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Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

What “Papahānaumokuākea” Means and How to Pronounce It

National Marine Sanctuaries

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UNESCO Inscribes Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to its World Heritage List

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Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument encompasses 1,200 miles of nearly pristine reefs and atolls, and 140,000 square miles of surrounding waters, in the northwestern portion of the Hawaiian Island archipelago.

monk seal

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that fewer than 1,200 critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals exist in the wild. The seal’s natural habitat, plus that of 22 other endangered species, is fully protected within the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument -- the first World Heritage mixed natural and cultural “seascape.” Photo courtesy of James Watt.

On July 30, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument as a mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage Site, the venerable global leader affirmed that the unique island chain is one of only 26 places on Earth where conservation is as crucial to human history as it is to wildlife and natural resources.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that comprise the Monument are known by a variety of names. Early western explorers called them the Leeward Islands. Native Hawaiians call them Āina Momona,the Place of Abundance, and indeed, the Monument is bountiful both biologically and ecologically. Its 1,200 miles of remote, nearly pristine reefs and atolls are surrounded by 140,000 square miles of water that provides protected habitat for 7,000 marine and terrestrial species, including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the Laysan duck, and the Nihoa millerbird. As nesting and foraging grounds for 14 million seabirds, the Monument is also the largest tropical seabird rookery in the world.


The Kūpuna -- Revered Elder Islands


Hoei Maru shipwreck at Kure Atoll, located within the Marine National Monument.

The Monument is steeped in native Hawaiian history and cultural significance. Ancient Polynesian explorers of yore made their way to Hawaii from points west by canoe and without benefit of compass to guide them. The tradition endures in these Kūpuna, the Revered Elder Islands, as native Hawaiians have called the region in modern times.

Just as it was in generations past, the 300-mile voyage from the island of Kaua‘i in the main Hawaiian Islands to the islands of Nihoa and Mokumanamana in the Monument is still considered the best training ground for apprentices of Hawaiian wayfinding, or “non-instrument navigation.” Once a modern wayfinder has successfully completed this voyage, he or she is considered qualified to attempt to navigate a canoe on long-distance, trans-Pacific routes.

Additionally, two islands in the Monument possess the highest concentrations of ritual sites in Hawaii and bear testimony to the shared historical origins of Polynesian societies. In predominant Native Hawaiian tradition, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are believed to be the place where Life originates, and to which it returns. Thus the name given to the area by the Monument's Native Hawaiian advisory group: Papahānaumokuākea, which contains variants of the native Hawaiian names for “Earth Mother” and “Sky Father.”

World Heritage Inscription


A treasure trove of biodiversity, the Monument provides habitat for some 7,000 species, including vast numbers and varieties of tropical fish. These Hawaiian squirrelfish are among the most colorful. Commercial fishing in the Monument ceased in early 2010, and permits are required for all human access and activities. Photo courtesy of James Watt.

Regardless of its name or designation, this remote and remarkable Place of Abundance is clearly worthy of recognition and protection for future generations.
UNESCO’s World Heritage inscription acknowledges the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument’s cultural and natural value, as well as the nation’s and the State of Hawaii’s long-term commitment to its management and protection. The Monument is now part of a prestigious list that includes such famous landmarks as the Great Pyramids of Egypt, India’s Taj Mahal, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
“World Heritage inscription is groundbreaking and exciting for NOAA,” notes Monument Superintendent ‘Aulani Wilhelm. “As the first marine World Heritage site in the United States, it’s the first one where NOAA has a primary management role.”
“UNESCO’s decision to list this first mixed natural and cultural ‘seascape’ affirms the founding philosophy of the World Heritage Convention of the inextricable link between nature and culture,” Wilhelm continues. “It also brings global recognition of the importance of marine heritage and the intimate relationship that living indigenous cultures in the Pacific still have with the ocean today. We hope that Papahānaumokuāka’s inscription will help expand the global view of culture and the contributions of Oceanic peoples to World Heritage.”