In this six-part series, underwater shooter Don Silcock tells you everything you need to know about capturing the best of Papua New Guinea, a country he has traveled to two dozen times over the past two decades…
Superb, isolated reefs on the south coast of New Britain
Papua New Guinea’s “second island” sits right on the interface of some incredibly powerful forces of nature. Physically located along the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire, New Britain is a large crescent-shaped island that is defined by the incredibly high mountain ranges that run down its spine—together with its many volcanoes. So high are those mountains, they create separate and independent weather systems on the north and south coasts of the island, making New Britain a remote and fascinating place, which also has some really great diving!
While Bob and Dinah Halstead were the catalysts for bringing Milne Bay and Papua New Guinea to the attention of the global diving community, it was a pair of Australian agronomists in New Britain who came to the realization that in their “backyard” was a world-class marine ecosystem. Max and Cecilie Benjamin arrived in New Britain in the late 1960s on a short-term assignment for the Australian colonial government of the time. They were actually on their way to a new life in Canada, but all that changed in 1969 when they decided to buy the 800-acre Walindi plantation on the shores of Kimbe Bay. Casual weekend diving made Max and Cecilie aware that what was underwater in the bay was really quite special, and in 1983 they started Walindi Plantation Dive Resort.
If you go to the town of Kimbe today, you will find supermarkets, hardware stores and many other trappings of modern life. But in 1983 there was virtually nothing, apart from a landing strip left over from World War II. Yet divers started to come to Walindi to experience Kimbe Bay, and over time it became clear just how special it really was. Sadly, Max passed away in July 2020, but Cecilie is still very much a presence at Walindi, with the business now run by their son Cheyne and his wife Emma. From those humble beginnings in 1983 is a significant resort that focuses on day diving in Kimbe Bay, together with two liveaboards that cover some of the very best diving around New Britain.
Alice’s Reef near Lolobau Island on the north coast of New Britain
The late Max Benjamin (right) with his son Cheyne, who now runs the overall operation at Walindi
Roughly the same size as Taiwan, New Britain has a population of just under 500,000 people, which compared to the Republic of China’s 24 million people means that much of the island is uninhabited. The main reason for that low population density are those mountain ranges, which are so high that they effectively isolate the north coast from the south. Thus, most of the population live in coastal areas, with the majority concentrated around Kokopo, the capital of East New Britain Province, nearby Rabaul and Kimbe, the capital of West New Britain.
From a biodiversity perspective, New Britain has one of the best possible locations and physically it is just south of the equator and to the east of Papua New Guinea’s “mainland”—the eastern half of New Guinea island. That location puts it at the epicenter of the eastern lobe of the Coral Triangle, the richest known area of marine biodiversity in the world. Uniquely though, New Britain is exposed to both the Indonesian Throughflow, as it flows down the northeast coast of New Guinea into the Bismarck Sea, and the Southern Equatorial Current (SEC), as it approaches from the Solomon Sea.
As the SEC nears the south coast of New Britain, upwellings suck up the nitrogen and phosphorous laden detritus from the deep basins of the Solomon Sea. Those rich nutrients are carried up the south coast and through the Vitiaz Strait and St. George’s Channel into the Bismarck Sea, where they mix with those of the Indonesian Throughflow. Papua New Guinea’s incredible marine biodiversity is well documented. Less well known, though, is the intensity of that biodiversity around the island of New Britain, all of which makes for some phenomenal diving.
Beautiful sponges on the south coast of New Britain
Seahorse under Johnnie’s Jetty in Kokopo
There are three main diving locations in New Britain. First, on the north coast, there’s the incredible Kimbe Bay, together with the Witu Islands and the Fathers Reefs. Then, there is Rabaul and Kokopo on the eastern tip of New Britain. And finally, there’s Waterfall Bay and Linden Harbor on the remote south coast.
