Turquoise waters. Rich underwater fauna and biodiversity. Ruins of sunken Greek, Roman and World War II ships.
This is Karaburun Sazan Peninsula - the first and only national marine park of Albania.
The park covers a marine area stretching 1.9 km along the coastlines of Karaburun Peninsula and Sazan Island on the southwestern side of Albania where the Adriatic and Ionion Seas meet.
The biodiversity, landscape and heritage of this area are unusual for the Mediterranean. But despite its riches, the area was severely threatened by fishing and development activities.
Illegal fishing activities - the use of explosives and fishing with banned methods - massively damaged the area and the fish stock, as well as putting fishermen's lives in danger. Local fisherman Sherif Durmishi was disheartened by what was happening.
"It was so painful to see rare fish species ending up in the fish market."
Sherif notes that many in the local communities didn't understand the value of the area's unique biodiversity. No one was aware of the "protected area" concept and believed that protecting the area meant hindering economic activities and keeping land owners from income generating activities.
Albania has experienced rapid economic growth and coastal tourism during the last two decades. Coastal development has resulted in marine resource exploitation threatening Albania's diverse marine ecosystems, including temperate coral and rocky reefs, soft sediment communities, and some of the last healthy seagrass habitats in the Mediterranean Sea. Despite pressure from development and artisanal fishing, marine ecosystems were unprotected until 2010.
Protecting an area such a Karaburun Sazan Peninsula required both the knowledge and buy-in of the local communities, as well as a plan that balanced development and protection.
For two years, UNDP, with funding by GEF, and partners conducted feasibility studies to identify key biological gaps in conservation and management of the marine areas. Extensive consultations with everyone from government leaders to local community members gathered feedback for the preservation and long term vision of Vlora Bay.
An extensive public awareness and advocacy campaign targeting students, civil society, and local administration helped raise awareness about the need to conserve the marine coastal protected areas and promote the biodiversity and tourism values hosted in this genuine ecosystem.
In 2010, UNDP, the Albanian Government, local authorities and the communities themselves finalized the process of proclamation of the area as a marine protected area.
What once was an isolated, unreached spot, has now turned into an attractive place, especially for foreign and local tourists.
The dynamic process of citizen engagement throughout the process has led to a better understanding about the Park, more participation of fishermen in the park activities, and better knowledge of the unique value that this area possesses and its tremendous potential for tourism development.
"The Marine Park has a management plan which, for the first time, is accompanied by a business plan that guides our daily work and future planning for the development of the area...Six rangers patrol the area for illegal fishing, hunting, grazing, and fires," explains Lorela Lazaj, Director of the Regional Directorate of the Protected Areas in Vlora.
Community members are taking better care of the sea and its natural values. Tourists are increasing by the day to see the unique value and beauty that the Marine Park offers.
The project also helped improve the national attention to the creation and management of protected areas. Since 2005, the protected areas in Albania increased significantly - occupying around 17 % of the Albanian territory in 2016 compared to 5.2% in 2005.
Thanks to the lobbying and advocacy efforts of UNDP, a dedicated National Agency of Protected Areas - a body under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment, was created.
"Protected areas are essential to the conservation of species, ecosystems and also play a key role in adapting to and mitigating the impacts of climate change. They play a vital economic role especially for the local communities," notes Brian Williams, UNDP Resident Representative in Albania.
Sherif Durmishi says that for him, the park is like a home where he lives and works. He is a role model for the other fishermen, and helped established an association called Responsible Fishing Association "Oriku", to help fellow fishermen act wisely and be awareness about sustainable fishing.
For Sherif, the sea is everything.
"I think that the sea is able to heal extraordinary diseases. It purifies the soul and makes a man noble. I can say also that even the devil in the sea become more human."
Watch a short film about the Karaburun-Sazan Marine Protected Park: