Pinnacles Of Life: Submerged Coral Reefs in the Coral Triangle

Latest update April 4, 2019 Started on June 7, 2018

Exploring the submerged pinnacles and reefs of Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea; the science and stewardship of a biodiversity hotspot.

June 7, 2018
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In The Field

We’re back in the field! The Pinnacles of life team are now back in Kimbe Bay but this time we’re equipped with our brand new Trident!

The aim of this trip is to continue our surveys of the offshore seamounts in the bay and also to introduce the ROV as a survey methodology for studying the fish communities deeper down on these incredible reefs.

On the 28th of March we jumped on the Walindi Plantation Resort boat “Cheyne” and headed out to Kimbe Island. A small offshore, oceanic island, Kimbe island rises to the surface from around 1000m in the middle of the bay. The island itself is home to the regionally endemic Nicobar Pigeon and is also surrounded by fringing emergent coral reef, lagoons and a steep drop off.

On the NE side of the island sits Kimbe Bomie, a small submerged pinnacle-type bomie with it’s top starting at 30m. Keen to see what the reef below 30m was like we thought this would be the perfect place for the maiden dive of the Trident.

After a bit of splashing around on the surface we manoeuvred down the mooring line as a reference to hit the bomie. We gradually found our way around the top of this mesophotic reef, familiar markers came into view and we then located the ridge to descend down.

Attracting schools of Caesio cuning and banner fish the screen was soon a swirling image of fish everywhere. Larger species like the majestic Plectropomus oligacanthus (pictured) didn’t seem too phased by the ROV making it’s way down to 40m. Hard coral cover continued all the way down to 55m, along with numerous species of black coral, gorgonians and sponges. Familiar species of fish species from the shallow reefs we also survey were deep down there. Part of the project will investigate physiological differences between individuals on deep offshore reefs and individuals that inhabit shallow emergent reefs. It was good to see our study species present to these depths.

Despite our best efforts with trigonometry, we eventually reached the end of our 100m tether at 57m and made our way back up the ridge. To push our surveys deeper, we’ll be trying to pilot from a moving boat next, allowing the Trident to squeeze those extra few meters out of the line!

On the way back up we came across this oceanic trigger fish (Canthidermis maculata) at a cleaning station.

A really successful first dive for us! Looking forward to the next ones and capturing more of the deeper marine life on the seamounts of Kimbe Bay.

Thanks to the OpenROV team for helping us get our Trident ready with software updates, even from a very remote location!

Also thanks to Walindi Plantation Resort and Mahonia Na Dari who have been supporting this project from the start and have facilitated over 20 years of research conducted by James Cook University.

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Amazing place, great to see beyond the normal depth barrier.

We're hugely excited to have been awarded a S.E.E Initiative grant and have just reached our initial target of 25 followers on the expedition! This means that in a few weeks we will be receiving an OpenROV Trident to join our scientific and exploration efforts in Papua New Guinea.

Thanks to all who have followed along so far and hope to be sharing further footage and images of the deeper reefs of Kimbe Bay on our next trip in a couple of months.

Until then, find out more about S.E.E. at

and take a look at some of the amazing things that OpenROV Tridents have been getting up to already on other #OPENEXPLORER expeditions

“You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”

  • Wangari Maathai

Since 1997, a small NGO in Kimbe Bay, West New Britain province in Papua New Guinea has been doing just this. Mahonia Na Dari (MND), or “Guardian of the Sea” in the local Bakovi tok ples (local dialect) is our expedition’s local host in Papua New Guinea. Given the huge role they play in facilitating this project I thought I’d introduce some of their work to highlight the importance of locally led initiatives like MND.

Initially formed to provide marine environmental education opportunities to the local communities of West New Britain, the MND Research and Conservation Centre now hosts visiting research groups and runs multiple conservation-based projects alongside their successful signature Marine Environmental Education Program (MEEP). (More on MEEP in another post!)

Their mission is to understand and conserve the natural environments of Kimbe Bay and Papua New Guinea for the benefit of present and future generations. They are a leading advocate for marine conservation and education both in the province of West New Britain and nationally across Papua New Guinea. Since their inception over 150,000 students and teachers have undertaken MND’s MEEP – no small feat for a small NGO where resources are always limited and day to day logistics highly challenging. How often do you turn up to work and find a pack of feral dogs has scared away your customers or heavy rain has caved in your office roof?!

