We will be exploring 7 of them in this story, starting with largest living structure on the planet... the Great Barrier Reef.
Great Barrier Reef
UNESCO World Heritage Sites are places of outstanding universal value on Earth. The objective of listing World Heritage sites is to ensure these special places are preserved so future generations can continue to enjoy them.
[Tap and drag to look around the reef]
Our planet is over 70% ocean, so it's fitting that many of these places are located underwater. We’ll be exploring 7 of the 50 Marine World Heritage Sites in this expedition, starting with the largest living structure on the planet—Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef
Australia's Great Barrier Reef stretches along the Queensland mainland for 2,300 kilometers. It’s so large, it can even be seen from outer space! This vast expanse of natural beauty is a living mosaic of brilliant colours, shapes, and textures.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest collection of coral reefs, with some 2,500 reefs of varying shapes and sizes. Practically the whole ecosystem was inscribed as a World Heritage site in 1981, covering 348,000 square kilometers.
No other World Heritage property contains as much biodiversity as the Great Barrier Reef. It shelters over 1,500 species of fish, 400 types of coral, 4,000 types of mollusc, plus a range of sponges, crustaceans, and other species.
Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System
Next we’ll cross the world's oceans to visit the largest barrier reef system in the Northern Hemisphere and the 2nd largest in the world (after only Australia's Great Barrier Reef)—the Mesoamerican Reef. It stretches over 1,000 kilometers along the coastlines of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
The Belize Barrier Reef, extending from the Mexican border to the north to near the Guatemalan border to the south, is one interconnected system comprised of 7 marine protected areas.
Inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1996, the Belize Barrier Reef is one of the most pristine reef ecosystems in the Western Hemisphere. The wide range of reef types contained in its relatively small area make it particularly unique.
Although the levels of marine biodiversity are not as high as the Great Barrier Reef, there are still many interesting creatures to be found here—like this filefish.
World Heritage in Danger
In 2009, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System was placed on an endangered list because of concerns over mangrove cutting and excessive development. Thankfully, the Belize government is now taking progressive steps to get removed from this list.
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park
Our next destination is a remote location in the middle of the Sulu Sea in the Philippines. It’s so remote, in fact, that it wasn't even discovered until the 1970s. Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
It covers an area of nearly 100,000 hectares of quality marine habitats. There are pristine coral reef flats here, perpendicular walls reaching a depth of 100 meters, as well as vast areas of deep ocean.
Tubbataha’s remote location means it’s virtually free from human disturbances and fishing pressures, allowing marine life to flourish. As one of the Philippines' oldest ecosystems, it’s also pivotal to supporting the whole Sulu Sea system and fisheries outside its boundaries.
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is within the Coral Triangle region, a global epicenter for marine biodiversity. There are 374 different species of coral here, almost 90% of all the Philippines’ coral species, as well as about 480 species of fish.
White Tip Reef Sharks
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park supports the highest known population densities in the world of white tip reef sharks. A healthy shark population is a sign of a healthy reef.
Komodo National Park
Komodo National Park is famous for its inhabitants above the water—ancient giant lizards called Komodo Dragons. However, we’ll be exploring its underwater World Heritage Site during this expedition.
Komodo National Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991, although its history of protection dates to 1938. The ocean around the islands is reported to be among the most productive in the world.
The upwelling of nutrient-rich water from deeper areas is responsible for the rich marine ecosystem here.
These are the largest members of the manta ray family and can reach a whopping 7 metres (23 feet) from tip to tip. These graceful giants glide through the water like they’re flying.
Manta Ray Tails
Unlike other rays, such as the aptly-named sting rays, mantas are harmless because they don't have stinging barbs on their tails. The IUCN Red List has classified these animals as "vulnerable to extinction,” so measures are being taken to protect them.
Manta Ray Meals
Manta rays are filter feeders and use their mouths to strain plankton from the water. Murky water like you can see here means there is likely plenty of food floating in the water for them to eat.
UNESCO World Heritage Marine Sites cover a vast range of ecosystems, from tropical to temperate ocean areas. Next up is a unique location where three ocean currents converge. The Galapagos Islands are situated in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000 kilometres from the South American continent.
The archipelago is composed of 127 islands, islets and rocks, of which 19 are large and only four are inhabited. The area was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.
Situated at the confluence of three major eastern Pacific Ocean currents, the islands' unique geographical location makes them one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world, with a "melting pot" of marine species.
Galapagos Sea Lion
More than 20% of the Galapagos marine species are found nowhere else on Earth, including the Galapagos sea lion. These playful and inquisitive creatures may be slightly clumsy on land but they transform into agile and graceful gymnasts once underwater.
Fernando de Noronha
Now we’ll head to the peaks of a large submarine mountain system of volcanic origin in the south Atlantic, off Brazil. The Brazilian Atlantic islands of Fernando de Noronha and Atol das Rocas Reserves have been inscribed as Marine World Heritage Sites since 2001.
There are less than 10 oceanic islands in the south Atlantic, and these ones are vital to the maintenance of biodiversity for the whole South Atlantic basin.
The islands’ highly productive waters provide feeding grounds for marine species as they migrate across the ocean. They’re an oasis in a relatively barren ocean. Many fish species use this location for spawning and as a refuge for juvenile fish.
The Fernando de Noronha Archipelago and Rocas Atoll represent the peaks of a 4,000-meter-tall submarine mountain system of volcanic origin. The Fernando de Noronha volcano is between 1.8 million and 12.3 million years old.
In the language of the Mayan people who once inhabited this region, Sian Ka'an means “Origin of the Sky.” This UNESCO Marine World Heritage Site contains tropical forests, mangroves, and marshes, but we’re about to dive into its large marine section.
On the Yucatan Peninsula’s eastern coast, Sian Ka'an is one of Mexico's largest protected areas. The UNESCO World Heritage Site includes 120,000 hectares of marine area, part of the Mesoamerican Reef—the second largest barrier reef in the world.
This World Heritage Site has a fascinating marine area, with 80 recorded species of reef-building coral, hundreds of species of fish, and a wealth of other marine life. How many species of fish can you spot?
Sian Ka'an and the Mesoamerican Reef are of vital importance to one another. The Mesoamerican Reef acts as a barrier and protects the coastline and mangroves, while the mangroves filter pollution and serve as nurseries for many creatures.
AXA XL, The University of Queensland, Google, UNESCO, Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, Charles Darwin Foundation, Galapagos National Park, Project Manta, Panedia, Fourth Element