Just 3 kilometres off Keri Beach, on the Greek Island of Zakynthos, is the tiny uninhabited and completely underdeveloped Marathonisi Island, also known as Turtle Island. This seemingly insignificant “rock” is however, of high significance, providing one of the last remaining breeding grounds of the endangered loggerhead turtles in Zante (scientific name: Caretta Caretta) and in the entire Mediterranean.
Recognising the need to protect these creatures, the Greek Government formed the National Zakynthos Marine Park in 1999, encompassing the entire Laganas Gulf, of which Marathonisi Island forms an integral part. A large section of Laganas Gulf coastline, has been developed, and the noise and lights along the crowded beaches has had a detrimental effect on the turtles’ nest-laying.
Preserving Marathonisi Island has thus, become of utmost importance. Apart from being the home of many turtles, Marathonisi Island is also one of the main tourist attractions in Zakynthos.
I visited it on my way to Mizithres Beach, and I really loved its natural beauty. The island is rocky, but there is a reasonably-sized beach where you can relax for a few hours and enjoy the sun.
1. How to get to Turtle Island, Zakynthos
The only way to get to Turtle Island, Marathonisi is by boat and there several options:
Taxi boat shuttles depart regularly from several beaches in Zakynthos to Turtle Island. The ride takes approximately 15 minutes and costs around €12 – €15 per person.
Join an Organised Tour
For a hassle-free experience, always choose a guided tour. For example, this incredible tour includes stops at Turtle Island, Keri Caves and Cameo Island. The tour starts from Laganas Beach and you can book it here.
Rent a boat (self-driving)
When I visited Marathonisi Island, I chose to rent a boat. You can rent one from Keri Beach for about €80 per 4 hours. You don’t need any licence or certification to rent a small boat. It’s actually pretty easy to drive it.
Apart from Turtle Island, I recommend including two other stops on your itinerary – the breathtaking Keri Caves and one of the most beautiful beaches in Zakynthos – Mizithres Beach.
Rent a boat with a captain.
A three hour round trip, which includes snacks and drinks, will set you back around €200 for five people. Depending on your allotted time, you can visit the main beach of Marathonisi Island which is by far the best place to spot turtles in Zakynthos, and other secluded spots along the Zakynthos dramatic coastline, including the famous Navagio (Shipwreck) Beach, and the ruggedly sensational Blue Caves. An unforgettable experience.
Go on a glass-bottom boat tour
For around €50 per person, this tour does not just drop you off on the beache. Instead, you’ll go out searching for turtles and snorkel alongside them. A truly unique experience.
No matter which option you choose, you have a pretty good chance to spot turtles near Marathonisi Island or anywhere else in the marine park. Just be aware that not all the tour operators provide Eco-friendly tours, so it’s advisable to do a little research before choosing one.
2. What to expect at Marathonisi Island
Measuring roughly 800 x 300 metres in size, Marathonisi Island has a rocky and dramatic shoreline, with only two small but beautiful beaches. One shallow sandy beach and one pebbly beach hidden behind some huge sea caves. There are also two even tinier islands nearby, so small, the locals have named them Pontikonisia (Mouse Islands).
The island is completely covered with dense natural vegetation of olive and pine groves, but is out of bounds to all visitors. There are no facilities whatsoever on the island and there is no shade from the sun. Please take all your provisions for the day with you, and leave only your footprints behind.
But we’re here for the turtles, right?
3. Turtle Island Main Beach
The main beach is a stunning triangular-shaped stretch of fine white sand. It’s one of the best beaches in Zakynthos, together with Porto Limnionas Beach and Mizithres Beach.
The shallow, transparent warm waters, the soft sand, and the remoteness at Marathonisi Island, provide the perfect nesting grounds for the loggerhead turtles in Zakynthos. With no potential predators on the island, the little hatchlings have a far higher rate of survival than at most other nesting spots. Over 1300 nests are laid here every summer just on this beach alone.
You stand an excellent chance of spotting loggerhead turtles on your excursion to this beach. And if you’re extremely lucky, you may even witness the tiny hatchlings popping out of the sand, and taking their first steps towards the water. A unique experience!
It’s not allowed to venture more than a few metres from the beach. There is even a rope marking the boundary. Tourists need to be careful and not step on top of any nest, while on the beach.
Conservation inspectors are often seen patrolling the beach ensuring the rules are adhered to. They often hand out pamphlets in order to educate visitors about the importance of this beach.
Snorkelling around Marathonisi Island is possible, but keep in mind that there are many boats around and it can be dangerous.
4. Turtle Island Secondary Beach
Situated on the opposite side of the island, but only a few minutes away, the secondary beach lies hidden behind the Marathonisi Caves, and below some towering cliffs. This white-pebble beach is perfect for snorkelling all along the high cliffs above it, which make a spectacular backdrop for photographers. But the same can be said for the whole island. It is an absolute gem!
