Blue Sea Thinking: Saving Formentera’s Ocean Meadows
Crystaline waters and warm white sand… what could there possibly be to worry about on a long weekend on the remote, idyllic island of Formentera? It is renowned for its fields of the sea plant Oceanic Posodinia.
My trip there consisted of Mediteranean delights mixed with sobering education about the declining health of the seagrass and what this means for our planet.
I attended the Save Posidonia Forum to learn about what they call ‘the lungs of the Mediterranean’, how they are currently fighting for air and what responsible tourism must do to help them breathe again.
Thu 12 Dec 2019
The clarity and electric blue of the Formenteran sea makes it look CGI’d. The soft sound of cicadas and the earthy landscape strewn with olive trees tells you that you’re in the Med. Fragments of simple rural farm life sit next to rather gentrified remnants of old hippy hangouts.
Lying beside its more attention grabbing and partying sister, Ibiza, Formentera is the smallest and lesser known of the Balearic islands. Tourists from Ibiza often escape to it for day excursions, gentler clubbing and quieter beaches.
Oceanic Posidonia And Our Endangered Ecosystem
I was here to explore and consider this cocktail of tourism and turquoise sea. It has not been enjoyed in moderation in recent years, and the hangover from this is causing major negative consequences. Trips to Formentera have increased in popularity at the same rate that travel in general has sky-rocketed. The toll on the island’s unique ecosystem has become dangerously heavy as a result.
Formentera has the beautiful Oceanic Posidonia plant to thank for its glassy waters. This sea grass meadow was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999 because the plant is imperative to the health of the sea, and the thousands of organisms who reside in, and rely, on it.
The Save Posidonia Project, who invited pebble to the island, held the Forum Save Posidonia Conference during my stay. It brought together scientists, conservationists and professionals from within the tourism industry. They came to share their expertise on how and whether ‘sustainable’ tourism can help replenish the plants.
The wellbeing of this specific and obscure seagrass might seem, excuse the pun, like a drop in the ocean in the face of the climate catastrophe. However, it acts as a microcosm for a much bigger picture. The health of the Posidonia is indicative of the health of our oceans, and the entire Med depends on it.
First Impressions Of Formentera
Having checked in to Insotel Formentera Playa, I headed out to see whether the sea was as clear as rumour had it. Dazed from the journey and still acclimatising to the Spanish sunshine, I was spellbound by the white sand and crystalline waves. Pollution was neither evident nor playing on my mind during that first swim in the warm water. Looking down I could see straight to the clean, sandy bed.
Still, knowing that Formentera was meant to be far less frequented by tourists than Ibiza, the crowds were larger than anticipated. The car park was busy with buses, motors and scooters and, unlike in the brochures, moored boats lined the beach.
Forum Save Posidonia
Plastic Free Formentera
The following day I headed to the Forum Save Posidonia. Conservation society Plastic Free Formentera had a stand set up outside. Their tray of beach-picked plastic served as a reminder that the island’s idyll could not be taken for granted.
The organisation is a key part of the efforts being made to clean up Ibiza and Formentera’s seas and beaches.
What Posidonia Meadows Mean For Oceans And Environment
The conference demonstrated how essential Plastic Free Formentera’s work is and why the Posidonia fields are known as the lungs of the Mediterranean.
The sea grass oxygenates the water. This process is crucial for biodiversity and the health of over 400 species of marine plants and 1,000 species of marine animals that live in the Els Feus Marine Reserve. They are essential for the wellbeing of our submarine ecosystem. Since we rely on oceans for our oxygen, our survival is dependant on keeping this delicate chain intact too.
As if this plant wasn’t busy enough, it also stabilises the seabed by breaking swells and preventing coastal erosion. On top of being responsible for ocean health, Posodinia acts as a measure of it as well. Studies have shown that the water, which appeared so pure the day before, is becoming increasingly polluted. Its chemical makeup is actually changing, and human activity is to blame.
Tourism: Part Of The Problem And The Solution
Tourism, is both helpful and hurtful. The number of boats motoring to Formentera each year, the demand for single-use plastic products, leisure fishing and littering are all factors that play into ocean pollution. The good news is that these are elements we can change for the better as individuals.
Several speakers from tourist boards laid out their plans for making the tourism on Formentera and beyond, more sustainable. Their aims centred around education and creating incentives for behavioural change.
To try and keep this account as transparent as the Formenteran sea should be, it was hard not to wonder whether certain plans were truly heartfelt, or just token gestures designed to ameliorate eco warriors.
However founded these doubts are, it is obvious that tourism is not going to stop any time soon. The work the Save Posidonia Project is doing with other charities and organisations was truly heartening, and has the potential to create a positive sea change.
I went on to experience Formentera through the lens the conference had given me: knowing that people are responsible for the permanence of its natural beauty.
Eating Vegan In Formentera
I emerged blinking from conference, like deep sea creatures unaccustomed to light, for a late lunch at restaurant Can Rafalet.
Like most of the eateries on Formentera, this one was upmarket but relaxed, welcoming and came with views that looked like stock screensavers. Can Rafalet overlooked a beautifully dilapidated former wooden fishing port.
Gastronomy is something that Formentera prides itself on. It is a draw for tourists and, since you cannot stray far from the ocean if you try, it centres around seafood. As a vegan, I was apprehensive about this. Had it not been for our amazing, Spanish speaking tour guide I think I would have struggled to eat out without causing the locals some consternation.
Not everyone on the Island had heard of Veganism. Still, once our tour guide had graciously gone through the motions of explaining the concept, everyone was extremely accommodating. Thanks to her I enjoyed some really amazing Mediterranean roasted vegetables and salads. Olive oil, vegan-friendly wine and fruit were always supplied in abundance too.
What To Do On Formentera
Most of Formentera’s small population live outside of its main towns and villages, which are aimed at tourists. The landscape, which is flat and quite dry, is consequently peppered with small and simple villas, fields of potatoes, date palms and juniper trees. By car you can cover the full length of the island in around 15 minutes but hiring a bike is very straightforward and eco-friendly way to explore.
I checked out the sleepy village of Es Pujols and the buzzier town of Sant Fracesc Xavier. Both have street markets that nod their heads to the influx of hippies who flocked to Formentera in the 60s, by selling boho jewellery, clothes and accessories. A windmill, which is famously displayed on the cover of Pink Floyd’s album, ‘More’ was another interesting pit stop. Other points of interest included a megalithic tomb at Ca na Costaand the oldest Lighthouse on the Island, La Mola.
The real highlights have to be the vistas from these places. There are some caves near La Mola that, legend ironically has it, are the entrance into hell. Clambering down the rickety ladder into the dark was slightly devilish. Still, scrambling through to sit with others and enjoy wine and a picnic overlooking panoramic views out to sea at sunset felt pretty heavenly.
Beach Cleaning In The Balearics
On my final full day, we had the opportunity to join a beach clean with Plastic Free Formentera and several other speakers from the Forum.
Everyone turned up with contagiously high spirits and rolled up sleeves. Many members of the PFF team who led the clean were native to either Formentera or Ibiza. Their earthy connections to the island made them feel impassioned and personally responsible for protecting their ocean.
Kitted out with gloves, bags and litter pickers, we headed seawards. Up to this point, evidence of plastic pollution on Formentera had not been especially evident. We did not have to traipse far to find trash. Wet wipes, plastic water bottles and cigarette buts were amongst the most common culprits.
Beach cleans can seem like a means of treating solely the symptoms and not the cause of pollution. Yet, the team explained that what we picked up was an invaluable indicator of who was littering and what their habits were. The vast majority of the rubbish was from tourists rather than locals.
Measures are already in motion to tackle this. Hotels and companies on Formentera can sign up to a points system to pledge their allegiance to conserving the seas. They are given a number of stars, depending on how much plastic they have eliminated from their daily practices.
I left Formentera the following day full of awe at its amazing oceans, checked by a deeper understanding of their fragility and the paramount importance of sustainable tourism.
Pebble’s trip to Formentera was courtesy of the Formentera Tourist Board and we were a guest of Insotel Hotel Formentera Playa. Flights were carbon offset.