The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has no central "ocean" theme, but many of its myriad studies, documentation projects and educational and cultural initiatives touch on the ocean. UNESCO has captured many astonishing expressions of the sea's powerful influence on human culture. Some examples are profiled and linked on this page. (UNESCO's numerous contributions to science and education are profiled in other parts of the World Ocean Observatory.)

UNESCO was founded in 1945 to contribute "to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture." Its ocean-related cultural work includes these examples:

World Heritage List

The 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention created a program to protect natural and cultural sites of "outstanding universal value." A specific initiative to identify marine sites and advance their preservation is underway. The World Heritage List also includes many sites from the Small Island Nations whose environments are determined by the ocean.

The World Heritage List and Interactive Map

The World Heritage List includes 830 properties having outstanding universal value as part of the world’s cultural and natural heritage. Thirty-five sites contain maritime components and this number is growing.

Coasts and Small Islands

Coasts and Small Islands is a global platform for environmentally sound, socially equitable, culturally respectful and economically viable development in coastal regions and small islands.


The history of slavery is a tragic record of violence and death -- millions of lives lost, families decimated, tribes depleted, communities destroyed. Beginning in ancient times, slaves were treated as goods in world trade.

In the largest of the slave routes, the trans-Atlantic trade, human beings were exchanged by ship. They were commodities in a maritime distribution network and financial process that connected four continents: Africa, South America, the Caribbean and North America, and Europe. But the slave route also outlines an extraordinary cultural process. The dissemination of African customs and artistic expression has left its indelible mark on every corner of the earth. Around the world, the descendents of the slave trade's survivors have informed, provoked, and enriched every aspect of contemporary culture.

UNESCO has launched a comprehensive cultural initiative designed to break the historical silence surrounding the slave trade. Here are some points of entry.

The Slave Route Project

The Slave Route project focuses on the historical study of the causes and dynamics of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, its consequences and resulting global interactions. By breaking the historical silence, it aims to encourage a culture of tolerance and peaceful coexistence between races and peoples.

The Forgotten Slaves Project

This ongoing project combines archaeology and history to uncover and share the meaning of the tragedy of the shipwrecked vessel L’Utile and her abandoned slaves. This French East India Company ship wrecked in 1761 on the Island de Sable (Tromelin) while transporting slaves illegally procured at Madagascar and destined for Mauritius. The ship’s crew abandoned 60 slaves on the island with a three-month supply of food. The promise to return for them was never kept. But 15 years later, in 1776, eight surviving slaves were rescued: seven women and an infant of only 8 months.

Tromelin: L'Utile 1761, Les Esclaves Oubliés (in French)

Details of the submarine and land archaeological excavations of the wrecked 18th-century slave ship, L’Utile, reveal the extraordinary survival story and circumstances endured by Malagay slaves abandoned on the island of Tromelin.

Breaking the Silence: Transatlantic Slave Trade Education Project

The Transatlantic Slave Trade project aims to improve the teaching of history by telling the whole story of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, including the suffering it caused and its social, cultural and economic impact on the Atlantic world.

Small Islands Voice

The culture of small islands is maritime by definition. Each island's ecology and community are formed by the sea,and are quickly affected by degradation of the marine environment. Today, small island nations struggle with the limits of their economies, resultant poverty, declining populations, diminished education and health care services, and deteriorating community values.

To redress these problems, UNESCO created the Small Islands Voice initiative.

Small Islands Voice

The goal of this initiative is to ensure that the voice of the general public in small islands is heard loud and clear and becomes a driving force for island development. It offers islanders in the Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Caribbean Sea opportunities "to speak and act," and encourages island youth to debate and act using new technologies.

The Caribbean Sea Project and Its Sisters

These projects heighten young peoples' effective response to the marine environment while encouraging intercultural learning. They address ocean pollution by training school children in beach science and management.

The Caribbean Sea Project

As a key element of the Associated Schools Project, the Caribbean Sea Project forms collaborations among schools in Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago. Similar regional initiatives include the Baltic Sea Project, the Blue Danube River Project and the Western Mediterranean Sea Project.

The Sandwatch Project

Started in 1999, Sandwatch involves island and mainland communities in the Caribbean, Pacific, and Indian Oceans regions, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. A Sandwatch community works to develop awareness of its own marine and coastal environment, its fragile nature, and the need to use it wisely. In the schools, Sandwatch makes science “live” using field monitoring and applications ranging from biology to woodwork, poetry to mathematics.

On the Frontlines of Climate Change

The Frontlines Forum seeks community-based experiences with climate change: impacts, opportunities and adaptation strategies. It provides a platform for sharing observations, concerns and innovations. The Frontlines Forum invites contributions from indigenous or rural communities in small islands, high altitudes, the Arctic, desert margins and other vulnerable environments.

The Frontlines Forum

A forum for indigenous peoples, small islands and vulnerable communities, the grassroots Internet forum On the Frontlines of Climate Change was launched by UNESCO, in partnership with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD), the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issue (SPFII) and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR).

The Canoe is the People

People have relied on small craft to adapt to the ocean environment since the beginning of civilization. Boats are both functional and metaphorical. They often lie at the heart of a community event or a religious ceremony, representing both the reality and the symbol of human "passage." Projects around the world document indigenous knowledge of local boats. Many involve the restoration and/or replication of specific vessels as authentic and vital expressions of cultural identity.

The Canoe is the People

The Canoe is the People Project documents indigenous experience by exploring the knowledge and skills of traditional Pacific navigation. Designed for Pacific youth, it will be of great interest to others as well.

Underwater Cultural Resources

Not all cultural relics are found on land. Over the past decades, the invention of SCUBA gear, underwater vehicles, and other technologies has enabled people to investigate or salvage a vast number of shipwrecks and their artifacts along our coasts and in our seas. Frequently these two approaches, archaeological investigation and salvage, have been in conflict.

UNESCO has worked to foster communication among all those interested in underwater resources, particularly the archaeological, museum, and salvage communities. This effort has led to scientific documentation, excavation, recovery and restoration of numerous shipwrecks, inundated sites, and other submerged cultural resources, many of which are profiled elsewhere in the World Ocean Observatory.

The Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage

The UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage is the international community’s response to shipwreck looting and destruction. It states comprehensive high standards to protect Underwater Cultural Heritage. This international convention, once ratified by the requisite nations, will provide structure and clarity to this rapidly growing area of cultural investigation.

What Lies Beneath - Adventures in Underwater Archaeology

Treasure hunters and historians race to the bottom of the sea as technological advances open up new possibilities for undersea archaeology.

With an estimated three million undiscovered shipwrecks spread across the oceans, the journey of discovery has only just begun. Fueled by new technologies, and the growth of sport diving, underwater archaeology is now booming.

Award-winning archaeologist and broadcaster Win Scutt explores the archaeological wealth at the bottom of the sea...

Radio broadcast from The Changing World - BBC World Service and Public Radio International.

Sound of Our Water

UNESCO sponsors a worldwide project encouraging young people to create music about and with water. At this site you can listen, or join the project and contribute your own composition!

Sound of Our Water (In French and English; songs in many languages)

Young digital artists continually add short pieces available for listening at this website, which also outlines critical facts about water, and explains how schools can join the worldwide project in which students share artistic expression and ideas while developing digital art and creative skills.