5. Marathonisi Caves
Consisting of a series of caves, arches and rugged rock formations, this section of the island provides some unusual but spectacular snorkelling and scuba diving spots. Here you’ll have the opportunity to spot a turtle or two, foraging on the rocky ledges. Small boats are able to enter these caves, and with the sunlight reflecting off the white walls into the crystal turquoise waters, it makes for an unforgettable experience.
If you’re looking for something a little more exciting, just look up. The cliffs and rock formations jutting straight up from the sea, also make great cliff-jumping platforms, for those with fire in their bellies.
6. Swimming with loggerhead turtles in Zakynthos
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll spot a turtle resting on the beach, as they only come ashore to lay their eggs, after dark and return to the water before dawn. The only place you’ll spot them is in the water during the day. You’re pretty much guaranteed to spot a few swimming around Marathonisi Island or anywhere within the entire Gulf of Laganas. The shallow crystal clear water of this coastline makes things a little easier.
Whether you’re on a boat or just frolicking in the water around Marathonisi Island, Laganas Beach or anywhere else in the gulf, always be on the lookout for turtles, and always carry your goggles and flippers as these creatures often pop up out of nowhere when you least expect them.
Swimming alongside the turtles in Zante is indeed a treat for anybody, but remember to keep your distance and not interfere with the turtles or any other marine creature. Please, don’t touch them!
7. Why is it called Turtle Island?
There can only be two reasons for that. Marathonisi Island is one of the few remaining turtle nesting sites in the Mediterranean. Also, quite coincidentally, the island itself is dome-shaped, resembling a turtle.
8. Interesting facts about the Loggerhead turtle
Although these ancient and prehistoric creatures average around 135 kilograms in weight, they can reach twice that weight. The largest ever recorded loggerhead was a gigantic 450 kg specimen. That’s quite astounding, considering it began its life being less than 5 centimetres long!
Their habitat includes the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as the Mediterranean. They reach reproductive age at between 17 and 33 years, depending on their location, and can live up to 67 years.
These creatures are an absolute miracle of nature. An iron compound in their brains, enables them to perceive the earth’s magnetic field and navigate around the globe. Nature’s own GPS, passed through the genes with an instruction manual provided. Why can’t our kids do that?
9. Why the need to protect the turtles?
The answer is fairly simple. In the past years, the numbers of loggerhead turtles were estimated at several million, but only about 50 000 exist in the world today. Apart from being hunted for their meat and shells, they also have to face other danger. Plastic pollution, overfishing, being accidentally caught in nets, and loss of nesting habitat, are the main causes for their declining numbers.
In 1978 they were listed as an endangered species, meaning they were in danger of becoming extinct. Since then, many governments started providing funding and passed legislation to protect these slow-growing and low-reproducing creatures. These measures have certainly arrested their decline and numbers are currently on the rise.
They are however, still regarded as endangered species. By declaring the area as protected, the government ensured they have safe places to lay their eggs, a deciding factor for the protection of these fascinating creatures.
However, during the summer months, which just so happens to be the nesting season, the beach tends to become rather crowded. Perhaps some regulations limiting or managing the numbers of tourist boats, might be a good move forward.
10. The best month to see turtles in Zante
Luckily, there are a few months when you can see the loggerhead turtles in Zakynthos. The best months are between May and October and these are also the best months to plan a trip to Greece.
I recommend visiting Greece in June or early October. The temperatures are bearable, the prices are lower, and there are fewer tourists. You’ll have the most beautiful spots on the island all to yourself!
11. Where to stay in Zakynthos
Zakynthos is a relatively big island, but if you’re looking for a place to stay in an area with good infrastructure, I recommend the southern part of the island. Below are a few incredible accommodation options, for those looking for a good-value-for-money stay.
- Budget – Aggeliki Studios – beautiful rooms in good location, beautiful garden, amazing hosts, good amenities
- Mid-Range – Alterego Studios – awesome location, clean and spacious rooms, beautiful pool, close to many restaurants and shops
- Luxury – Zante Maris Suites – beautiful views and infinity pool, excellent restaurant on site, luxurious and spacious rooms, friendly staff
Without doubt, Marathonisi or Turtle Island, Zakynthos, is one of the best spots in Europe for snorkelers, where you’re most likely to encounter loggerhead turtles in the wild. The best time to see them is between May and October, which is also the best time to visit the island of Zakynthos, and for that matter, the whole of Greece itself.
Although Zakynthos Island is an absolute gem of the Ionian Sea, with endless beaches, secluded coves, spectacular scenery, vibrant night life, bursting with the warm Greek hospitality, the turtles of Zakynthos provide an extra reason to visit this stunningly beautiful part of the world.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask me in the comments section below. May the travel bug bite you!