In a deserted Venice, animals take back the canals while locals hope for an end to mass tourism

Screengrabs of several videos shared by the group Venezia Pulita on social media.
Screengrabs of several videos shared by the group Venezia Pulita on social media.

Usually, millions of tourists visit Venice each year, but in the past few weeks, the city has been utterly transformed. The lockdown imposed across Italy to halt the spread of Covid-19 has emptied the streets. It’s also meant that the water in the canals is clearer than ever, which makes it easier than ever to spot the animals living there. A group of Venetians have been making videos of the calm waters and happy animals in the hopes that they will raise awareness and lead to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future for the town.

In this video, a cormorant plunges again and again under water so clear that you can see schools of little fish swimming nearby. This video, which was posted by a resident of Venice in late March, has already garnered more than 78,000 views.

Other animals have also taken advantage of the deserted waterways, like these ducks who swam slowly down Venice’s Grand Canal.

Another example is this octopus, who was caught on camera near the Piazzale Roma on April 24.


"It’s the first time in my life that I’ve seen ducks in Venice"

Marco Capovilla, 40, is an environmental activist and Venice resident. He runs the group Venezia Pulita (“Clean Venice”), which was launched in 2013.


The waterways aren’t necessarily polluted, but all of the motor boats that crisscross the city in normal times make them murky. They stir up the sediment and create a lot of noise and movement. All of this scares off a lot of animals. It also prevents us from seeing those who do live there.

With lockdown, the boats are no longer circulating and the water is as calm and smooth as a sea of oil.  The sediment is deposited on the bottom and the noise has vanished. In short, all of these different factors have come together to make the city a much more pleasant environment for animals.


This tweet by Copernicus EU, the European Union Earth Observation Programme, shows two satellite images of Venice. According to the tweet, there is a “notable difference in boat traffic between 8 February & 19 March, as well as seemingly less turbid/agitated waters”.


It’s the very first time in my life that I’ve seen ducks in the Venice canal, even though I was born here and have lived here for 40 years.

The most remarkable appearance was made by an octopus, which was in the water near the Piazzale Roma. Scientists were extremely surprised by its presence; while these animals do live in the Venetian Lagoon, they usually stay far away from town. We don’t really know why it decided to venture all the way into the city.


"New sighting of the octopus (Octopus vulgaris) at Piazzale Roma on April 24 at 5pm”, reads the caption of this second video of the octopus.


Venetians are really happy to see all of these animals; it’s one of the rare “positives” to lockdown. We really hope that these videos will raise general awareness about the environment and the fragility of Venice’s ecosystem.

We’d really like the boats to be outfitted with less pollutive motors and for them to actually respect speed limits. We are also trying to raise awareness amongst the population about the household and cosmetic products that they use. Here, wastewater is dumped directly into the canals and some of these products end up polluting the water. We are sure of one thing: when the tourists come back and things get back to normal, the animals will leave and the water will no longer be clear. That’s why it’s urgent to rethink how the town is managed and the type of tourism that we can have without destroying the natural environment

Is Venice moving towards "intelligent tourism"?

Venice is the fifth most visited city in Europe. Each year, more than 30 million tourists flock to its narrow streets and crowd its canals. Its economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism. Over the past few years, it has become an example of a site completely disfigured by mass tourism.

Venice mayor Luigi Brugnaro wants to make this period of respite from tourism a turning point for the town. Brugnaro, who has long sought to address problems linked to tourism, says that he wants to put a stop to "frenzied tours”, rethink the city’s economic model and move towards a more “intelligent tourism”. One of his plans is to enforce a limit on the number of tourists who can visit the city each day.

Cruise ships have been banned from the town centre since September 2019. City government made this decision two months after a ship crashed into a dock. Four people sustained minor injuries in the accident. This incident fueled growing calls to restrict cruise ships, which residents say endanger historic buildings and have a negative impact on the environment.

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS:  Venetians ramp up campaign to say ‘no' to big ships