English Français

Protecting
UNESCO marine World Heritage
through scientific research

Photo Exhibition

Initiative organized in the framework of the forthcoming
United Nations Decade of Ocean Science
for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)

Exhibition developed with the support of
the Government of the Principality of Monaco
In collaboration with Monaco Explorations

© Olivier Borde / Monaco Explorations

While UNESCO’s marine World Heritage sites are best known for their outstanding ecosystems and iconic biodiversity, it is their capacity to turn science and innovation into on-the-ground action and decision making that drives their conservation leadership.

The exhibit 'Protecting UNESCO marine World Heritage through scientific research' highlights how local experts are spearheading scientific innovation through environmental DNA, special camera techniques, and the use of satellite data coupled with species tagging.

Through four scientific research missions carried out by Monaco Explorations, the exhibition illustrates how scientific research has become crucial for the sustainable conservation of the world’s most treasured places.

Exploring the unknown

UNESCO marine World Heritage sites are home to an exceptional variety of habitats as well as unique and lesser-known marine life. Scientists work tirelessly to study and map this maze of unknown caves, coral reefs and tunnels, with the aim of identifying new species and collecting the scientific data essential to a better understanding of these ecosystems. This data is central to the implementation of effective and sustainable management measures.

Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (Palau)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 2012

Blue Hole, exploration by a diver
© Magali Boussion / Monaco Explorations

Taking action for a healthier and more resilient ocean

Building resilience at the local level is an essential component of the long-term global response to climate change. Through monitoring and collaboration with nations, UNESCO has promoted resilience across the world’s flagship marine protected areas for almost 50 years. The establishment of no-take zones as part of fisheries management, oil and dumping moratoria, or the reduction of unsustainable coastal development are core conservation outcomes of this work.

Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Philippines)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 1993

Green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas
© Tet Lara / Oceanographic Institute, Albert Ist Foundation, Prince of Monaco

A network dedicated to monitoring sites’ state of conservation

World Heritage sites are subject to permanent monitoring of their state of conservation (biodiversity, endemic species, etc.) which is carried out by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in collaboration with its Advisory Bodies. Site managers and local communities, park rangers, scientists and governments are working hand in hand to coordinate action on the ground to ensure the safeguarding of marine World Heritage sites for future generations.

Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Philippines)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 1993

A Ranger prepares to release a green turtle equipped with a satellite tag
© Tet Lara / Oceanographic Institute, Albert Ist Foundation, Prince of Monaco

Discovering new marine species

Of the 6,000 species of tropical vertebrate fish currently known, only 2,000 had their DNA sequenced by the end of 2016. Since the beginning of the missions supported by Monaco Explorations, 1,000 new species have been added to this reference database, which is shared internationally across the scientific community and facilitates the identification of marine species.

Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 2008

Sea snake, also known as “knit striped yellow snake”, Laticauda saintgironsi
© Nadia Faure / Marbec Joint Research Unit. University of Montpellier / Monaco Explorations

Building resilience and climate change adaptation

What is the current response of coral reefs to the effects of climate change, ocean acidification or other forms of environmental stress? Will reefs be able to adapt to the successive global episodes of massive coral bleaching? Scientific research provides valuable data, for example by studying coral behavior in UNESCO World Heritage sites, where some colonies resist seawater acidification. Understanding these adaptation mechanisms is essential to address the critical challenge of climate change and enable UNESCO and its partners to strengthen the resilience of World Heritage-listed coral reefs.

Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (Palau)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 2012

Scientist conducting coral reef research
© Richard Brooks / Monaco Explorations

Impacts of climate change on coral reefs

A 2018 UNESCO study showed that delivering on the Paris Agreement is essential for the survival of World Heritage-listed coral reefs. Scientists illustrated how reducing emissions, combined with appropriate management of local pressures, would allow reefs to continue providing vital ecosystem services, including food production, coastal protection and recreation, to future generations.

Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 2008

Coral reef
© Nadia Faure / Marbec Joint Research Unit. University of Montpellier / Monaco Explorations

A natural laboratory

The Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (Palau) contains 52 marine lakes, which are invaluable as “natural laboratories” for scientific study of evolution. Each year, visitors from all over the world flock to Jellyfish Lake, where they can snorkel with thousands of jellyfish that can’t be found anywhere else. With support from UNESCO, researchers discovered that sunscreen was impacting the fragile lake ecosystem and its jellyfish. In 2020 Palau was among the first countries to ban toxic sunscreen.

Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (Palau)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 2012

Golden jellyfish, Mastigias papua etpisoni
© Magali Boussion / Monaco Explorations

Searching for super corals

As the ocean takes up CO2, it becomes more acidic, making it more difficult for some organisms to grow and for reefs to recover from events such as massive heat waves. In 2019, several missions supported by Monaco Explorations studied the resistance of corals to ocean acidification and environmental stress. They investigated corals that are surviving, surprisingly, in increasingly warmer and more acidic waters. Finding out how these “super corals” adapt to extreme environments may help unlock the secret to coral resilience and support the protection of World Heritage-listed coral reefs.

Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 2008

Deer horn coral or Acropore, Acropora sp.
© Nadia Faure / Marbec Joint Research Unit. University of Montpellier / Monaco Explorations

Marine megafauna census

A vast inventory of biodiversity has been undertaken around the world to identify marine megafauna. Monaco Explorations explore marine World Heritage sites in order to study, identify and count marine fauna, using two complementary techniques: environmental DNA, as well as baited cameras and long duration recording cameras. To date, few of these biodiversity hotspots have been sampled for scientific purposes.

Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 2006

School of leather groupers, Dermatolepis dermatolepis
© Olivier Borde / Monaco Explorations

Environmental DNA

As marine life swims, mates or evolves in its environment, traces of DNA accumulate in the surrounding waters. Like a fingerprint, the analysis of environmental DNA contained in a water sample can reveal the hidden biodiversity of a reef and the presence of the species living there. This non-invasive method does not require capturing wildlife. The analyzed DNA sequences are compared to the DNA reference database of known species. Identification is often confirmed by recordings from baited or long duration recording cameras. The technique sometimes reveals new, previously unknown species.

Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 2006

Diver meeting a school of barracudas, Sphyraena barracuda
© Olivier Borde / Monaco Explorations

Baited and long duration recording cameras

Baited cameras and long duration recording cameras are part of the techniques used to study marine wildlife in the absence of human presence. Without disturbing the animals, the cameras record wildlife attracted by a bait placed in front of the lens which allows researchers to discover the diversity of species inhabiting the ocean depths, estimate their quantity or ‘biomass’ and study their behavior. Through the use of a precise protocol, the cameras make it possible to monitor the evolution of an area over time.

Scientific mission of Monaco Explorations carried out in a World Heritage marine site

A scientist prepares baited cameras during a mission, with H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco
© Olivier Borde / Monaco Explorations

Revealing hidden biodiversity

The different techniques used for this scientific research favor the identification and the census of marine wildlife, which usually remains undetected through visual counts by divers. The currently known and identified species are only a small part of the underwater life present in marine World Heritage sites, so documentation and mapping are key. Today only 16% of known marine species are genetically referenced.

Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 2008

Blue-skinned shark, Prionace glauca (Photo taken from images filmed with a baited camera)
© IRD - Laurent Vigliola / Seamounts

Science in action: Shark tagging

Engineers have developed so-called tags, small devices that record a variety of data such as GPS coordinates, dive depth, temperature and light level. The latest tags no longer require the capture of sharks but can be attached directly by scuba divers or free divers. The recorded information, which is essential for site managers, experts and ecologists, is then transmitted to scientists through satellite networks.

Scientific mission of Monaco Explorations carried out in a World Heritage marine site

Satellite and acoustic beacon used for shark tagging
© Olivier Borde / Monaco Explorations

Discovering shark movements and breeding behavior

To protect species sustainably, it is important to know their movements, migrations and reproductive behavior. The technique of shark tagging and the installation of GPS sensors or satellite and acoustic beacons on these large marine predators make it possible to obtain this information. Scientists use the recorded data from tags to find out where sharks feed and reproduce, and these areas often do not overlap. The collected data is a valuable tool to ensure sharks' effective preservation.

Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 2006

Galapagos shark, Carcharhinus galapagensis
© Olivier Borde / Monaco Explorations

International cooperation for the conservation of migratory sharks

Shark tagging is essential to better understand and document migratory patterns. It is thanks to satellite tags that researchers discovered that sharks travel between marine World Heritage sites, including Cocos Island National Park (Costa Rica), Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia) and Galápagos Islands (Ecuador). This information triggered international cooperation between nations in the region to protect the sharks while they migrate from one World Heritage site to another.

Scientific mission of Monaco Explorations carried out in a World Heritage marine site

Scientists and free divers prepare the necessary equipment for shark tagging
© Olivier Borde / Monaco Explorations

Protecting endangered species

The protection of marine animals, such as sharks and other large vertebrates, is today at the heart of environmental concerns. The large predators are particularly threatened by the ever-increasing fishing pressure, which puts certain species at risk of over-exploitation or even extinction. The great hammerhead and the scalloped hammerhead sharks are classified on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species as globally Critically Endangered, primarily because of illegal, unreported or unsustainable fishing and the slow reproduction of sharks.

Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 2006

School of great hammerhead sharks, Sphyrna mokarran
© Yves Lefèvre / Monaco Explorations

Experienced divers at the service of science

The marine biologists and experts participating in the missions coordinated by Monaco Explorations are for the most part professional divers and experienced scientists who, together with local scientists, put their skills and know-how at the service of researchers. To tag a shark, divers must get as close as possible, without stressing or upsetting the mighty creature. They need a steady hand as they usually only get one chance to tag the shark. The shark tagging operation can also be carried out while snorkeling.

Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 2006

Diver preparing to mark a Galápagos shark with a satellite tag
© Olivier Borde / Monaco Explorations

Deep-sea exploration

The exploration of the deep seabed and the study of its unique biodiversity are undertaken during scientific missions with the help of a remotely operated underwater vehicle, the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) H800, equipped with recording cameras and a sampling arm. This robot, which operates up to 1,000 meters below sea level and whose observation revealed many new species, records and collects samples used to explore and census the deep-sea benthic fauna, a previously understudied ecosystem.

Scientific mission of Monaco Explorations carried out in a World Heritage marine site

Launch of a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) for deep-sea exploration
© Olivier Borde / Monaco Explorations

State-of-the-art technology for scientific exploration

Remotely operated underwater vehicles are unmanned and highly maneuverable robots that can be used to explore the depths of the ocean while being operated from the water surface to study deep-sea biodiversity. The scientific research and missions coordinated by Monaco Explorations generally aim to mobilize the international community, contributing to the sustainable protection of the ocean and the acquisition of the necessary means to achieve this goal.

Scientific mission of Monaco Explorations carried out in a World Heritage marine site

H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco exploring the deep sea using the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV)
© Olivier Borde / Monaco Explorations

Acknowledgments

UNESCO wishes to thank Monaco Explorations, in particular for the missions carried out to the marine World Heritage sites, their contribution to the realization of this exhibition and the gracious provision of these photographs. UNESCO also wishes to thank the Government of the Principality of Monaco for its continued support to the protection of UNESCO marine World Heritage. This collaboration helps to draw much needed attention to the global challenges marine World Heritage sites are facing, and how scientific research is essential to their long-term preservation.

UNESCO thanks the local teams of marine World Heritage sites, the photographers of the exhibition, as well as the Permanent Delegations of Colombia, France, Monaco, Palau and the Philippines for their support in the realization of this exhibition.

Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia)
UNESCO World Heritage marine site since 2006

Underwater ballet: Spotted Eagle Rays, Aetobatus narinari
© Olivier Borde / Monaco Explorations

In the Framework of

Initiative organized in the framework of the forthcoming
United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)

Partners

Exhibition developed with the support of the Government of the Principality of Monaco
In collaboration with Monaco Explorations