Coastline near Alonissos, Greece. Photo: Anca Pandrea / Creative Commons.
As mega-resorts continue to sprout along much of the Aegean and Mediterranean coastlines, one North Aegean island in Greece is thriving on lower-key, eco-friendly tourism -- thanks to the discovery there nearly 30 years ago of one of the world's most endangered marine mammals.German marine biologist/filmmaker Thomas Schultze Westrum's footage of Mediterranean monk seals breeding in Alonissos, Greece, caused a stir when it was first shown in 1984. Many of the marine biologists watching the film at a conference in Rhodes had never seen a monk seal before, even on film, according to a short video about the area produced by the eco-tourism travel service provider Greenloons. International organizations that had thought the animal was already extinct began to lobby for its protection, an effort that brought the local community together as well.
Sustainable Economic Development
"It was the Mediterranean monk seal, which is very closely tied to the Greek heritage, that has helped to bring a community together, create an eco-tourism movement, and assist sustainable economic development in the region," said Greenloons founder Irene Lane.
Video: Greenloons / YouTube
The National Marine Park of Alonnisos Northern Sporades, the first designated marine park in Greece and the largest in Europe, was set up in 1992 to protect the habitat of the seals, which number just 600 individuals due to hunting, overfishing, and habitat destruction. A conservation group created in 1990, The Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal, or MOm, has rescued, rehabilitated, and released about 20 injured or orphan seal pups thus far and also conducts educational programs about the significance of the seals to the Mediterranean ecosystem.
Restrictions on human activities in the park and a desire to protect the seals has also made Alonnisos a haven for travelers looking for low-impact ways to explore the area's beauty: conservation- and education-based sailing trips, hiking tours, photography, and snorkeling around red coral reefs and a sunken ancient city in crystal-clear waters.