If, like me, you’re the sort of person who likes bird-watching in Lesvos, walking in Madeira, soaking up the sun on a beach in Corfu or taking scenic drives on Kefalonia, then it’s safe to say that Zakynthos needs you. Recent holidaying trends have meant there’s been a decrease in people like us holidaying on the beautiful Ionian island of Zakynthos – and an increase in younger people looking for a ‘club 18-30’ style holiday. As a result, the wildlife on the island is suffering and one thing which would help is a resurgence of eco-tourism on the island.
What does the island have to offer?
Loggerhead turtles, Mediterranean Monk seals, migrant birds, rare plant species such as the Sea Daffodil, butterflies, olive groves, pine forests, mountain views and beautiful beaches are all on offer on Zakynthos. Thanks to the hard work of the charity Earth, Sea and Sky and volunteers of ARCHELON Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece, there are still some successful Loggerhead turtle nesting sites on Zakynthos. However, nesting beaches are constantly under threat from encroaching tourism – but by being a considerate tourist – or helping out as a volunteer, you can do your bit towards preserving this endangered species.
For me, the holiday highlight has to be helping to rescue turtle hatchlings from a blocked nest. Without the help of Earth, Sea & Sky staff and volunteers, none of the hatchlings in the nest would have survived but, by monitoring the nests and knowing when there’s a problem (such as a blockage), team members are able to excavate the nests (sticking to strict guidelines). So, early one morning, we watched the excavation of a nest. There were 50 dead hatchlings and their bodies were stopping their siblings from being able to scramble out of the nest. With a little help – from surgically gloved hands – we were able to ensure that 20 to 30 of the strongest hatchlings made their epic journey from nest to sea. It was one of those life-affirming moments that stay with you forever and a memory which ‘makes’ a holiday.
What volunteering opportunities are there?
•Earth, Sea and Sky takes on volunteers each year. Activities on offer include: · The opportunity to gain experience combining tourism and conservation issues.
•Habitat and population assessment of the Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) and the very shy and extremely endangered Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus) – and the thrill of seeing sea turtles and hatchlings in their natural environment.
•Bird species population assessment – early mornings and evenings – involves bird watching to spot many of the rare migrating birds; identification, and documenting numbers of each species.
•Forest and beach walks for wildflower identification and habitat analysis. · Regular forest and beach cleans.
•Public awareness-raising – acquainting tourists with the conservation work, providing information on the many unique species of flora and fauna of the Ionian, how they can contribute to protection efforts, and selling merchandise to raise funds for the project.
•Experiencing Greek culture first hand on a beautifully verdant, picturesque island, and picking up some of the language.
•Taking a great first step towards your career in practical conservation or simply making a lasting one-off contribution to the preservation of endangered species.
•Island surveys, beach and forest walks, to assess damage on wildlife habitats such as dunes and forests from pollution, hunting, tourism, etc.
•Olive picking – the quintessential Zakynthian experience!
Places to see
Volunteering opportunities with Earth, Sea & Sky are based around Gerakas on the South Eastern tip of the island. It is arguably the most beautiful area on the island. Nearby Daphni beach is well-worth a visit: this is another turtle nesting beach so, you need to make sure you’re off the beach by sunset. Keri Lake is also a scenic spot, although, confusingly, there is no longer a lake there. There is, however, a pretty pebble beach where you can take shade under the trees. There are a few tavernas and two scuba diving centres.
Not far from Keri is the beautiful pebble beach of Marathias: off the beaten track and well-worth the walk down. The island also boasts one of the most photographed beaches in Greece – the Shipwreck beach – but be warned, there is usually a long queue out onto the viewing platform where you can photograph it. If you want to venture further afield on the island, then Agios Nickolaos on the North Eastern tip of the island offers a pretty traditional harbour and small beach. Further afield still, is the neighbouring island of Kefalonia, which you can visit by ferry.
Places to avoid
In a word – ‘Laganas’. This former lagoon full of flamingos is now a busy, ‘lively’ resort for those seeking a bustling nightlife and is not a place for the eco-tourist.
Where to stay
There is a range of accommodation on the island, including two Eco-villages owned by the Director of Earth, Sea & Sky, one of which is based in Gerakas, close to the charity’s headquarters. The accommodation ranges from apartments to luxury villas all set in olive groves and gardens in a quiet, secluded area. Profit from the accommodation goes into running the turtle conservation project – what could be more conservation-friendly than that? There is also shared accommodation available for people wishing to become Earth, Sea & Sky volunteers.
Earth, Sea & Sky: www.earthseasky.org