Site details

(lookup in gazetteer)
Flag of Portugal
5 stars - Fully protected as a national park or Natura 2000 site by national legislation
LTBR Reference Site

Map type: Google Maps  SVG (dynamic)  Image (static)

Panorama from Arrábida Coast. Photo: E J Gonçalves

Extensive description of site:

The Arrábida Marine Park is a 25 Km stretch of coastline (55 km2) located on the Portuguese western shore. Most of the area faces south, being protected from the prevailing north and northwest winds by the adjacent mountain chain of Arrábida. The shore is very steep and the intertidal zone includes mainly rocky cliffs, small beaches and several areas covered by boulders. The subtidal begins with a narrow stretch of rocky substratum that extends offshore for some tens of meters, and to depths of less than 15 m (except at the Espichel Cape area where it reaches more than 40 m). Many large boulders resulting from the erosion of the nearby calcareous cliffs increase habitat complexity. In some places, sandy beaches interrupt this stretch. Beyond the rocky substratum, sandy and muddy bottoms are found. All habitats typical of the region are present, except for intertidal mud flats. There are a wide range of different conditions (exposed and sheltered, sand banks, sandy and muddy bottoms, highly heterogeneous rocky habitats, bedrock habitats, vertical intertidal, seagrass beds). Only rock pools are limited to a few locations due to the vertical orientation of the cliffs. The strategic position of the Arrábida Marine Park makes it an ideal laboratory for studies on marine biodiversity and climate change. The shore north and south from the site is mainly composed of sandy bottoms, which gives this site the characteristics of a “continental island”. The main orientation of the shore (facing south) allows many organisms that only occur in sheltered places to thrive in the exposed western shore of Portugal. This is also an important biogeographic transition zone of the Lusitanian biogeographic province, which gives it a high importance for monitoring purposes. This area can be regarded as a marine biodiversity hotspot both at national and at European level. It is at the same time an important leisure place during the summer with a great potential for environmental education due to an increasing public awareness of the great natural value of the region. This nature park (land and sea) is currently being proposed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site and was a “Gift to the Earth” by the Portuguese government through WWF in the International Year of the Oceans (1998).

Habitats present:
Littoral XX
Seagrass bedsX

Description of fauna and flora:

During late spring and summer, dense algae beds are present in many places, ranging from dense tufts of Asparagopsis armata, to some brown algae like Cystoseira usneoides and, in some sites, Saccorhiza polyschides. Encrustating red algae constitutes biogenic reef formations in some areas. The filter-feeding invertebrate fauna is particularly developed and abundant in the Marine Park. The marine life of the Marine Park is relatively well documented but only for some groups (macroalgae, fish and some macroinvertebrates). Over 1000 species of algae, macroinvertebrates, fish, sea turtles and cetaceans have been described. Many species present their distribution limits at or near the limits of the Marine Park. There is also a very high occurrence of rare species and the occurrence of several Mediterranean species (some formerly described as Mediterranean endemics), with some first records for Portugal. The high diversity of habitats and of rocky microhabitats makes this site ideal for biodiversity studies. In fact, each time a new group is studied in detail, many new occurrences for Portugal are described (some are new species to science).

Human impact:

There is no known industrial or agricultural pollution, mining, dumping or dredging. The total human population of the Marine Park is restricted to Sesimbra village with a population of 5898 inhabitants with a negative population growth of 20% from 1991 to 2001. Commercial fishing is restricted to the nearby waters (outside the 6 and 12 miles limit). Inside the marine Park there is still some traditional fishing using small gill nets and lobster pots, and mainly hand lining. The future management plan for the marine park proposes a restriction to fishing, forbidding any fishing activities in more than 50% of the area and in the remaining area restricts fishing to small scale hand lining and lobster pots. Sport-fishing will be forbidden.


The area is 45 min. from Lisbon airport and from our Institute in Lisbon. There is a medium size harbour in Sesimbra village and a large size harbour at Setúbal (10km from the eastern limit of the Marine Park). There is no seasonal limitation on access to the site. Only on rare occasions during the winter, storms with southern winds prevent diving. There is an Oceanographic Museum from the Nature Conservancy Institute in the area with a small research facility, where our group has a diving operation unit with inflatable boats with outboard engines. There are a few rooms to rent near the Museum. Hotels are available in Sesimbra and Setúbal and also in the nearby villages. There are several SCUBA diving operators in the area

Available database and website:

All information is being processed by our group in cooperation with the Arrábida Marine Park staff (in particular with the Oceanographic Museum). Some data are already available in CD-ROM format, and all taxa databases are currently being design by the research team. The Arrábida Marine Park website is under construction. The ICN website is:


Commitment and ongoing research:

The Arrábida Marine Park is the main research focus of the research line on Behaviour and Conservation of Littoral Fishes from the ISPA’s Eco-Ethology Research Unit. The Nature Conservancy Institute (ICN) has statutory responsibility for managing, monitoring and research on the Marine Park. There is an Oceanographic Museum belonging to ICN which presents a small research facility. In addition, several students are also undertaking marine biological work in the Marine Park. The ISPA’s Eco-Ethology Research Unit (research lines: Ecology and Conservation of Littoral Fishes and Ecology, Ethology and Evolution of Aquatic Vertebrates) has an agreed science plan and specifically allocated budget for biodiversity work on the Arrábida Marine Park with several on-going projects. The Nature Conservancy Institute has statutory responsibility for monitoring NATURA 2000 habitats.

Additional Information:

Long list of references available.