THE LESSER SPORADES (OUTER ISLANDS) To the north and east of Alonnisos is a scattering of diverse and characterful islands which together form a marine landscape of exceptional beauty. They differ from one another quite markedly—Peristera is bare and water less, while Piperi is densely wooded with pines; Gioura is mountainous and with dramatic limestone cliffs, while Psathoura is flat, sandy and with volcanic litter; and Skantzoura is different again with its brilliant marble shores. What they have in common is that they are all largely uninhabited and are kept that way by virtue of their recent incorporation into an enforced conservation area—the Northern Sporades Marine Park—which covers a total area of 2,260sq.km. The flagship motivation of the conservation area is the protection of the habitat of the Mediterranean monk seal, Europe’s most endangered marine mammal; but there are many corals, cetaceans, birds, goats, cliff and marine plants which also importantly benefit from the protection. The Marine Park is not solely an area of wildlife conservation, however: it also covers an area of land and water of immense archaeological importance. In a way which bears striking similarities with the history and archaeology of the Lesser Cyclades—a similarly scattered and diverse marine landscape—these tiny unpromising islands were a centre of remarkable human activity in Neolithic times and earlier. Evidence of the earliest human activity in the Aegean is to be found here. The area is also of interest to archaeologists of very different periods because of the large number of shipwrecks in its waters from Ancient, Byzantine and more recent times. In short this fascinating landscape has been a hive of human commerce, exchange and transportation since the beginning of time. It is a microcosm of island culture in general which centres on the sea and its power to connect individual settlements, while endowing them at the same time with a clear sense of individuality. Modern developments have fortunately passed the is lands by, leaving their waters less affected by the ecological ravages that have prevailed elsewhere in the Aegean and the Mediterranean. Now, through the creation of the Northern Sporades Marine Park, they may have acquired the hope of remaining intact for some time to come.