Lake Prespa: The Highest Tectonic Lake in the Balkans

Lake Prespa is one of the oldest tectonic lakes in Europe, and also the highest tectonic lake on the Balkan Peninsula, located at an altitude of 853 meters. It is made up of the Great Prespa Lake and Small Prespa Lake. The former located on the border of Albania, Greece and the Republic of Macedonia, whilst the latter lies in Greece.

Lake Prespa Stats

Lake NameLake Prespa
Surface area262.600
Maximum depth54.0
Average depth88.0
Lake typeTectonic
Catchment area1344.40
OutflowsLake Ohrid via karstic channels
IslandsGolem Grad, Mal Grad
Shore length110.55
Age2 - 20 million years
Residence time17289.3
Average discharge15.475
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The two lakes are located between two national parks located in three different countries. Prespa National Park, known for its exceptional beauty and biodiversity, is a part of Greece and Albania, while Galicica National Park lies in the Republic of Macedonia. Galicica Mountains separate Lake Prespa from Lake Ohrid, which is one of the oldest and deepest lakes on the continent.

Nearly 65% of the Grand Prespa Lake lies in Macedonia, 17% of its Southern part is located in Greece, and its South-Eastern part (18%) can be found in Albania. Although both lakes are significant in terms of biodiversity, Small Prespa Lake is especially recognized as a very important wetland ecosystem, since it is a particularly favored feeding and breeding site for rare water bird species.

Golema (Great) and Mala (Small) Prespa are the only lakes on the Balkan peninsula to have islands. A total of five islands can be found on the lakes: Golem Grad, Mal Grad, Pirg, Agios Achillaeos, and Vidrinec Island. Golem Grad is also a national reserve, noted for its unique geomorphology, flora and fauna, and can be visited by tourists via boat tours.

Prespa Lakes are mostly surrounded by mountains with peaks of more than 2000 meters, offering scenic views. Their shores are mostly rocky and steep, especially on the Western side, whilst the Eastern part is home to sandy beaches surrounded by rich vegetation. The shores of the smaller lake are mostly made up of thick reeds, offering ideal habitats for pelicans, wild ducks and many rare bird species.

Geology and Hydrology

Lake Prespa is of tectonic origin of the Pleocene era, fulfilling the deepest part of the valley with the same name. It lies at the junction of three major geological masses: a granite massif on the East, a karstic massif belonging to Galicica on the West, and the Suva Gora on the South. The region is famous for having rocks from the oldest Paleozoic form to sediments belonging to the young Neogene era. The tectonic valley is located between the Mountains of Baba (2601 m) to the East, the Galicica (2288 m) and Petrino Mountains to the West, and the Suva Gora Mountains (1857 m) to the South.

The total surface area of the watershed is 1,200 km2. It has many tributaries, such as the Istocka, Golema, Pretorska and Brajcino Rivers on the Macedonian side, and the Stara River on the Greek part. Lake Prespa has no surface outflows. An underground stream, Zavir is the lake’s main outflow, supplying Lake Ohrid, which is located 10 kilometers to the West. Natural oscillations of the water level are said to occur every 20-25 years.

During the 1970s significant amount of water was diverted from the Devoll River into the lake to later use it for irrigation. In the last few years a decline of the water levels occurred, due to heavy use of waters for irrigation purposes and changes in local climate.  


The lake area has a small microclimate, which reflects the Balkans rather than the Mediterranean area. The average annual temperature in the largest settlement on the lakeshore, Resen (part of Macedonia) is 9.5OC. Summers are generally hot, temperatures reaching up to 35OC in August. Winters are usually snowy, with an average temperature of -5OC. Temperatures can reach -15OC during February.

The annual water temperature average is 13 degrees Celsius. The maximum water temperature usually occurs in August (24 degrees Celsius), whilst in colder winter month shallower parts of the lake can even freeze. The average annual precipitation is 600 mm.

