Featured image by Grant Thomas
(Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea)
Kimbe Bay’s marine conservation history dates back to 1983 when couple Max and Cecilie Benjamin first opened Walindi Plantation Resort along its shore. The resort quickly established itself as a premier dive spot– the area possesses one of the highest biodiversity in tropical fish and coral in the world. The Benjamins noticed, however, that the state of the world’s reefs had begun to decline. In 1997, they opened Mahonia Na Dari, or ‘Guardians of the Sea’, right next door. Today, Mahonia Na Dari along with James Cook University run the Marine Environment Education Program (MEEP) in which local students of all ages are equipped with the training, tools and knowledge to conserve the Bay’s marine environment for their community and the world.
Kimbe Bay’s one-in-a-million ecosystem and dedicated history of 40 years of scientists, divers, students and photographers alike studying and protecting it has earned its place as Mission Blue’s newest Hope Spot.
Video by Lee Burghard, Wild Shutter Imaging
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, says, “For the first– and maybe last– time in history, we have a chance to make peace with the ocean and the rest of the living world. The conservation work being done with the students at Kimbe Bay is tremendously important and a strong cause for hope.
Cecilie Benjamin WDHOF, co-founder of Walindi Plantation Resort and Hope Spot Champion says, “An endearing description of Kimbe Bay and Papua New Guinea biodiversity as a whole mentioned to me by long-time friend and associate, Prof. John Lane, Chico Environmental California USA is, “biology on steroids”. This has been continually proved to be true and appropriate as the years of terrestrial and marine research accumulate from Kimbe Bay and its surrounding environment.”
Kimbe Bay pulses with life: its coral reefs hold more than half of all species on Earth, a rainbow jungle that more than 900 reef fish species call home. Kimbe Bay is located in the Bismarck Sea, a key area in the global center of marine biodiversity. The Coral Triangle (also designated as a Hope Spot) and Kimbe Bay lie almost centrally within this. Its marine life is remarkable: Kimbe Bay possesses 4 critically endangered, 11 endangered and 173 vulnerable species. These include the Largetooth Sawfish (Pristis pristis), Pondicherry Shark (Carcharhinus hemiodon), Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) and Leatherback Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), Scalloped Hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) and Sei Whale (Balaenoptera borealis).
Kimbe Bay’s secret to its richly healthy marine ecosystem is its complex and diverse bathymetry (the measurement of depth of water in oceans, seas or lakes). A narrow coastal shelf fringes the coastline of the bay, descending to oceanic depths of over 1,000m. Along this coastline, fringing nearshore emergent reefs are neighbors to seagrass beds, mangroves and river estuaries forming multiple land-sea interfaces.
Coral reefs in Kimbe Bay are as striking as they are fortunate. Its reefs have been assessed as high diversity and high coral cover sites – amazingly with relatively low human impact. Of the 173 IUCN Redlist vulnerable species, 159 of these are scleractinian corals. The endangered coral Cantharellus noumeae is also found in the Bay. In 2018, researchers from James Cook University undertook upper mesophotic surveys in Kimbe Bay, which resulted in reporting a species of Black Coral (Antipatharia) that had not been previously described to science, let alone the Bay itself.
Kimbe Bay is fortunate to have an entire community so dedicated to its well-being. The Bay battles the negative effects of local human population growth, the expansion of offshore fishing efforts, seabed mining, pollution and warming water temperatures. Hope Spot Champions Cecilie Benjamin and Gemma Galbraith and the students of Marine Environment Education Program (MEEP) are leading the cause to improve enforcement of the area’s LMMAs (Locally Managed Marine Areas) and MPAs and to expand their program to continue educating Kimbe Bay’s youth about reef conservation. In order to scale, they need donations and volunteers.
Gemma Galbraith, PhD Candidate (James Cook University), Mahonia Na Dari Resident Researcher and Hope Spot Champion says, “Undertaking my PhD studying the ecology and biodiversity of the pinnacle reefs in Kimbe Bay has been like winning the lottery. Working in such an incredible environment as part of the long-term partnership between Mahonia Na Dari and my lab group at JCU is such a privilege. The Hope Spot designation for Kimbe Bay is truly deserved by this unique and breathtaking area. My work continues to suggest that here, you can still find hope for the future of coral reefs.”
