A giant trevally fish swims in shallow reefs in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a vast, remote cluster of Pacific islands and atolls that are part of the Hawaiian Islands. The monument is one of 21 new sites added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage list, UN officials announced this week.
One of the largest marine protected areas in the world, the refuge—formerly called the Northwestern Hawaiian Marine National Monument—is the only new "mixed site," a designation that recognizes the region's natural and cultural worth. (See National Geographic magazine pictures of creatures in Hawaii's outer kingdom.)
Not only is the 1,200-mile-wide (1,931-kilometer-wide) sanctuary home to extensive coral reefs, lagoons, and deep-water mountains called seamounts, it's also the place where native Hawaiians believe life originates and where spirits return after death, according to the World Heritage website.
Chosen by a UNESCO committee, World Heritage sites denote natural or cultural areas recognized for their universal value to humanity. (See pictures of natural wonders added to the list in 2009.)
The Papahānaumokuākea selection is "emblematic of our increased attention globally to ocean conservation. Of the whole list, that's the one I'm most excited about," said John Francis, a member of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, which, among its other duties, recommends U.S. sites for World Heritage inclusion. (See pictures of other U.S. marine protected areas.)
Regarding the site's mixed status, "it's more important that we look for that in every site—to look at cultural uniqueness and the interplay of humans as part of nature," said Francis, also a vice president of research, conservation, and exploration for the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.