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An Underwater Photographer's View Of Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea
By Matt J. Weiss, September 3, 2009 @ 03:18 PM (EST)

By Scott Bennett

Straddling the equator some 450 miles north of Australia, Papua New Guinea is a name synonymous with the exotic. A magnificent land of towering snow-capped peaks, smoking volcanoes, impenetrable forests and exotic cultures, its vibrant tropical seas are home to some of the best diving on the planet. The allure of this island nation has always beckoned and as I was going to be in North Queensland, the opportunity was too good to pass up. With my time somewhat limited, I arranged to visit Walindi Plantation Resort located on the island of New Britain.

Walindi really is a plantation. Initially established as a cocoa plantation in 1935, the property was purchased in 1969 by Australian agriculturist Max Benjamin who replanted the property with oil palms. In the early 1970’s, Max began to explore Kimbe Bay and soon discovered a marine habitat of unparalleled diversity right on his own doorstep. Max eventually shifted his focus from the palm plantation to running a dive business with his wife Cecile. Today, a maximum of twenty-four guests are catered to in 12 self-contained bungalows nestled amidst the luxuriant tropical vegetation.

Walindi’s dive boats regularly visit approximately 25 dive sites, with travel times ranging from 5 to 75 minutes. Largely unspoiled by human activity, the nutrient-rich waters boast more than 200 reefs and dive sites possessing a staggering 70% of all coral species recorded in the Indo/Pacific region. Over 900 fish species have been recorded, a total sure to increase as additional research is carried out. It was definitely looking like a case of too many sites and not enough time!

Unfortunately, the bag with all my housings decided to spend an additional day in Port Moresby. (Note to self; next time pack one complete set-up in each bag.) Nevertheless, I had a very pleasant dive at Hanging Gardens. The site’s dominant feature is the masses of rope sponge cascading from the rock walls. Reaching lengths up to 3m, their intricate tangles adorned with a multitude of feather stars. The vertical walls were riddled with ledges and overhangs, which were home to numerous sponges, sea squirts and nudibranchs.

The following morning, my bags arrived just in time for the full-day excursion. A 45-minute boat ride away was Inglis Shoals, an isolated seamount renowned for superb visibility and big fish. With guides Peter and Keiko leading the way, we were soon engulfed by a school of chevron barracuda. After a few per functionary glances, they ignored us and continued patrolling the reef perimeter. The pinnacle’s summit was shrouded with a patchwork of anemones, giant orange sponges, and hard corals.

Swirling amongst them were successions of purple anthias, angelfish, surgeonfish, triggerfish and one very compliant cuttlefish whose tentacles practically touched the domeport of my housing.

During the safety stop, a couple of grey reef sharks arrived to check us out. Coming progressively closer with each pass, they were starting to make me a tad uneasy! Back on the boat, I discovered this is a common occurrence here and the sharks were merely curious.

One of Kimbe’s signature sites is the world-famous Susan's Reef. An underwater photographer’s dream, its extravagant aggregation of whip corals interspersed with sponges and plate corals have earned it a place on many a diver’s all-time top ten list. Dense congregations of staghorn corals competed with elephant ear sponges and magnificent fan corals nearly 3m across. The magnitude of life jam-packed into this relatively small area was like an undersea Garden of Eden. I could have easily spent all day photographing this one exquisite location!

Susan’s was a tough act to follow, but Christine's Reef admirably rose to the challenge and delivered in spades! A series of detached reefs connected by underwater ridges, Christine’s was another knock-your-fins-off site with all the Kimbe trademarks. Towering barrel sponges adorned with multicoloured feather competed with a mélange of gorgonians, soft corals, whip corals, and massive orange sponges. Inching across the sandy bottom was the remarkable thelenota rubolineata sea cucumber. With its intricate network of vivid red lines and knobby protuberances, it must rank as one of the most photogenic members of its family.

It’s a cruel inevitability that whatever camera setup I take on a dive, something will present itself that makes me wish I had the OTHER one. The next day, I decided to take both housings on each dive; one set for wide-angle and the other for macro.


After the superlative dives of the previous day, I couldn’t wait to see what guides Keiko and Peter had in store. First up was Joel’s Reef, another outlying seamount. On hand to greet us was a welcoming committee of chevron barracuda joined by an entourage of bigeye trevalley. Below, the reef top was blanketed with magnificent hard coral gardens interspersed with numerous anemones and sponges.

After taking a few wide-angle shots, I spotted some phyllidia nudibranchs and switched to macro. My camera was kept busy with a host of other subjects including commensal shrimps and several species of clownfish. Good buoyancy was paramount here as a large portion of the reef top is blanketed with fire coral.
South Emma Reef was bursting with butterflyfish, fire dartfish, clown triggerfish, batfish and longfin bannerfish. Further down, at 12m, was a prolific mantle of hard corals, soft corals and sponges.

 

The final stop was Restorf Island, an idyllic spot where tropical forest crept to a luminous beach of white sand. The reef sloped gradually amidst a patchwork of loosely connected coral bommies. Sandy areas were alive with garden eels, gobies and partner shrimps, while the bommies were jam-packed with morays, nudibranchs and Christmas tree worms, while anemones housed spinecheek anemonefish, pink anemonefish and clownfish.

The highlight was a white dwarf scorpionfish, sitting immobile and practically invisible on the sandy bottom. I was so engrossed photographing it that I almost knelt on a much smaller second individual sitting nearby!

The next morning, I sadly bid my generous hosts farewell. Despite my all-too-brief stay, the incredible diving was already making me think about a return trip. I’d barely scratched the surface in terms of PNG’s wealth of undersea attractions, but the amount of life I’d witnessed was staggering. A land of the exotic indeed!

Note From DPG-
We are hosting an expedition to Papua New Guinea and the Walinidi Plantation. There are only a few spots left on what should be an amazing trip.

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