‘Like being on a coral reef’: Marine life returns to heart of Venice in Italy’s lockdown

"The flora and fauna of the lagoon have not changed during lockdown. What has changed is our chance to see them," says zoologist Andrea Mangoni, plunging his camera into Venice's normally murky waters to observe life.

'Like being on a coral reef': Marine life returns to heart of Venice in Italy's lockdown
Venice's waters are clearer than they have been in years after six weeks of lockdown. Photo: Marco Sabadin/AFP

A crab tries to grab the intruding lens, jellyfish propel themselves along near the surface, schools of fish swim peacefully by, crustaceans cling to the city's famous jetties, and seaweed of every colour wafts gently on the current.

The coronavirus has emptied Venice of millions of tourists since the beginning of March and its waters are no longer stirred by the thousands of boats, taxis, vaporetti, and gondolas that usually cross it.

IN PHOTOS: Silent squares and clear waters as Venice stands empty

For Mangoni, this is an opportunity to rediscover the very diverse ecosystem that populates the Venice Lagoon. His film of a jellyfish swimming slowly though translucent canal water has gone viral on social media.

“Now we can see 50 or 60 centimetres, and sometimes even a metre from the surface. As a result, we can see animals that were literally hidden in the murky waters.”

Mangoni says he has never seen such clear waters in the 20 years he has worked in Venice.

“The only difference is that some animals that before were relegated to bigger or wider canals in the lagoon can now go as far as in the city centre, since the traffic of gondolas, motorboats and smaller boats has ceased,” he said.

Marco Sigovini, a researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences of Venice (ISMAR-CNR), says he has seen marine species in the centre of the former city state for the first time.

“Fauna and flora of Venice Lagoon are much more diversified and interesting than what one might think,” he said.

“What decreased in the city is not only traffic with pollution produced by boats, but also the noise, which is another kind of pollution and disturbs many lagoon organisms.”

OPINION: After flooding and coronavirus, is it time Venice stopped relying on tourism?

Nevertheless, he is not surprised at how many jellyfish are being observed. “Over the last 20-30 years jellyfish have increased in numbers generally. They come into the lagoon more and more frequently, particularly at certain times of year, perhaps carried by the current,” he said.

“Normally, there's a lot of traffic so it's likely many of them are often killed.”

Mangoni takes pictures and videos on his way to work and says life in Venice these days is “like being on a coral reef”.

“The number of colours and lifeforms is extraordinary, which makes the lagoon unique,” he said.

But Sigovini does not think much will change long-term for Venetian fauna.

“Most likely these few months of lockdown won't suffice to really change the quality of our ecosystem,” he said. 

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Drink from fountains not plastic bottles, Venice tells visitors

Plenty of water is essential if you’re visiting Italy’s sights during summer. But Venice has urged visitors to ditch the plastic bottles and stressed that the floating city’s tap water is perfectly safe to drink.

Drink from fountains not plastic bottles, Venice tells visitors

In Venice, which welcomes millions of visitors each year, tourism is responsible for between 28 and 40 percent of garbage production depending on the season, according to local government data – including piles and piles of plastic water bottles.

To combat the waste, local authorities are promoting the use of refillable water bottles by calling tourists’ attention to the vast network of drinking water fountains dotting the squares and alleys of the floating city.

READ ALSO: Italy’s plastic tax postponed again under budget plans

“In the historic centre, there are 126 fountains spread over the area, they’re easy to find, there’s one nearly every 100 metres (330 feet),” said architect Alberto Chinellato in his city hall office overlooking the Rialto Bridge.

To make things even easier, water distribution company Veritas has launched an app and website showing a map with all the nearest fountains. 

“Encouraging the use of free drinking water certainly produces less waste… but also brings fewer bottles in the historic centre, which means less pollution and less transport”, said Chinellato.

Leaving Chinellato’s office, AFP observed an empty plastic water bottle bobbing between two gondolas on the Grand Canal – underscoring that the battle against plastic is far from being won.

At the centrally located Hotel Flora, owner Gioele Romanelli has also decided to contribute to the crusade against plastic by educating his guests.

READ ALSO: What is it with Italians and bottled water?

“We simply had a card printed on which we pointed out the fountains of Venice with a little blue drop,” said Romanelli, proudly displaying a copy on a small bistro table.

“Not only with a refillable bottle, but also by recycling a small (plastic) water bottle you can keep all day,” said the 49-year-old hotelier.

At check-in, guests are briefed about Venice’s “good water”.

“They are sometimes surprised to learn that the water in Venice is drinkable,” he said.

“With this small gesture, our customers can actively participate in the battle against plastic,” he said, seeing it as a way, in a city with “an insane number of tourists”, to give them a certain sense of responsibility.

In addition to the card marking the city’s fountains, the hotel has done away with single-dose shampoo and shower gel bottles in the rooms in favour of refillable dispensers.

At breakfast, plastic is a thing of the past, with the hotel now using small glass containers for muesli, dried fruit and yogurt, Romanelli said.

READ ALSO: How will the tourist-control system work in Venice?

Venice is quickly recovering its tourist traffic following the coronavirus pandemic. But after reaching a total of 5.5 million visitors in 2019 – eclipsing the city centre’s 50,000 inhabitants – officials are trying to limit arrivals.

From January, day visitors will pay a tax that they’ve been able to avoid until now by not staying overnight.

The ‘tourist tax’ will be charged at between 3-10 euros (around $3-$10) depending on the time of year, and will be payable online.

It will provide visitors with a QR code to be shown at the various entry points to the historic centre.