Swimming With Seals On Alonissos

Feature by Willard Manus

After the crowding and boisterousness of the nearby Greek island of Skopelos, Alonnisos was a blessed relief. Its port town of Patiri had its share of rambunctious tavernas and discos and was crammed with cars and motorbikes, but it wasn't nearly as overwhelming and oppressive as Skopelos had been.

We went to the Mayor, John Droussakis, for help in finding a place to stay. He recommended a pension located in the first bay north of Patiri, run by Yanni Alexiou. Droussakis also gave us a thumbnail history of the island. It had known more than its share of hard luck. Once famous for its grapes and wine, Alonnisos had suffered a blight in 1950 which wiped out its viticulture. Slowly it began to come back through farming and fishing, only to be hit by an earthquake in l965 which wrecked Patiri and the town of Alonnisos above it. The rebuilding and restoration had been slowed by internecine political, economic and aesthetic battles.

Tourism had taken over as the economic mainstay, with mostly Greek, English and Dutch visitors heading the lists. Additional revenue is earned from the many private charter boats and flotillas calling at the island. Fresh water is scarce. Some underground streams have been discovered in recent years, enough to help irrigate farmlands and keep the tourists clean, but Droussakis admitted that some villages still had to draw their water from cisterns.

Alonnisos, long and narrow with a mountainous spine, was known in ancient times as Ikos. It was the subject of a fiery speech by Demosthenes, who defended it against the imperialistic designs of King Philip of Macedonia. A succession of warlords and brigands controlled the island's fortunes over the centuries, until it was finally delivered into Turkish hands and became part of the Ottoman Empire for four hundred years.

Alonnisos isn't an easily accessible island. The roads near Patiri are paved, but the bulk of the island's villages can be reached only by poor roads inland or by caique along its coastline. Public transportation is scarce, but during the summer many fishermen and captains make a living by taking daytrippers to such coves as Steni Vala and Kokkinocastro (where the ruins of a submerged city make snorkeling an enjoyable experience). Another daytrip is to the nearby island of Patoulis, where there are relatively uncrowded beaches. Tourists can even board one of the ubiquitous "flying dolphins" (hydrofoils) and speed across to Skyros or Skopelos for a mini-visit.

We visited Alonnisos in August, at the height of the season, but were able to escape the crowds by basing ourselves in Paleo Hora, situated up in the mountains above Patiri. The town was destroyed by the '65 earthquake. Unlike Patiri and Alonnisos, which had gone in heavily for raw concrete and straight lines while rebuilding, Paleo Hora (thanks to help from the Greek Archaeological Society) fought to recapture its original beauty and symmetry.

Today Paleo Hora is about 80% rebuilt. Water is scarce, mules must be used to carry building supplies through the narrow, cobbled streets, but despite those handicaps the town is thriving. Many foreigners own houses here and the views they enjoy from their balconies are memorable. Dozens of Athenians have opened shops, galleries, bars and boutiques; there is even a boite offering rebetika and even jazz music on weekends.

Paleo Hora can also boast of the second oldest church in Greece, dating back to 800 A.D. Arrangements to visit it must be made with the head priest in Patiri.

Paleo Hora is always cooled by mountain breezes even during the dog days of August. Above all, the village offers rare peace and tranquility. To walk through it is to discover many simple delights: the delicate hand-carvings on doorways and windows, a splash of purple bougainvillea on a whitewashed wall, the smell of bread baking in an outside oven.

The high point of our stay, though, was the discovery of an active wing of the Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal. The Athens-based organization had teamed up with a Dutch marine conservation society, the Seal Rehabilitation and Research Center in Pieterburen, to establish a National Marine Park.

Three small islands located five miles northwest of the island--Pelagonissi is their generic name--comprise the park. It's here that the surviving members of an endangered species, the Mediterranean monk seal (monachus monachus), live and breed under the protective eye of the society. There are only a few dozen monk seals left in the entire Mediterranean, an area stretching from the African coast to the shores of former Yugoslavia. This is down from a population which, in classical times, was in the hundreds of thousands.

Man is responsible for this ecological disaster. Fishermen kill seals because they raid and ruin their nets. Other human activities--shipping, tourism, industry, pleasure-boating and pollution--are also to blame. The constant pressure over the centuries has resulted in low birth and high pup mortality rates, not to speak of an increase in accidental deaths.

The HSSPMS has worked hard in recent years to educate local fishermen on the tragedy of the Mediterranean seal. The fishermen no longer cast their nets around Pelagonissi. The HSSPMS also patrols the waters of the Marine Park to make sure no one makes an unauthorized visit. In short, the handful of surviving monk seals are able to live in peace.

With the help of Costas Sortiropoulos, a student volunteer with HSSPMS, I was able to visit Pelagonissi with the Society's research team. We made the journey in a Zodiac, a rubber boat with a powerful outboard. The engine was cut before we entered the restricted zone. I put on my wet suit and mask and paddled around slowly and quietly near one of the caves where a family of seals was known to live.

An hour went by. I was watching an octopus jet-propel itself along the sea bottom when I sensed something swimming near me. I glanced over my right shoulder, expecting to see one of the marine biologists. I saw a seal instead. It was brown, not white, but it was beautiful nonetheless with its bright eyes, circus whiskers and sleek, tubular body. As it dove down, effortlessly and swiftly, 75 feet into the emerald-blue waters of the Mediterranean, I experienced one of the most memorable and profound thrills of my life.