Vatika Bay Hope Spot: Submerged Ancient Grecian City Abuts Marine Abundance

Vatika Bay and the Myrtoon Sea in Greece may boast clear blue waters, white sandy beaches and iconic mountainous ridges, but what makes the Hope Spot truly special is intersection of nature and culture. Iconic species including whales and dolphins, loggerhead turtles, monk seals, and fan clams swim near a spectacular underwater archeological site called Pavlopetri. Located in the western part of Vatika Bay, Pavlopetri thrived in 3,500 BCE which makes it about 5,000 years old and one of the oldest submerged lost cities in the world! The Early Bronze Age port city is found under two to three meters of water, making it easily accessible to snorkelers. However, due to large commercial oil tankers and cargo ships anchoring in Vatika Bay and polluting its waters, Pavlopetri has been identified as a cultural heritage site as risk on UNESCO’s 2016 World Monuments Watch Site. Shipowners, who are granted enormous authority in Greece benefit from a free anchorage while everyday citizens depending on a sustainable coastal tourism economy struggle for their livelihoods.

In July 2016, the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute proposed Vatika Bay and part of the Myrtoon Sea be designated as a Natura 2000 Marine Area since it’s an important breeding ground for whales and dolphins, as well as other ecologically significant species. The bay is also home to the meadows of Posidonia oceanica, a seagrass species that is endemic to the Mediterranean Sea, sheltering hundreds of marine species. The Natura 2000 Marine Area designation aims to regulate the large commercial oil tankers and cargo ships that pollute and damage Vatika Bay while increasing protection for marine flora and fauna.

Mediterranean Sea Grass Meadow (c) Kip Evans Mission BlueMediterranean Sea Grass Meadow (c) Kip Evans Mission Blue

The Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH) hopes culturally notable Pavlopetri will be able to attract attention to Vatika Bay and motivate efforts to improve the quality of its surrounding waters. Government support for the protection of the Bay is slowly evolving. In a December 19, 2016 letter from UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture Francesco Bandarin to the Greek Minister of Culture, Mr. Bandarin stated “I wish to propose again that the site of Pavlopetri be further researched and protected, and that it be developed for responsible tourism access with a view to fostering sustainable development around Vatika Bay.” However, the proposed Natura 2000 Marine Area that would comprise the Bay has not been approved.

Flora in Vatika BayCystoseira (brown algae) in Vatika Bay

Cetacean Research + Recovery 

Like most areas of the world, cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are celebrated in Vatika Bay. In fact, it’s the only area in Greece where the Risso’s dolphin can be found predictably. However, threats to their population remain a massive challenge to scientists and nature enthusiasts in the region. Risso’s dolphins are often entangled in fishing lines while other cetaceans like sperm whales, face detrimental ship strikes leading to their stranding. Helping populations recover requires a robust understanding of the scale of the problem while having adequate funding in place to make it a long-term research project. Vatika Bay is a prime area for data collection since it’s between the Aegean Sea and the Ionian Sea, both contain cetaceans including the Common dolphin which is endangered in the Mediterranean. Marine biologist and one of Vatika Bay’s Hope Spot champions, Alexandros Frantzis remarks:

“There are no more than 50 short-beak common dolphins left in the entire Ionian Sea. In 1993, there were more than 200. I was a young biologist then and I couldn’t believe I would witness a species disappearing from an area so fast during my lifetime. The Aegean Sea, especially in the north, still contains an ecologically important stock of common dolphins. The habitat of common dolphins in the area of Vatika Bay and the Myrtoon Sea is the only “bridge” between the Ionian and Aegean Seas. If it is destroyed or abandoned, there will be no more genetical exchange between the two stocks with fatal consequences sooner or later.”

Common dolphins in Vatika Bay

Based on heavy documentation of cetacean populations by the Pelagos Cetacean Institute, Alexandros believes protecting Vatika Bay will provide safe migration routes to whales and dolphins as they travel through the Ionian and Aegean Seas. He is hopeful the Natura 2000 Marine Area designation will provide a base for conservation and management of the marine environment coupled with opportunities for studying cetacean species in greater depth.

Local Efforts Pave the Way

The Vatika Bay community is highly motivated and engaged in protecting their marine resources. Species like loggerhead turtles are significant since there are uncertainties around their migration routes. According to Yiannis Psarkai, Secretary of Toylipa Goylimi, “We don’t really know where all the loggerhead turtles in Vatika Bay spend their time when they’re not in the Bay. In the summer of 2016, a dead turtle washed up on the beach with a tag indicating it was from Italy. If turtles migrate, perhaps Vatika Bay is on the migration route.” In order to find out more information, the local non profit documented Loggerhead sea turtles nests in Vatika Bay and along the neighboring beaches. Their efforts identified over 129 nests which resulted in a collaborative program with ARCHELON, another Greek non-profit focused on sea turtle protection and rehabilitation.

Baby sea turtle in Vatika Bay

In August, 2014, scores of local residents created a human chain to symbolically protect Pavlopetri. According to ARCH, “All those who care about Pavlopetri have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to make sure that Pavlopetri is not damaged, or destroyed. We also hope to promote the continuing archeological excavation of the site and eventually to see the site developed with a visitor center and opportunities for visitors to learn from the site and view the site – without damaging it.”

The Vatika Bay Hope Spot aims to provide greater encouragement and resources to its community with the goal of decreasing damage by huge tankers and cargo ships anchors. For instance, a special port regulation limiting vessels anchoring in Vatika Bay to 300 tons or less would allow pleasure crafts in the Bay while banning oil tankers and cargo ships. An information center on the beach at Pavlopetri coupled with a designated parking area, a boardwalk to protect endemic flora and endangered species, as well as educational information for students, locals, and tourists would greatly benefit the Hope Spot. Barbara Euser, President of ARCH’s Greek Chapter, remarks:

“Being designated as a Hope Spot literally gives hope to all those who wish to preserve the marine ecosystem including whales and dolphins, loggerhead turtles, monk seals, fan clams, and Posidonia oceanica– and the cultural heritage site of Pavlopetri.”

Mission Blue strongly recommends the Greek government move forward with the Natura 2000 Marine Area designation to protect the important cultural, ecological, and economic significance of Vatika Bay.

Human chain in Pavlopetri