It was an underwater photography trip like I had never attempted before: 110 dives, 40 days, 18 flights, 4 destinations.
As part of DPG’s series on “The Best Underwater Photography in the Indo Pacific,” I packed my bags and jetted off to the other side of the world. After nearly a week of travel, I finally arrived at Walindi Plantation Resort in Papua New Guinea’s New Britain Island.
I was ready to dive into the Indo-Pacific’s best underwater photography.
Kimbe Bay the Walindi Way
Kimbe Bay is an area of water roughly twice the size of Delaware, carved out of Papua New Guinea’s New Britain Island. The largest island in the Bismark Archipelago, New Britain is a volcanic island blanketed in pristine rainforest sloping down into Kimbe Bay.
The island’s mountainous shape protects the bay, which boasts a wide variety of ecosystems—vast coral reef systems, stretches of mangroves and sea grass glades, seamounts rising out from the deep ocean. In total, Kimbe Bay’s 5,000 square miles is home to an amazing 75 percent coral found in the entire Indo-Pacific and 900 species of fish.
Nestled in the heart of this rich underwater ecostystem is Walindi Plantation Resort. Once a cocoa plantation, Walindi was purchased by current owners in the 1970’s to farm oil palm. But it wasn’t until owner Max Benjamin began to explore the waters in his backyard that he realized he had discovered a diving paradise. Today, Walindi keeps her plantation roots, accommodating and papering dive travelers in 12 plantation-style bungalows.
The resort’s plantation house is the all-in-one hangout spot for divers. There is a dive library with internet, the dinning hall where three square – more like cubed – meals are served every day, and a lovely bar and pool to share a drink and tell your big fish story after a long day of diving.
The resort is truly designed in tune with the rainforest so that even the short walk from the private bungalows to the dive center feels like a nature walk through a remote jungle (don’t worry, there are paths!).
Photographing Kimbe’s Coral
The first thing that struck me about Kimbe Bay is the sheer scale and health of the coral reef system. The nutrient rich waters on deeper sites support coral that can grow to be as large as one of Walindi’s dive boats. Many of the seamount pinnacles in Kimbe are connected by “saddles.” These saddles can often dip down into deep water – 60-90 feet – and cradle enormous seafans and whip coral!
A 20-minute boat ride from Walindi Resort, “Vanessa’s Reef” features dozens of mammoth fans—some ranging from just a few meters long to the size of a compact car! With some of the bigger fans, it feels less like photographing a gorgonian and more like a mid-size sedan.
Many of the largest and most colorful sea fans and sponges require the photographer to back up 4-5 feet, even with a fisheye lens. Needless to say, with such large subjects, having a fisheye wide-angle lens and set of powerful strobes to reach the coral are both critical when photographing Kimbe’s immense coral.
Adding a model diver to an image is always a nice touch in wide-angle photography, but for Walindi’s immense coral it is even more important to emphasize the scale of the amazing organisms. After reviewing my sea fan shots after the first day of shooting, I realized that the average observer would not be able to tell how really enormous the subject is.
By adding a model, the viewer is given a human-sized ruler to compare with the coral and will realize “wow, that really is huge!”
The often-current free conditions and plethora of healthy coral subjects proved ideal for incorporating creative lighting in my wide-angle photography. The shallow nature of many of the dives is great for adding sunballs to your photography. By positioning the coral subject or model partially in front of the sun, you can achieve a halo effect. This can also be acheived by partially cropping out the sun when composing the image.
Shallower dive sites like “North Emma” and “Otto’s Point” feature pristine reef flats sloping down from the surface to a sheer drop-off. The shallow conditions of these sites make for great sunrays and split shots of lettuce leaf coral as far as the eye can see.
On these sights, also keep an eye out for medium-sized jellyfish floating near the surface of the reef. Although a simple subject, when shot from straight below in shallow conditions, you can catch a glimpse of the topside world through Snell’s window.
I also made sure to carry on every wide-angle dive a third slave strobe for backlighting. Certain subjects lend themselves to backlighting technique, like soft corals, gorgonian sea fans, sea whips and certain sponges. Adding light from behind one of these semi-translucent subjects can make the bright colors really pop, in a way that traditional front-lighting cannot: almost as if the object is glowing from within.
Deciding how much of the exposure you want to come from the back strobe and from the front can be tricky. For more subtle effect, you can light the scene as normal and have a minimal output from the off camera strobe. For more mood in the shot below, I closed the aperture to f18 and shutter to 1/250 so that the only real light was coming from the back strobe (on full power) and front ones on half power.
In Kimbe, safety stops are for anything but lounging on the boat. The calm shallow waters around Restorf Island, a popular stop for a picnic lunch or off-gassing, provided a great over-under shot opportunity. Restorf island truly abides by the golden rule of split shot photography: having an interesting subject above and below the water.
Branching reefs right from the shore, colorful coral bomies, and tons of fish life can fill the bottom of the frame, while the topside captures mangroves dipping into the water for a swim and New Britain’s steaming volcano’s.
The water is so still and shallow, that it makes for a great spot to experiment with creative techniques like HDR. By keeping my camera still on a tripod and taking several different exposures of the same scene, I was able to create a dramatic photo of both the topsides and underwater worlds. Although the jury is still out in the underwater photoworld on the use of HDR, I think it is a unique way of presenting this scene.