Through incredible perseverance they have combined their education outreach with sustainable local resource management initiatives and hosting academic researchers, MND has made a vast contribution to the conservation of one of the Coral Triangle’s most important biodiversity hotspots. The Locally Managed Marine Protected Areas of Kimbe will feature in another post to come.

As a part of our lab group’s long-standing relationship and support for Mahonia Na Dari, PhD students working on the marine ecology of Kimbe Bay also fulfil the role of Resident Researcher whilst undertaking fieldwork there. I’ve been lucky enough to step into this role and frequently get the opportunity to assist with fish physiology lessons or take groups of students out for snorkel safaris on the reefs. I’ve also been privileged enough to travel and dive around some of the most stunning reefs in the world but it’s always amazing to see someone experience the marine environment for the first time.

Sadly, studying marine biology or working in conservation these days can often be a fairly depressing affair. The news is not good, climate change has a global reach and you often feel like nobody is listening. This is, however, the reality of what young scientists and local future leaders will be and are already facing. This is especially pertinent in West New Britain where rapid population growth is placing increasing pressure on resources and informed management decisions will be vital to protect the region’s biodiversity.

Passing on accurate and balanced knowledge is key; whether it’s being bombarded by questions about fish and corals and having chunks of seaweed thrust in your face to identify, or watching somber faces listen as you explain coral bleaching - good, bad and ugly information is all important. It is this pragmatic approach to environmental education that MND adopt by relating global issues to local scales; highlighting the problems but also demonstrating differences individuals can make. In this way, they have connected many in the province with the marine world on their doorstep, sparking an interest in resources they may depend on and habitats that they are an integral part of. If environmental issues are ever going to trump economic arguments individuals need to understand the worst case scenarios but also how we can avoid it. By fostering a widespread understanding of marine ecosystems, the type of grassroots stewardship that Mahonia Na Dari generates will be essential as our global environment continues to change.

Our current reality is that coral reefs may well be very different systems in times to come. Some species may fare better than others and some habitats will shift drastically. Whilst climate change is the biggest single factor in the degradation of reefs worldwide, a hands-on approach to tackling local disturbances like unsustainable fishing-practices, mangrove clearance and pollution can help reefs adapt to the changing climate. This may not be possible everywhere, but in Kimbe Bay, thanks to the tireless work of an NGO run, sometimes quite literally on a shoestring, the next generation are being armed with the knowledge, skills and passion to manage and protect their marine resources into an uncertain future. Community-led conservation at its best.

If you’d like to read more about Mahonia or get in contact check out their website and Facebook page below. Photo credits – Mahonia Na Dari/Juergen Freund

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What great work. Excited to be following along!

Thanks David! Just listened to your TEDx - super inspiring stuff and stoked to be a part of this.

Although the use of SCUBA and advanced technical diving has enabled so much of our underwater world to be explored and studied, to date, the deep still posses some significant challenges to understanding what lies beneath.
Combine this, with a shoestring budget and you have the makings of some inventive solutions to exploring the depths!

Our expedition is using a drop-camera (DropCam) unit to explore the pinnacles of Kimbe Bay. Composed of four cameras, arranged in stereo pairs, the aim is to land the unit on the pinnacles and leave them to film the fish life down to around 80m. We’re using this back to back stereo formation to allow length measurements to be made of the fish we capture on film. By doing this we can work out lots of other details about fish life on the pinnacles, including biomass and how the fish communities are structured by their trophic levels.

Back in August we assembled and calibrated our camera unit and after eventually finding a large enough case to transport it in, we headed up to Kimbe Bay for the first field-tests.

After some adjustments for buoyancy and establishing a deployment method that would work from the side of a banana boat, we’re happy with how the unit is operating and now have the first sets of videos from the pinnacles to begin to analyse.

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Papua New Guinea is often billed as “ The land of the unexpected”, a biological and anthropological wonder and a world of the undiscovered. So the unexpected is exactly what we are hoping for as we begin our expedition.

