Papahānaumokuākea is the name given to a vast and isolated linear cluster of small, low lying islands and atolls, with their surrounding ocean, extending some 1,931 kilometres to the north west of the main Hawaiian Archipelago, located in the north-central Pacific Ocean. The property comprises the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which extends almost 2000 km from southeast to northwest.
The property includes a significant portion of the Hawai’i-Emperor hotspot trail, constituting an outstanding example of island hotspot progression. Much of the property is made up of pelagic and deepwater habitats, with notable features such as seamounts and submerged banks, extensive coral reefs, lagoons and 14 km2 emergent lands distributed between a number of eroded high islands, pinnacles, atoll islands and cays. With a total area of around 362,075 km2 it is one of the largest marine protected areas in the world. The geomorphological history and isolation of the archipelago have led to the development of an extraordinary range of habitats and features, including an extremely high degree of endemism. Largely as a result of its isolation, marine ecosystems and ecological processes are virtually intact, leading to exceptional biomass accumulated in large apex predators. Island environments have, however, been altered through human use, and although some change is irreversible there are also examples of successful restoration. The area is host to numerous endangered or threatened species, both terrestrial and marine, some of which depend solely on Papahānaumokuākea for their survival.
The pristine natural heritage of the area has deep cosmological and traditional significance for living Native Hawaiian culture, as an ancestral environment, as an embodiment of the Hawaiian concept of kinship between people and the natural world, and as the place where it is believed that life originates and where the spirits return to after death.
On two of the islands, Nihoa and Makumanamana, there are archaeological remains relating to pre-European settlement and use, including a large ensemble of shrines, heiau, of a type specific to Papahānaumokuākea, but which resemble those of inland Tahiti. These, together with the sites of stone figures that show a strong relationship to similar carvings in the Marquesas, can be said to contribute to an understanding of Hawaiians strong cultural affiliation with Tahiti and the Marquesas.