Flora and Fauna

There are more than 1500 plant species living in the precinct, of which 146 are endemic of Lake Ohrid, and 39 are endemic of the Prespa lakes. Century-old juniper trees are famous tenants of the surrounding forests.

40 mammal species and 32 species of reptiles and amphibians also populate the region. Large populations of brown bears, wolves, chamois and wild boars live in the surrounding mountains. Frogs, toads, newts and fire salamanders are the most frequently seen amphibians. Out of the 11 known fish species of the lake 9 are considered endemic. Some of these fish are the trout, crap, red finned carp, chub and the barbell.

But the area is mostly known for giving home to more than 200 bird species, of which 104 are water birds. Out of these, 62 are enslisted on the List of Protected Species of the Bern Convention, whilst 3 are on the European Red List. The most famous bird of the Lake Prespa area is the Dalmatian Pelican, of which 1400 breeding pairs can be found, making it the largest single-breeding colony in the World. The rare goosander population can only be found around the lake in Greece. Other important birds include the white pelican, the black raven, the heron and the gull.

Ecologically speaking, Lake Prespa is the cleanest region in the Republic of Macedonia. In 1999 the Society for the Protection of Prespa won the Ramsar Wetland Conservation Award for conservation efforts. In 2000 the area was declared a Transnational Park thanks to its abundance in rare flora and fauna. On the 3rd of July 2013 it was included as a Ramsar Site. In 2014 the Ohrid-Prespa Transboundary Reserve, located between the Republic of Macedonia and Albania was added to UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

History and Settlements

In the 10th century the Bulgarian Tsar Samuil constructed the Saint Achilius fortress and church on Agios Achillios Island, part of Small Prespa Lake, part of Greece. The Basilica, founded as an Episcopal Church, was built sometimes between 983 and 986. After the restoration of the Byzantine rule in 1018 the churched continued to function as a bishopric, until the 15th century, when it was abandoned.

The Golem Grad area houses many ruins of the Neolithic, Roman, Hellenic, Byzantine and Ottoman times. There are more than 130 archaeological localities around the lake. The Lake Prespa area served as a popular trading center during Roman times, mainly because of its proximity to important roads such as the Via Egnata.

Mal Grad, part of Albania, is the site of a ruined 14th century monastery that was dedicated to Saint Peter. The Church of Saint George is located close to Kurbinovo village, and was constructed in the 12th century.

Since the Greek part of the lake was a military sensitive area for a long time, requiring a special permit to enter, the lakeshore was under populated for a long time after the Greek Civil war, when locals emigrated because of the fierce fights that occurred in the area. The precinct remained underdeveloped until the ‘70s, when they started promoting it as a tourist destination.

Lake Prespa is surrounded by many villages and cities. The largest settlement is Resen (part of the Republic of Macedonia), whilst other towns are Agios Germanos, Laimos, Milionas, Platy, Kallithea, Lefkonas, Prespes, Oxia, Pyli, and Psarades. The watershed is home to 5000 inhabitants on the Albanian side, 1600 people living in 12 villages in Greece, and a population of 17 500 in the Republic of Macedonia.


Because of its spectacular coastline, abundance of bays, crystal-clear waters, pristine surroundings and proximity to national parks, Lake Prespa has seen an increase in tourism in the past few decades. The lake area is a haven for bird lovers, reflecting many habitats. There is a special bird observatory on the Greek part, where members of the Hellenic Ornitholofical Society showcase the local bird species and offer telescopes to help catch a glimpse of these rare water birds species.

Since the area doesn’t aim for mass tourism, one needs to book ahead in order to find vacancy in one of the few guesthouses found in the towns surrounding the lake. Local fishermen offer boat trips, taking tourists to the main islands. A number of sandy beaches located in the lake’s West side await those in search for relaxation. Koula beach is the most popular, offering great swimming, canoeing, kayaking and rowing conditions. Plenty of walking trails await outdoor-lovers, some passing through historic villages, whilst others take you into the wilderness of the surrounding mountains.

Lake Prespa Map