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<b>Four-Toed Shaka</b><br>The Madagascar giant day gecko, recently established in the Hawaiian Islands.<br><i>Photo: David Liitschwager</i>
Vol. 13, no. 6
Dec. 2010 - Jan. 2011

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Treasured Islands 
Story by Dennis Hollier
Photos by Wayne Levin

Spread over nearly 140,000 square miles, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is the world's largest environmentally protected area. It's a sanctuary for millions of seabirds, like this booby flying over Nihoa.

In a sense
the United Nations’ selection of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument as a World Heritage Site seems obvious. This vast swath of the North Pacific—139,797 square miles of tumultuous seas, of craggy basaltic islets and low coral atolls, of pristine reefs and teeming seamounts—is a world of superlatives. It’s the most remote part of the most remote archipelago on Earth, the world’s largest environmentally protected area, the last refuge to hundreds of endangered and endemic species, home to the world’s deepest coral species and its northernmost reefs. And it’s one of the Earth’s last best examples of what a healthy marine ecosystem looks like.


The selection—the technical term is “inscription”—on July 30, 2010 made the monument Hawai‘i’s second World Heritage Site; Volcanoes National Park is the other. Papahanaumokuakea’s selection was not itself surprising. What’s extraor­dinary is that it was inscribed twice: once under UNESCO’s criteria for natural heritage and again under very different criteria for cultural heritage. This is rare: Of the 911 World Heritage Sites, Papahanaumokuakea is one of only twenty-seven with mixed inscriptions. Perhaps more important, it’s the first marine area with this dual inscription, making the monument a powerful symbol for the indigenous peoples of the Pacific, for the living cultures engendered and defined by the ocean. This is the story of how it came to pass.