The Seychelles' remote atoll of Aldabra has been listed as an Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA) alongside other areas which are key habitats for various threatened species, said the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF).
According to SIF, Aldabra was selected because it is an important habitat for the only known remaining population of dugongs in the Seychelles archipelago, and it forms part of the breeding grounds and migratory corridor for humpback whales in the region.
The scientists at the Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force selected 37 other areas in the western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas which are key habitats for various threatened marine mammal species.
The chief executive of SIF, Frauke Fleischer-Dogley, said, "We are delighted with Aldabra's sixth international designation which specifically recognises the importance of Aldabra's protected habitats for endangered marine mammals in the region."
The Important Marine Mammal Area are defined as areas of habitat which are important for one or several marine mammal species which would benefit from conservation action. The areas are identified through a carefully planned process in which experts assess evidence of marine mammal distribution and habitat use in that area.
Aldabra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the habitat for the only known remaining population of dugongs in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the western Indian Ocean. Classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, dugongs in East Africa are thought to be highly threatened.
Dugongs - sometimes called sea cows - are shy and gentle creatures that survive solely on a diet of seagrass. They were hunted and slaughtered by early settlers and sailors to the islands for their meat and oil.
"Being the only area in Seychelles that is home to probably a resident dugong population, this designation provides us with new impetus to survey the population to understand its migratory patterns and size, a long-standing SIF project," said Fleischer-Dogley.
She added that the expected "knowledge to be acquired will allow us to implement new measures to better protect and conserve the dugong populations here."
The Aldabra Atoll was also chosen as it forms part of the breeding grounds and migratory corridor for humpback whales in the region. Humpback whales which make up the highest proportion of marine mammal sightings on Aldabra are seen with calves between July and November. This is part of the broader humpback whale breeding area known in the region.
Aldabra has extensive seagrass beds inside its lagoon as well as on the outer reef flat. These seagrass beds are considered to be near-pristine due to little human impact and strict protection of the atoll.
Aldabra Atoll is one of the most remote and difficult places to access, even for citizens of the island nation. The area is a special nature reserve protected by the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF), and only conservation officers, scientific researchers and a few very carefully selected visitors are allowed on the ring of coralline islands with its shallow central lagoon.
The atoll is home to a population of endemic giant Aldabra tortoises which fluctuates to around 100,000, more than the 95,000 population of Seychelles.
Recently, Aldabra was also recognised as an outstanding marine protected area with a Blue Park designation by the Marine Conservation Institute. Aldabra was awarded the Platinum Level Blue Park status which is the highest level of the award; only 10 sites in the world have this designation.