Alonnisos National Marine Park

fishAlonnisos National Marine Park is the largest of its kind in Europe, covering some 2 260 km2. It consists of the island of Alonnisos, six smaller islands (Peristera, Kyra Panagia, Gioura, Psathura, Piperi (so called because its shape is like a pepper) and Skantzoura as well as a further twenty two rocky islets.

The park was created in 1992 to protect the breeding grounds of the critically endangered European Monk Seal (Monachus monachus) with 70% of the European population being found in Greek waters. Of course, other animals are completely unaware that they “don’t count” and take advantage of this pristine environment. Dolphins are regularly seen and we have occasionally seen turtles here too.

European Monk Seal

Endangered Mediterranean monk seal swimmingWith its huge baby eyes, the Europaen Monk Seal is the ultimate Cute Creature but it is not just a pretty face. Extremely sensitive to human disturbance – some say “monastic” in its desire for solitude (hence the name “Monk Seal”) –  it was once widespread along the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, but it is now seriously under threat with possibly only 400-500 individuals still surviving – of which around 50 live in the Alonnisos National Marine Park. We are talking seriously rare here. For this reason, the central core of the National Marine Park is a No Go Zone, to ensure that these creatures get the maximum possible protection. So will you see one? The honest answer is, “probably not”, although they do pop up in all sorts of surprising places – even occasionally on popular tourist beaches.

Habitats

The marine and coastal environments are important for the survival of the seals. There are huge underwater meadows of sea grass which grows in abundance in the clear waters and provides important niche habitats. The numerous uninhabited islets with their rocky coastlines and marine caves are ideal breading grounds for the seals.  This combined with Greece’s long coastline and comparatively low population together with the extremely low levels of pollution, particulary compared with other marine environments in the Mediterranean, makes the Greek marine environment a particularly important habitat.

strawberry treeOn land, the park is dominated by coniferous forest, mainly of pine, and maquis –  Mediterranean dry sub forest – with wild olive; strawberry tree and tree heather.  Some of the out-lying islands are home to an indigenous wild goat.

Protection and legislation

rainbow_wratheThe first decade or so of the park’s existence, its success was limited, due at least in part, to the park’s huge extent and difficulties in policing. But gradually over time, public attitudes to the environment, over-fishing and in particular to the seals have changed. Whereas when the park was founded, fishermen were seen as a serious threat to the seals, today they are themselves active in promoting their conservation. Strict fishing restrictions within the core of the park have lead to a recovery of fish stocks, which benefits not only the environment but the local population too. MOm, a Greek NGO dedicated to the study and conservation of the seals has been successful in increasing public awareness about the plight of the seals, and in rescuing injured animals and returning them to the wild

Alonnisos National Marine Park -Threats and warnings for the future

Such a small population of seals remains vulnerable, not only to accidents and deliberate killing but also to illness – an outbreak of distemper such as that which affected North Sea seals a decade ago could wipe out the seals here to the point of extinction. Pollution is also, obviously, an ever-present worry and there are calls to have international commercial shipMediterranean Monk Sealping lanes diverted so as better to protect the most sensitive habitats of the region. Long term, it seems likely that sea level rise due to climate change could threaten the sea caves which provide the seals with safe breeding areas.

 

Eleonora's Falconeleonora squalking

I want to bring a personal touch to this piece. Whilst you will be lucky to see a monk seal in Alonnisos National Marine Park, I think I can safely guarantee you a sighting of Eleonora's Falcon. This beautiful bird of prey nests on the cliffs all round Alonnisos and we usually see one within half an hour of entering the park.eleonora's falcon

"Look!" I say, "Eleanora's Falcon!"

and get....... well a flicker of interest would be a bonus. Most people do not even look skywards.

eleonora's falcon free fall2So let me tell you about them now when you are not thinking about seals, or dolphins or a swim or what's going to be for lunch (Eleonora's Falcon, incidentally, likes dragonflies for lunch).

Slim, delicate, elegant. Acrobatic and playful in flight (we often see them in groups larking around), gliding over the waves or soaring effortlessly over the clifftops, and yes, endangered, although happily not critically.

And now let me tell you that 70% of the world (yes, that's the world not the European) population of Eleonora's Falcons lives here in Greece. You are seriously unlikely ever to see one again.

So when I say, "Look! Eleanora's Falcon," please look up.

eleonora's falcon cliffs

Fish

The first fish you're likely to see - that is before you've got into the water yourself - are the tuna. We see them jumping almost every time we sail. Occasionally we see swordfish jumping as well, which is very special.Tuna jumping

When you go for a swim, the first fish you'll immediately notice are the damsel fish - known a "kalogries" or "little nuns" in Greek because they look like nuns dressed all in black - particularly when they're silhouetted against the light. But there the resemblance stops because they are intensely nosy will come and smell your toes, to find out just what you're doing there (a practice which is uncommon amongst nuns).kalogries

Some of the strangest fish we see are needlefish (and no they don't grow into swordfish when they grow up!) Rarely in large shoals, they generally appear in groups of five or so individuals.Needlefish in Alonissos National Marine Park, SporadesA short distance away from the shore, wherever there is a sandy seabed you will see (or probably not see, unless you are actually looking out for them ) various flatfish lying perfectly camouflaged against the sandy bottom. Some of them throw sand over themselves just to create a bit of extra confusion - as if it were really necessary. This one is a flounder.flounder snorkelling sailing holiday Greece

A personal favourite is the rather strange and very aptly named Featherduster Worm. Found in shallow water throughout Greece, these strange creatures build themselves calcareous tubular shells - that look like the stalk of a plant, or handle of a feather duster - hence the name. featherduster worm

The head of the duster is both breathing gills and feeding apparatus (the head of the worm stays hidden and protected inside the tube) and it collects both mineral materials for building and repairing the tube and organic matter for feeding the worm. If disturbed the whole thing retracts abruptly into the tube leaving an apparently lifeless stalk.

 

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