Diving the North Coast
There is a line of thought among the marine scientific community that this large bay is possibly where the first corals originated—a theory that has evolved as a result of the surveys conducted to assess and quantify the bay’s biodiversity. The first of those surveys was done back in 1993 by The Nature Conservancy. It identified a staggering 860 species of fish together with 345 species of stony corals. Subsequent surveys have increased the total number of coral species identified to around 400 in addition to 10 species of whales and dolphins that were added to the overall mix.
To put that in a global perspective, in an area roughly the same size as California, it is estimated that Papua New Guinea is home to almost 5% of the world’s total marine biodiversity. And just under half of that fish fauna and virtually all of the coral species are found in Kimbe Bay.
“Balled up” anemone on one of Kimbe Bay’s seamounts
The incredibly intact Mitsubishi Zero wreck in Kimbe Bay
The Fathers Reefs
To the northeast of Kimbe Bay are the incredible Lolobau Island and Fathers Reefs, which offer wonderful diving on seamounts and coral topped pinnacles that rise up from the depths of the Bismarck Sea. Lolobau is dominated by a large volcano on the western rim of the nearly four-mile-wide caldera that forms the island.
The area is directly exposed to the nutrient-rich currents that circulate the Bismarck Sea, which means those seamounts and pinnacles are very well-nourished and able to sustain their own ecosystems. There are numerous sites to pick from in the overall area and around 15 of them are dived regularly, but only by liveaboard.
Photogenic schooling barracuda at Leslie’s Reef near Lolobau Island
Superb sea whips at Elaine’s Reef near Lolobau Island
The Witu Islands
These remote islands in the Bismarck Sea are actually the peaks of subsea volcanoes that rise up from the deep surrounding waters. They are visually spectacular, particularly Garove, the main island of the group, which is the caldera left after a major eruption some 250 years ago. Roughly seven-and-a-half miles wide, Garove is an impressive site when viewed from the air—courtesy of a drone.
The caldera’s crater is about three miles wide and surrounded by 300 to 500 feet high walls, which are breached on the southern side of the island and the flooded crater forms a superb natural harbor. The diving at the Witu Islands falls into two basic categories: classic, glorious fringing reefs and interesting black volcanic muck! The tops and sides of the reefs have dense coatings of beautiful, healthy hard corals that host a plethora of reef fish together with superb photogenic sponges, sea fans, anemones and soft corals.
Out in the blue are schooling jacks, barracuda and batfish, plus patrolling gray reef and whitetip sharks that hang back in the distance. The massive explosion that created the huge caldera on Garove Island also deposited rich volcanic ash, which has created habitats for critters to thrive in the black sand. There is plenty to keep macro photographers happy at the Witus.
Beautiful barrel sponge at the Witu Islands
Wonderful hard coral garden at the Witus
Diving the Eastern Tip
Once upon a time, the town of Rabaul had almost everything a diver could possibly want, with about 65 Japanese WWII wrecks in and around magnificent Simpson Harbor in the calderas formed after a massive volcanic eruption some 1,400 years ago. Add to that some excellent reefs, a couple of great macro sites, and the town itself, which was often described as the “garden city” of Papua New Guinea with a resident population of around 20,000.
Then, in September 1994, everything changed when two of the seven volcanic vents around the caldera erupted. The dual eruptions destroyed the nearby airport and covered the eastern half of Rabaul with heavy volcanic ash, causing most of the buildings to collapse under the weight.
Kokopo in Blanche Bay subsequently became the provincial capital, with a new airport built at Tokuo. Rabaul was largely left to decay. But time heals many things and as the years have passed, the coral growth has returned, while the macro sites are as good as they always were. Plus, at least some of those wrecks are now well worth diving again, including the excellent Atun wreck, which sits on its keel in 70 feet of water near Little Pigeon Island at the eastern entrance to Blanche Bay.
