over an open fire. This meal, in the best of company, was the highlight of our adventure on Zakynthos.

Next, our journey continues south – this time to the Peloponnese! You’ll soon hear more.

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