Professor John Lane, Chico Environmental California, says, “Kimbe Bay is a rare place on this Earth where nature has been left alone to thrive. It appears to be biology on steroids as the biodiversity is unparalleled. The subsurface environment has not had the normal stressors of a coastal zone due to human disturbances and resource extraction. Kimbe Bay is a living library that has not been fully catalogued and warrants intensive research and discovery. Many forces of nature are at play in Kimbe Bay as the region is volcanically very active with many tectonic plates in the vicinity that are constantly moving. Beyond the volcanos hyper-karst landforms further contribute to the expanding biodiversity.”
The work of Mahonia Na Dari, James Cook University and MEEP students are cause for hope for a healthy future for not only Kimbe Bay, but all of Papua New Guinea, the Coral Triangle and the entire planet. The kids and teens involved in MEEP are today’s students and tomorrow’s ocean heroes.
About James Cook University
Research by James Cook University has been conducted in Kimbe Bay since 1996, when Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology, Geoff Jones and his then student (now Professor) Philip Munday were invited to visit by Max and Cecilie Benjamin. Since then the Jones Marine Ecology and Conservation Lab has put Kimbe Bay well and truly on the coral reef research map of the world. Together with international colleagues, the JCU research group has produced some of the most significant research on fish dispersal and population connectivity to date. In addition, over 40 graduate students have undertaken further studies on the reefs of Kimbe Bay, producing well over 100 scientific papers.
This includes 15 PhD Resident Researchers who focus their research projects solely in Kimbe Bay in partnership with Mahonia Na Dari. Kimbe Bay continues to draw researchers from JCU back to further understand what drives and maintains the extraordinary biodiversity found here.
Walindi Plantation Resort (WPR) commenced on the shores of Kimbe Bay in 1983. It is the foreshore area of operating Walindi Plantation and hence draws its name. WPR is a fully family owned resort now reaching three generations. Recognition of the outstanding marine biodiversity of Kimbe Bay was made after Max and Cecilie Benjamin travelled to the Red Sea for a diving holiday in 1978. This was a period when scuba diving was a recreational pastime for them.
Following visitors from the international scuba diving tourism industry helped to cement the idea to progress with the resort. Beach side bungalows were constructed over a period of several years as well as a central guest facility for meals and recreation.
The resort now has grown to incorporate 20 accommodation units, day dive boats and links with two live aboard dive boats. Terrestrial outreach such as bird watching, WW2 history, village visits, thermal hot river swimming, volcano climbs as well as scuba diving and snorkeling have expanded the foot print of the resort to include many PNG traditional resource owners.
The drive for environmental education of all concerned, strong environmental protection policies such as using only permanent marine moorings at dive sites and not anchor use plus community consultation practices is central to the resort’s operation ethos today and for the foreseeable future.
About Mahonia Na Dari
Mahonia Na Dari (MND ‘Guardian of the Sea’) is an NGO conceived and founded by Walindi Resort owners Max and Cecilie Benjamin and facilitated by The Nature Conservancy during its time at the Walindi Nature Centre. MND is based on the shores of Kimbe Bay and since 1997 has conducted the Marine Environment Education Program (MEEP) for high schools and remote coastal primary schools and communities. The outcome of MND activities and projects is improved awareness and appreciation of marine and coastal biodiversity in Kimbe Bay through school-based and community education programs and activities to encourage appropriate conservation and climate change adaptation practices.
The MND Mission Statement is,
‘To understand and conserve the natural environment of Kimbe Bay and Papua New Guinea for the benefit of present and future generations.’
MEEP involves topics of basic marine biology & ecology, marine resource management, marine biodiversity conservation, ecosystem connectivity, land use and human impacts on the marine environment and threats including climate change and adaptation practices. The focus is Kimbe Bay but is adaptable for other locations. MND offers three distinct Marine Environment Education Programs:
Intensive MEEP high school students complete 10 theory topics and 4 practical field investigations to graduate with a Certificate of Proficiency in Marine Literacy.
Annual target is 80-100 graduates and above.
Outreach MEEP offers student and teacher awareness activities. Teachers are trained
in the use of a new Primary Teachers MEEP Guide resource and students experience a single topic or theme such as 2019 ‘Mangrove Ecology’ and planting. Annual targets 120 teachers and 10,000 students.
Extra Outreach MEEP Activities including Junior MEEP developing awareness about marine biodiversity, coastal environment conservation and climate change causes, impacts, mitigation and adaptation. World Environment Day themes are the basis of school presentations and activities. Community activities focus on support and awareness for Locally Managed Marine Areas and protected reefs. Annual target 500 participants.