The impressive Atun wreck in Rabaul
The bridge of the Atun wreck
One of the many macro delights under Johnnie’s Jetty in Kokopo
Diving the South Coast
Truly a remote location, the south coast of New Britain is isolated from the north by those rugged mountain ranges. There are no real roads over or through them and no commercial airports, only landing strips and old WWII airfields that are used for small charter flights. Practically, the only way to get to the south coast is by boat from Rabaul—a long, typically overnight, journey that will take you down through the St. George’s Channel in between New Britain and nearby New Ireland. That channel needs to be navigated with respect, as there are some fierce and complex currents flowing through it.
This large bay is the first dive location you will reach after passing through the St. George’s Channel. There are two main areas to dive in Waterfall Bay: the Mocklon Islands on the western tip, near Cape Kwoi, and around the jetty at the village of Matong. Both offer quite different, but really interesting experiences.
The two Mocklon Islands, one large and one small, have a number of sites to try. And which one you dive depends on the time of day and the prevailing current. But overall the diving is excellent with healthy fringing reefs and sandy slopes with intense patches of cabbage and other hard corals. The jetty at Matong offers you two choices: Go critter hunting in and around all the flotsam and jetsam at the jetty. Alternatively, take advantage of all the young models super keen to have their photos taken underwater!
Located roughly halfway along the south coast of New Britain is this superb dive location. Bounded by a series of outer barrier reefs, the inner lagoon at Linden Harbour provides a safe anchorage in a fantastic setting. In-between those reefs are incredible channels that offer some of the best diving on the south coast. Add in some excellent reefs inside the lagoon, plus a WWII aircraft wreck, and you can see why Linden Harbour rates so highly.
Incredible biodiversity on display at Elsie’s Reef on the south coast
The wreck of a Japanese “Jake” seaplane in Linden Harbour on the south coast
Located in the heart of the Coral Triangle, the island of New Britain has some amazing diving and is a visually spectacular place. The wonderful locations on the north coast around Kimbe Bay, the Fathers Reefs and the Witu Islands are simply fantastic, while Rabaul, on the eastern tip of the island, provides a really interesting alternative. Then, if you want to add a generous dose of adventure with your diving, look no further than the remote south coast. In a country that has so much to offer the traveling diver, New Britain is truly another of Papua New Guinea’s very special places.
Beautiful hard coral garden in Kimbe Bay
Planning Your Underwater Photography Trip to New Britain
How to Get There: Port Moresby is the only international gateway to Papua New Guinea and is well served by Air Nuigini and Qantas from Brisbane and Cairns. New Britain has two regional airports: Hoskins (HKN) in Kimbe and Tokua (RAB) to the east of Kokopo, both of which are served by Air Niugini from Port Moresby.
When to Go: New Britain is a year-round location although there is some seasonal variation. On the north coast and the Rabaul area, between September and December, expect calm seas and superb visibility (80 feet plus) but slightly cooler water at around 81°F; during the January-to-March wet season, very calm waters but lower visibility (50 feet) and a water temperature around 84°F; from May to June, calm seas with clear skies and almost no wind with good visibility (65 feet plus) and water temperature around 88°F; and in July and August, the monsoonal southeast trade wind season with gusts up to 20 knots, seas up to three feet, visibility around 50 feet, and water temperature starting to drop. The south coast can only be accessed and dived during the dry season from January to March.
Complete Guides: Read more about this incredible part of Papua New Guinea and the great diving to be had there in Don Silcock’s comprehensive guide to diving New Britain, including Kimbe Bay, the Fathers Reefs and Lolobau Island, and the Witu Islands on the north coast; Rabaul and Kokopo on the eastern tip; and the south coast.
The enthusiastic models at Matong Jetty on the south coast
Check out all the parts of Don Silcock’s Underwater Photographer’s Guide to Papua New Guinea: Part I: Introduction, Part II: New Guinea Island, Part IV: New Ireland, Part V: Aircraft Wrecks, and Part VI: Tips and Techniques.
In more normal times, Don is based in Bali, and his website www.indopacificimages.com has extensive location guides, articles and images on some of the world’s best diving locations and underwater experiences. Make sure to check out DPG’s Photographer of the Week article featuring more of Don’s awesome pictures.
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