Forty-five World Heritage Sites – places of “outstanding cultural or natural value” – are located in marine areas. And many are also fabulous diving spots. Jointly, marine World Heritage sites comprise one third of the planet’s marine protected areas, in 34 countries. They are designated by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The first marine Heritage Site to be listed was the Galapagos Islands, in 1978. In the Pacific Ocean some 1,000 km from the South American continent, these 19 islands and the surrounding marine reserve have been called a unique living museum and showcase of evolution. Situated at the confluence of three ocean currents, the Galapagos are a melting pot of marine species.
Next listing was Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It contains the world’s largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 types of coral, 1500 species of fish and 4000 types of mollusc.
Australia has the most Marine World Heritage sites of any country: five. Ningaloo Coast was inscribed most recently in June 2011. Ningaloo, in Western Australia, is famous for its whale sharks. Also on the West coast is Shark Bay. This has three exceptional natural features: its vast sea-grass beds, which are the largest and richest in the world; its dugong (sea cow) population; and its stromatolites. Stromatolites are rock like structures built by microbes, similarly to how corals build reefs. Shark’s Bay stromatolites are 2000 to 3000 years old, but stromatolites have been being built for 3.5 billion years. Shark Bay is also home to five species of endangered mammals.
Further north is the Philippines’ Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. In the middle of the Sulu Sea, Tubbataha is 128 km from inhabited islands and is dived by liveaboard from March to June. The site comprises pristine coral reef with perpendicular walls, extensive lagoons and two coral atolls.
Another fantastic diving area is the French Pacific Ocean archipelago of New Caledonia. The Lagoons provide habitat to a number of emblematic or threatened marine species such as turtles, whales and dugongs whose population here is the third largest in the world.
Moving to the northern hemisphere, Cocos Island National Park, 550 km off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, is the only island in the tropical eastern Pacific with a tropical rainforest. The underwater world of the national park is one of the best places in the world to view large pelagic species such as sharks, rays, tuna and dolphins. Also listed in Costa Rica is Guanacaste.
Colombia boasts the Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary. This vast marine park, the largest no-fishing zone in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, provides a critical habitat for internationally threatened marine species, and is a major source of nutrients resulting in large aggregations of marine biodiversity. It is in particular a ‘reservoir’ for sharks, giant grouper and billfish and is one of the few places in the world where sightings of the short-nosed ragged-toothed shark, a deepwater shark, have been confirmed. Widely recognized as one of the top diving sites in the world, due to the presence of steep walls and caves of outstanding natural beauty, these deep waters support important populations of large predators and pelagic species (e.g. aggregations of over 200 hammerhead sharks and over 1,000 silky sharks, whale sharks and tuna have been recorded) in an undisturbed environment where they maintain natural behavioural patterns.
Finally, Europe also has diveable Marine World Heritage Sites, notably Saint Kilda in Scotland with its oceanic blue water and visibility. The only dive site in Britain which is outside the green coastal waters.