FEW SNAKES AND NO RUSSIANS

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Black Sea's 'other' Snake Island is in peaceful Bulgaria

snake island bulgaria

"Russian warship, go f*ck yourself!" When the Ukrainian defenders of Black Sea's Snake Island shouted out to the outnumbering Russian forces at the beginning of Putin's "special military operation," they hardly anticipated that they would coin a catchphrase that would define the conflict and become a global meme. Today everyone with access to unfiltered Internet is aware that somewhere in the Black Sea there is a piece of rock called Snake Island.

However, few would know that there are in fact two Snake Islands in the Black Sea. The second, and smaller one, is in Bulgarian waters, off one of the most picturesque parts of the seashore south of Burgas.

The Bulgarian Snake Island is just 3 acres in size. It is a piece in the rich jigsaw puzzle of sites of interest in Ropotamo River Nature Reserve: lush oak and mangrove forests, pristine beaches, intriguing rock formations like the Lion's Head, historical and archaeological sites like abandoned fortifications, dolmens and Begliktash, the ancient Thracian megalithic shrine.

Snake Island itself has some unspectacular archaeological remains. Recent excavations have established that it was inhabited both by the Thracians in Antiquity, and the Byzantines, in the early Middle Ages. Later, a small monastery appeared on the island. It was probably dedicated to St Thomas, as this is the island's official name.

St Thomas Island is known as Snake Island for an obvious reason. A vibrant colony of dice snakes, feeding on fish, live there. Holidaymakers on the beautiful and undeveloped beach by Ropotamo's estuary sometimes encounter them, swimming in the sea or sunbathing on some hot rock. The snakes are harmless but should be avoided: they are a protected species and must not be disturbed.

The other Snake Island

The snakes' presence on the island has impressed people since times immemorial. According to a local myth, the king and the queen of all reptiles lived there. Another claims that St Marina, the saint who is widely popular in the region and is considered the master of reptiles, would bring all "good" snakes in her underwater cave and would release the "bad" ones onto the island. Local fishermen would celebrate St Marina's feast, on 17 July, by catching snakes in their nets.

Just like so many other interesting geological formations in Bulgaria, Snake Island has been ravaged by treasure hunters looking for legendary hidden gold. In recent years, New Agers also got interested in the piece of rock, claiming that it was created by the Thracians as a larger-than-life temple to Sun and Moon.

If you swim or sail to Snake Island, you will be in for a surprise. A significant part of the island is covered in... cacti.

The plants, of two Opuntia varieties, are not native. They were brought from Bratislava's Botanical Garden by Bulgarian King Boris III, in 1933, for some arcane reason. The king is said to have loved Snake Island. He and his retinue would often stop there during their hunting trips in the area.

The newcomers felt well on Snake Island and soon spread, creating a thick, thorny blanket that is impossible to walk through.

Sadly, another species that would call Snake Island home, has not been around for decades. The island's rugged shore used to provide hiding and breeding space to monk seals. The animal was once widely present in the Bulgarian Black Sea, but was hunted to extinction in the 20th century by fishermen because it used to steal fish from their nets.

However, birds from all Europe who stop at Snake Island during their annual migrations to and from Africa continue to do so, unchangingly, in spring and autumn.

Luckily, Putin has not yet eyed the Bulgarian Snake Island. 

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