Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California

States of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora, Sinaloa, and Nayarit
N27 37 36.012 W112 32 44.988
Date of Inscription: 2005
Minor boundary modification inscribed year: 2007, 2011
Criteria: (vii)(ix)(x)
Property : 688,558 ha
Buffer zone: 1,210,477 ha
Ref: 1182ter
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The site comprises 244 islands, islets and coastal areas that are located in the Gulf of California in north-eastern Mexico. The Sea of Cortez and its islands have been called a natural laboratory for the investigation of speciation. Moreover, almost all major oceanographic processes occurring in the planet’s oceans are present in the property, giving it extraordinary importance for study. The site is one of striking natural beauty in a dramatic setting formed by rugged islands with high cliffs and sandy beaches, which contrast with the brilliant reflection from the desert and the surrounding turquoise waters. It is home to 695 vascular plant species, more than in any marine and insular property on the World Heritage List. Equally exceptional is the number of fish species: 891, 90 of them endemic. The site, moreover, contains 39% of the world’s total number of species of marine mammals and a third of the world’s marine cetacean species.

The Gulf of California in Northwestern Mexico, once famously dubbed the “Aquarium of the World”, is recognized as an area of global marine conservation significance. Less known but equally spectacular are the terrestrial conservation values of the islands and coastal areas most of which are part of the Sonoran Desert. As a serial property, Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California includes representative components of all major oceanographic zones of the biogeographically diverse Gulf, thereby capturing a broad spectrum of landscapes and conservation values. Extending from the Colorado River Delta in the north to 270 kilometres southeast of the tip of the Baja California Peninsula, the property includes 244 islands and islets clustered in eight major groups and another nine protected areas with coastal and marine zones. The total area is 1,837,194 hectares, of which about one quarter are terrestrial and the remainder marine.

The rugged islands and coastal desert contrasting with the surrounding turquoise waters are of striking natural beauty. Speciation both on land in the many islands and in the Gulf has resulted in a notable diversity of life forms with a high degree of endemism. The productivity of the Gulf also leads an extraordinary natural abundance of many marine species. There are some 900 species of fish, around 90 of them endemic, and roughly one third of the World’s marine mammals occur within the property. The islands and islets are mostly of volcanic origin. There are numerous species of succulents, including some of the World’s tallest cacti, exceeding 25 meters in height. Overall, some 700 species of vascular plants have been recorded. There are many species and impressive numbers of resident and migratory birds with some small islands hosting major proportions of the global population of Heermann’s Gulls, Blue-footed Booby and Black Storm Petrel.

Criterion (vii): The serial property is of stunning landscape beauty with dramatic contrasts between the rugged and seemingly inhospitable islands, coastal deserts and the brilliant reflection from the surrounding turquoise waters. High rocky cliffs and sandy beaches in countless forms and colours rim the islands and coasts. The beauty of the desert landscape is complemented by the fascinating and highly diverse desert vegetation and the ubiquitous birds. To the south, the islands are covered with deciduous vegetation and stand out from the vast blue sea. The diversity and abundance of marine life associated with spectacular submarine terrain and unusual water transparency turn the underwater seascape into a globally renowned diver’s paradise.

Criterion (ix): A major foundation of the Gulf of California’s phenomenal marine productivity are nutrient-rich upwelling oceanic currents supporting abundant phytoplankton and zooplankton, which in turn provide nurseries for larval reef fish. However, many other oceanographic processes, such as wind-driven currents, tidal mixing and thermohaline circulation, occur in the property, giving it extraordinary importance for conservation and the study of marine and coastal processes. The Gulf of California is notable for containing ecologically distinct bridge islands, populated across past land bridges, and oceanic islands populated by sea and air. The multitude and diversity of islands in terms of origin, size, environmental conditions and distance to the mainland has enabled an ongoing evolutionary speciation and endemism of major significance for conservation and science. The many components of the property are both part of a vast landscape and distinctive in many ways, ranging from a variety of pelagic and benthic environments to coral reefs, as well as mudflats, coastal wetlands and various types of desert and deciduous forest.

Criterion (x): The diversity of terrestrial and marine life in the property is extraordinary and constitutes a global priority for biodiversity conservation. On land, the close to 700 species of vascular plants are notable within a desert environment. There are 115 species of reptiles, almost half of them endemic, in some cases even to individual islands. 154 land bird species have been recorded and the property is of particular importance to migratory species. Almost 900 species of fish have been documented with some 90 species occurring exclusively in the Gulf of California or parts of it. These include the critically endangered species Black Sea Bass and Totoaba, as well as the vulnerable Basking Shark. The serial property provides habitat for roughly one third of the world’s total number of marine mammals, sometimes in impressive numbers, for example huge colonies of California Sea Lion. The five species of dolphin include the critically endangered Gulf Porpoise or “Vaquita”. Eleven species of whale visit the northern Gulf, such as the endangered Blue Whale and Fin Whale and the vulnerable Sperm Whale. The coral reef at Cabo Pulmo is one of the most important in the Gulf of California and in the eastern Pacific. The marine habitats also harbour large concentrations of macro-invertebrate life with many endemic species, especially in the intertidal zones.

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One comment

  • The ultimate way in which to appreciate the Sea of Cortez is, of course, to jump in. Thus, where conditions allowed, we donned wetsuits and took the skiffs out for a spot of snorkelling. Among coral gardens littered with sea stars we found a teeming kaleidoscope of reef fish, including such gems as Cortez angels and guineafowl puffers. And at one sheltered berth beneath a towering sea stack, we even slipped overboard beside a colony of California sea lions. Leaving the adults sprawled among the boulders, the pups swam out to join us.

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