Kimbe’s Pelagic Life
While Kimbe Bay’s inner sites provide the ideal protection to foster coral growth, the outer waters attract the “big boys.” Sites like “Bradford Shoal” and “Inglis Shoal” are magnets for open water species. Rising out from the abyss are schools of barracudas, big eye trevally, and dogtooth tuna. The silver blob slivers around the underwater pinnacles and will allow for close approach from divers.
The tricky part about taking home a dramatic image of the schooling fish is properly exposing the super-reflective swimmers. It can be tricky not to “blow out” the sides of the fish with light when only a few feet away.
I found it best to expose the scene as a completely natural light scene to nail down the background exposure; and only then add the minimal amount of strobe light, increasing the output only until the fish are perfectly exposed. This way you are guaranteed, at the minimum, a quality ambient light image.
The waters off Walindi are also home to a variety of sharks—including whitetips, silvertips, hammerheads, and grey reef sharks. Unlike less remote destinations where the rarity of sighting sharks is a real wake-up-call for conservation efforts, there are still plenty of the guys and gals in grey suits patrolling Kimbe Bay.
The real trick to photographing the pelagics is taking the time to pick your head up from the beautiful coral and look out into the blue. Sea mounts like Bradfoard Shoal attract white tip sharks, which will sometimes come in for a close look. It is especially important when shooting more timid sharks to not rely on your camera’s zoom: get close, then get closer.
Especially fortunate photographers will even be treated to rarer pelagics, like Killer Whales, Pilot Whales, and pods of dolphins that regularly dip into the bay for a break from the open ocean.
Kimbe Bay Critters
There is no doubt that the most difficult choice I made in Kimbe was to leave behind my wide-angle setup for a macro one with so much coral and pelagic life around.
Unlike the more obvious wide-angle subjects, the trick to photographing Kimbe’s macro gems is to follow your guide very, very closely. The super-knowledgeable guides at Walindi will not only find the best critters, but also stay by your side until you nail the shot!
After weeks of shooting house-sized corals, it took a few dives to get my macro vision back in focus. But before long, I was snapping away at mantis shrimp, nudibranchs, tiny crabs and so much more.
Unlike other current-ridden underwater photo hotspots in the Indo-Pacific, the protected Kimbe Bay provided the perfect destination to try out more complex super macro imaging.
The key to supermacro is achieving pin-point focus. I find that my shutter speed stays the same around 1/250th with the smallest possible aperture—usually around f32. Rather than waiting for the focus gear to lock into place, I learned to lock the focus and move the camera in and out until the subject appeared crisp—the so-called “spray and pray” method.
If you cannot pass up the urge to completely abandon your wide-angle kit, fear not! Many of Kimbe’s macro marvels can be shot with the technique “close-focus wide-angle.” By using my 4-inch dome port and a fisheye lens, I was still able to photograph Kimbe’s smaller subjects even on a “wide-angle dive”— ghost pipefish, anemone fish, crocodile fish, and even the occasional stonefish.
Much like traditional macro photography, you will want to bring in your strobes tight to your dome port with CFWA. No need to worry about backscatter, as you can eliminate almost the entire water column with the near zero inch focus ability of fisheye lenses.
Photographing Kimbe’s Zero Wreck
If you sit at the Walindi Plantation Bar for a couple nights, you will likely hear more versions of the Zero’s crash and discovery than you could shake a stick at. What is agreed upon is that the aircraft went down in a shallow inlet in Kimbe on the 26 of December, 1944 during the Battle of Cape Gloucester. However, it was only in 2000 that a local sea cucumber farmer freedived down to the harvest of a lifetime: a nearly perfectly intact WWII aircraft.
What became of the unfortunate pilot, Tomiharu Honda, is still much debated. Some say he survived the crash and lived out his old years in the local village; others insist jumped out of the plane and became lunch to some famished whitetips; or, more cynically, lunch to the villagers.
Regardless of Honda’s fate, his final flight has produced another fantastic wide-angle photo opp at Walindi: a near-perfectly intact plane with a resident school of glassfish and a pink anemone.
Unfortunately, nearby rivers can limit visibility to just 20 feet. In these imperfect lighting conditions, opening up your aperture and slowing the shutter speed will increase the ambient light in the image. More ambient light means you can use less backscatter-creating strobe light. I went to the next step and placed the camera on a tripod for an extremely slow shutter of 1/20th second. Combining the ambient light with a little strobe light will properly expose the background and make the colors of the coral growth come out in the foreground.
There are several ways to frame the plane wreck: from an aerial view, front on, or from behind the cockpit. While I had seen numerous shots taken from above, I wanted to take a more unique shot from the propeller on to capture the color of the front of the plane. For an even different shot, I placed one of my off-camera strobes in the cockpit: the metal frame of the cockpit and particulates in the water create a dramatic angled light effect.
It’s a good thing that light wasn’t there when the plane was discovered by the awfully superstitious local fisherman…
Kimbe Bay and Beyond...
As it turned out, the rich waters within reach of Walindi are only the beginning to the beauty of Kimbe Bay. Further out from Walindi, at the Vitu Islands and Father’s Reef, there are more reefs to discover, more sharks to photograph, and more critters to crave. But that’s an adventure for another day…
Editor's Note: This is the first article in a series on "The Best Diving in the Indo Pacific." Stay tuned for the next article on exploring outer Kimbe Bay and Father's Reef with the Febrina liveaboard.
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