Something happened to the face of the Greek car rental man when we mentioned that we’d come to Zakynthos to see loggerhead sea turtles. His easy smile slipped.

“These turtles caused many problems,” he scowled. Then, with effort, he brightened, adding gallantly, “But if they have brought you here then I’m grateful.”

We paid up and drove off with a volley of backfires that would have shamed a dysenteric elephant. It was clear not only that we had just been rented the most overpriced, clapped out junker on Zakynthos, but also that turtles were controversial.

Zakynthos is the southernmost of the Ionian island group. Look elsewhere for Minotaurs, oracles and amphitheaters; there’s not much here in the Classical department. Zakynthos is blessed, however, with an ideal climate, simple short ferry connections from the Greek mainland and stunning topography.

In the course of travel through some 60 countries we have rarely seen sea cliffs that compare with those of Zakynthos, nor has the sea at the bottom of a sea cliff ever been so blue, the sand so white, the wrecked smuggler’s ship so rusty, or those Mediterranean smells of wild herbs, sunbaked rock and hint of goat so compelling. In summer Zakynthos’ numerous abandoned monasteries are swamped with poppies. Gorges, crags, and the occasional Greek driver make a spin along its twisting mountain roads infinitely memorable.

Although it is a major tourist destination, one can drive (or if robust, bicycle) for hours across Zakynthos without meeting anyone but Greeks: lines of old, crinkly ones perched on benches in village squares; younger, friskier ones chivying donkeys or goats with olive sticks; motherly ones dozing in front of roadside tables selling wine, raisins and olive oil.

The reason one sees no tourists inland is that they are all down at the beach, or, strictly speaking, at several beaches. By unhappy coincidence, these beaches are also the premier nesting sites, in the entire Mediterranean, for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle. Hey ho. Cue controversy.

What a lot of Zakynthos’ coastal entrepreneurs want is beach tourists, and if that means they have to vandalize sea turtle nests and issue death-by-drowning threats to anyone who breathes the crucial four words “proposed marine national park,” well, that’s fine by some of them. Among other outrages, the office of the Zakynthos Ecological Movement and its director, Nikos Lykouresis, were both badly damaged by dynamite in 1996.

The European Union (EU) wants the Greek government to live up to the terms of all those biodiversity and conservation treaties it keeps signing, and consequently the EU has suspended various development grants on Zakynthos, while offering tentative compensation-grant carrots should the local wise guys wise up and back off.

The turtles, of course, just want somewhere to nest in peace, as they have been doing in their inoffensive way, in one form or another, for over 200 million years.

“Flak jackets,” jocularly recommended in the British Broadcasting Corp. Wildlife magazine, we found no longer essential. The loggerhead war is currently calmer than in times past. Cease-fire is largely due to the efforts of the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece (STPS) — and to the tourists.

While STPS lobbies, cajoles and entreats behind the scenes, it also maintains a very polite presence on the beaches themselves. Volunteers of many ages and nationalities camp and run sea-side booths that provide turtle-related information for tourists. Volunteers erect wire mesh cages over nests to prevent sunbathers unwittingly crushing eggs. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes scientific study, too, as well as whisking injured loggerheads off to the STPS turtle hospital in Athens.

The tourists that Zakynthos currently woos are British of the cheap tour-package variety. They’re largely here for the climate, the prices, and the opportunity to blow off steam and wake up groggily after a night of boisterous debauch watching big-screen football to a traditional English breakfast, served at noon.

It’s easy to mock them (they go a terrific pink in the sun) and (oh Lawd!) their beachwear. But none of them (or at least none of the ones we spoke to, and we interviewed a lot) would ever knowingly do anything to hurt a sea turtle. This is why the STPS beach booths work so well.

On one “protected” nesting beach, where by law there shouldn’t be a beach chair in sight, there are beach chairs in abundance, rented out by legally challenged Zakynthians. But the chairs are all lined up in a neat row close to the surf. Signs are pegged on the higher beach informing visitors that this area is full of turtle nests. The tourists observe these warnings, occasionally grumpily, but in the majority of cases meticulously. Sometimes protectively.

Actually seeing turtles is easy. There are “turtle spotting” boat tours. These have a checkered history of harassing the sources of their livelihood. Some dimwits in the past have even hauled the turtles into the boat for photographs, thereby distressing both tourists and turtles.

A superior though less dignified alternative is to hire one of those ridiculous padello boats. Then just paddle about off Laganas beach. The sea is calm, very clear and the sand on the bottom reflects sunlight in dappled turquoise. You will see these ancient creatures slowly flapping through the water, occasionally rising to peer myopically about and take a breath. Move at their speed, don’t hassle, and they come really close.

For an excellent breakdown of other Zakynthian attractions pick up the Zakynthos guidebook (titled “Zakynthos”), available in local bookstores. The proofreader needs to lay off the ouzo; among other whoopsies are “especial thanks to our special fried Petro Bezirtzi.” Then again, maybe that wasn’t a typo, maybe Petro was an environmentalist at the wrong end of an incendiary device.

Either way, though, the authors have made a real effort to guide you to the hidden bits. Given that most sunbathing Brits rarely make it further inland than pub and bed, Zakynthos’ profusion of caves and mineral springs are still, to all intents and purposes, hidden.

Rather than boycotting Zakynthos, then, which has been tried by environmental groups in times past, better to go there. Enjoy what it’s got — and tell them that you came for the turtles. (Then check your rental car really carefully.) Though some of the local goons haven’t twigged yet, loggerheads aren’t a problem for Zakynthos but an asset.

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