The island of New Britain sits 150km east of mainland Papua New Guinea and is the largest island in the Bismarck Archipelago of PNG. Roughly the size of Taiwan, it’s crescent shaped land mass is composed of stunning mountain ranges covered in dense forest and several active volcanoes. The volcanic uplift that originally formed the island has also left a hidden legacy along the coast of New Britain; a rich seascape of sunken calderas, pinnacles and deep coastal shelves. The island is split into two regional provinces, West and East New Britain and it is the provincial capital of Kimbe town where our expedition begins.

Kimbe Bay (5o10’00”S 150o30’00”E) is considered a biodiversity hotspot. Situated in the heart of The Coral Triangle, the area is exemplary even within this globally recognised centre of marine biodiversity. Home to around 860 coral reef fish species, researchers have been studying marine life in Kimbe Bay for over 20 years. Many of the most important discoveries about how reef fish disperse and move around the marine environment have come from work conducted in Kimbe. Although much has been learned from the shallow inshore reefs of the bay, we now want to know more about deeper coral habitats in the area. As climate change and increasing pressure on marine resources from rising human populations continue to degrade shallow (0-15m) coral reefs, it could be the deep that provides some degree of refuge for species in the future.

Submerged features, for example underwater mountains (seamounts), pinnacles and deeper banks, constitute a significant amount of habitat available for coral reef species. Far less explored than shallow and nearshore counterparts, these reefs rise to intermediate depths (c20m), where diverse coral reefs form and provide habitats for numerous fish and other reef species.

The primary aim of our expedition is to conduct the first baseline surveys of fish communities associated with a series of offshore pinnacle coral reefs in Kimbe Bay. Kimbe Bay offers an amazing opportunity to explore and study these structures, which have a lot in common with true deep-sea seamounts, including many aspects of their ecology.

We are yet to understand fully the ecology of deeper submerged coral reefs, partly because deep diving and technical equipment is costly and high-effort surveying. Unlike the seamounts of mid-oceanic trenches, however, the pinnacles of Kimbe are more accessible to the every-day explorer. We aim to use these habitats as a study system in which to identify aspects of ecology, hydrology and geology which lead to the formation of the rich, abundant and sometimes unique marine communities that they support.

If you’d like to read more about research conducted in Kimbe Bay check out the links below:

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Expedition Background

Scattered across the world's oceans, submerged pinnacles, banks, shallow seamounts and ridges rise from the depths to the well-lit realms of the photic zone. Here, thriving coral ecosystems can be found with species spanning the transitional depths between shallow and deep mesophotic habitats.

Often isolated and much deeper than many coastal reefs, these submerged ecosystems make up a significant proportion of the world's available habitat for coral reefs. However, their remote nature has meant that they are yet to be fully explored, studied and their role in the future of marine biodiversity understood. Our expedition takes us to Kimbe Bay in West New Britain, Papua New Guinea, where an explosive geological history has created a rich seascape of submerged reefs, calderas, pinnacles and vibrant nearshore coastal ecosystems.

The diversity and richness of the natural environment of Kimbe Bay is exemplary, even within the overall biodiversity hotspot of the Coral Triangle. Kimbe is also home to a small locally formed conservation initiative, Mahonia Na Dari, who have been quietly conserving and protecting the marine environments of the bay for over 20 years. Mahonia Na Dari, or "Guardian of the Sea" in the local dialect, has been providing it's signature Marine Environmental Education Program, MEEP since 1998. Now, with over 11,00 graduates in the province, the next generation is hungry to continue exploring, understanding and protecting their marine environment.

Although advances in technology have brought the realms of the unexplored closer to scientists and researchers over recent decades, for many, natural wonders on the doorstep can often go unnoticed. Our expedition seeks to bring exploration of these diverse and deep marine habitats together with science, education and story telling in Papua New Guinea.

To do the science we'll be using a variety of methods to explore the ecology of deep sunken habitats in the bay that have never been surveyed before. To tell the stories, we'll be sharing our results, images and films with both the scientific and local community in partnership with our local hosts, Mahonia Na Dari.

By combining exploratory research with ongoing environmental education and providing further training opportunities for local students, our expedition hopes to contribute not only to furthering scientific knowledge but providing the next steps for growth of a legacy of grassroots environmental stewardship.


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