Papahānaumokuākea: World Heritage Site

Coral reef with brightly colored fish. NPS photo.
This 1,200 mile-long string of islands, atolls, coral reefs and adjacent waters, running northwest from the main Hawaiian islands, is one of the world's largest and most significant marine protected areas.

NPS photo.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is located in one of the Northern Pacific Ocean’s most isolated island archipelagos. Covering 36 million hectares (88 million acres) of tumultuous seas, craggy basaltic islets and low coral atolls, this World Heritage Site contains a world of superlatives. This vast ocean area is one of the world’s largest environmentally protected areas and is a refuge for hundreds of endangered and endemic species. As the site of the world’s deepest and northernmost coral reefs, this enormous expanse is one of the earth’s last best examples of a healthy marine ecosystem.

Papahānaumokuākea is the home to most of the world’s dwindling population of Hawaiian monk seals and its low islets and gnarly crags harbor essentially all the Laysan ducks, Nihoa finches, and Blackfooted albatrosses in existence. Waters surrounding the unique coral reefs are the last marine environments dominated by top predators: Swarms of sharks and Giant Ulua (Blue Trevally) cruise the reefs in magnificent schools.

Inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2010, the first new site from the US in 15 years, it is also the first US site to be placed on the World Heritage List for both natural and cultural values. Papahānaumokuākea has long been considered a sacred landscape and seascape by Hawaii’s traditional peoples and is woven into the complex historic and cultural perspectives of indigenous Hawaiians.

The area was first visited by Polynesian voyagers ca. 300 AD as part of a great migration that started around 3000 BC and spread across the Pacific for 2 millennia. These settlers inhabited the islands for a thousand years before European contact. While they settled mainly settled on the main islands of the Archipelago, there is evidence of human use on the islands of Nihoa and Mokumanamana. The significant cultural sites on these islands are recognized in the World Heritage Site and through listing in both the National Register of Historic Places and the State Register for Historic Places. Mokumanamana has the highest density of sacred sites in the Hawaiian Archipelago and has spiritual significance in Hawaiian cosmology. Papahānaumokuākea is also home to a variety of post-Western-contact historic resources, such as those associated with the Battle of Midway and 19th century commercial whaling.

Papahānaumokuākea possesses a rich maritime history. These oral and written accounts tell of navigational knowledge that developed for over a millennium. Recent maritime history is represented with a total of 60 shipwrecks in the area that date back to 1818, and at least 67 naval aircraft that are recorded as being lost in the vicinity of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The loss of naval aircraft mostly took place during World War II and the Battle of Midway. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, especially Midway Atoll, became a important to the United States after the US claimed possession in 1867. Its importance increased in the 20th century beginning with the establishment of the first transpacific cable and station in operation by 1903.

In the 1930s, the United States invested heavily in Midway as a naval base due to the rising threat of Imperial Japan. In 1938, Midway was declared second to Pearl Harbor in terms of naval base development in the Pacific. Midway was of vital importance to both Japanese and American war strategies in World War II.

The historic whaling industry also had a impact on the Hawaiian Islands that is reflected in the World Heritage Site. In the early 19th century, vessels stopped in Honolulu ports for provisions and to recruit new whalers. Native Hawaiians comprised nearly one-fifth of the sailors in the Pacific-based American whaling fleet. When whales became scarce due to overfishing, sailors would travel to the Northwestern Islands in search of whale oil just beyond Kure Atoll. At least ten whaling vessels were reported lost in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. To date, five of these historic vessels have been located.

The great significance of Papahānaumokuākea lies in its natural attributes and how they incorporate living Native Hawaiian cultural and other indigenous and historic connections to the sea. In just one example, modern Hawaiian wayfinders still voyage for navigational training on traditional double-hulled sailing canoes, an aspect of inscription unique to Papahānaumokuākea. Papahānaumokuākea provides important insights into how Oceanic people navigated the Pacific Ocean and the culture of the Pacific Islanders. It also has outstanding ecological importance in its preservation of a healthy marine ecosystem that scientists continue to study today.

World Heritage information:

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument:

Last updated: July 27, 2023