The Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California in northwestern Mexico were inscribed as a World Heritage Site during the Twenty-ninth Session of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO in Durban, South Africa.
The area is made up of 244 islands, islets, and coastal areas located in the Gulf of California, extending from the Colorado River Delta in the north to 270 km southeast to the tip of the Baja California Peninsula.
All the component sites included in this property lie within nine protected areas, with a total area of 1,838,012 hectares, of which 25% are terrestrial and 75% are marine. It represents 5% of the total area of the Gulf of California.
This property includes a diversity of habitats that range from temperate wetlands in the north to a tropical environment in the south. 181 species of birds have been recorded and there are 695 species of vascular plants, of which 28 species or subspecies are endemic to the islands or the region.
The relevance of the inscription of the property lies in the fact that it represents a unique example of nature. Known by Jacques Cousteau as the “acquarium of the world,” this region contains a rich and diverse marine life – 39% of the world’s total number of marine mammal species and a third of the world’s total number of marine cetacean species.
Part of the catalyst for this extraordinary designation was the purchase of Isla Espíritu Island off the coast of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico in January 2003. The International Community Foundation (ICF) and its donors provided $250,000 toward the $3.3 million purchase price, which also had strong financial support from World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and the Packard Foundation. President Vicente Fox issued a decree in January 2003 to expropriate the island for the federal government to be managed as a national park by the Mexican National Commission for Protected Areas (CONANP).
ICF also provided a $250,000 challenge grant to the United Nations Foundation with three goals:
• fund early infrastructure needs on the island;
• begin eradication of non-native species, such as rats and goats; and
• initiatiate and follow the process to declare the national park and its surrounding marine areas as a World Heritage Site.
The United Nations Foundation matched this funding 1:1, providing a total of $500,000 toward these three objectives. Local, regional, national, and international groups have been working since 2003 to achieve all three of these goals.
The islands of the Gulf of California are a recreational destination for international visitors from around the world. Sea kayaking, day-tripping, bird-watching, scuba diving, and fishing are common activities for tourists. Millions of migratory sea birds use the islands seasonally for mating and nesting. Marine life is abundant with sea lions, whales, sea turtles, and whales.
This designation provides the first international protection for the marine areas that surround Mexico’s existing Gulf of California Islands National Park.