Living lakes

In Croatia’s Dinaric Alps, spellbinding lakes have gradually formed over thousands of years. Still today, their appearance is in constant evolvement.


‘Paradise on earth’ may be an inflated phrase, but there are some places that do it justice. One such destination is Plitvice Lakes National Park, where 16 interconnected lakes have been carved out by nature herself. There are heavenly waterfalls, pristine forests and quiet, crystal-clear rivers. The lakes’ colours change from azure to green, grey and blue. Wooden trails follow the waterstream. It is an idyllic place to be.

The Croatian government safeguarded its natural pearl already in 1949, dedicating an extensive area around the lakes as national park. UNESCO followed suit in 1979. The park, located 140 kilometres (86 miles) south-east of Zagreb, the Croatian capital, has a size of 300 square kilometres (115 square miles), though the actual lakes only stretch across eight kilometres (roughly four miles). Some 4,000 people live in the area, though the most popular inhabitants with visitors are European brown bears, wolves, deer and various bird species.


The process by which the lakes have been – and still are being – formed, is fascinating. In the beginning it was all just a karst river basin. However, the water in the area is rich on calcium carbonate, a substance found in rocks. And so whenever the water is splashed – say, in a waterfall – the chemical balance is disturbed, and the calcium carbonate extracts itself. It clings itself onto moss, algae and bacteria that sink to the bottom. Over time, these particles have formed a series of chalky, fragile limestone barriers – called travertine – at a speed of one to three centimetres per year. When these barriers eventually break the surface, thus hindering the waterflow, dams are created.

This is still happening today, forcing constant changes. As an example, the biggest lake, called the Kozjak Lake, was actually formed of two lakes some 450 years ago. However, when a travertine barrier arose on its southern side, the rising water level submerged the old barrier, creating one giant lake. “Every year you can see them change,” says Krešimir Čulinović, an expert at the national park. In some areas, a tree can fall down and change the direction of the water. And so the water starts going to the other side. On one side you have a dying barrier, and on the other side a new barrier is being created. This process is very dynamic, and it is why people are saying that these are ‘living lakes’.”


Not every tourist is aware of this, but that does not diminish the lakes’ beauty. Hundreds of thousands of travellers visit each year, and are welcomed year-round. They are transported in electric boats and trains. There are also wooden rowing boats for hire. Some critics have said the water is being overexploited, particularly since its purity is fundamental to the creation of travertine. However, on the bright side, the national park has banned all water activity – including swimming – to protect the lakes. And so, by all accounts, the last geological evolvement here is yet to take place.

Photos: Artur Bogacki, dinosmichail, Royalty Free Stock Photos [all via].