Papua New Guinea diving pioneer Max Benjamin, owner and founder of Walindi Plantation Resort, has sadly passed away. On the morning of Wednesday, the 15th July 2020, Max lost his battle with cancer. Underwater photographers Jayne Jenkins and Don Silcock both knew Max well and we asked them to share their experiences with one of the pioneers of diving in Papua New Guinea.
Don Silcock met Max for the first time over 20 years ago – in the domestic terminal of Port Moresby airport while waiting to board a flight to Kimbe Bay.
“The trip leader introduced him as ‘this is Max, he’s the owner of Walindi’ which was where we were going to.
“My first impressions turned out to be pretty accurate… before me was a man who would look you straight in the eye and quickly understand your intent – no BS with Max, he could read you like a book.
“Over the years, I got to know Max much better and always found him to be an intelligent, thoughtful, forward looking and very astute person. I also developed a deep regard for what he and his wife Cecilie achieved in Kimbe Bay.”
If you were to arrive at Hoskins airport in Kimbe Bay earlier this year, prior to the Covid-19 induced state of emergency in PNG, you would find a reasonably new airport, pass through the relatively prosperous and bustling town of Kimbe and arrive at Walindi Plantation Resort with its central lodge, carefully tended garden, guest bungalows, fully equipped dive shop, three day-boats and two liveaboards.
“It was nothing like that when Max arrived in 1966 and Cecilie arrived in 1972… Both were agricultural officers with the PNG government who learned to dive in Kimbe Bay and thought that what they saw there was the norm for the underwater world.”
It was a trip to the Red Sea in 1978 that made Max and Cecilie realise just how special Kimbe Bay is and was also the genesis for what became Walindi Plantation Resort. The rest is kind of history now and well documented by Cecilie on the resort’s website.
“Less well known are the things that I personally learned about from my trips to Kimbe over the years. Such as the incredible work done by Mahonia Na Dari (Guardian of the Sea), an NGO established in 1997 by Max and Cecilie on land they donated next to the resort.
“Or the support that Max and Cecilie have always provided in quantifying the incredible biodiversity and ecosystems of Kimbe Bay and the north coast of New Britain. Or the more than 100 permanent moorings put in to protect those ecosystems and the support provided to local clans to do their part to monitor and protect their reefs and outer islands from over-fishing and misuse.
“Or the Max Benjamin Elementary School, the Walindi Primary School and the way the resort is effectively a village in itself with housing for most of the staff, many of whom have never worked anywhere else. There is much more that could be said about what Max and Cecilie have done, but it all comes down to putting something back.
“As Cheyne Benjamin said yesterday, when he let it be known that his father had passed away; ‘you lived an incredible life, you did incredible things, your legacy will always be remembered, you impacted so many lives for the better. We will miss you dad.’”
Jayne Jenkins first met Max in 1989 while working in dive travel. Part of Jayne’s job was leading groups and her first trip to PNG was to Walindi Plantation Resort.
“I was told before leaving that if I arrived at Walindi with a bottle of Cointreau it would be well appreciated by the owner; Max; and we would get on well.
“My first day diving there was with Max, I was so excited about going to see beautiful corals. After loading the boat with numerous thermoses of tea (Max liked his tea) we headed out and Max decided enroute we were going search for hammerhead sharks; he had seen some previously and wanted to go back.
“I will never forget that dive, hanging in blue water, Max rattling his bottle to call in the sharks – did we see any – NO but the experience was great.”
If Max did not join the dive, he was always at the wharf to greet you and find out what you had seen.
“There was a very funny, friendly rivalry between Max and Dik Knight from Port Moresby dive resort, Loloata over Rhinopias – a beautiful lacy species of marine life. The topic who had the most Rhinopias in their area was hotly debated between the pair.”
The fun was not limited to time spent at Walindi Plantation Resort. The PNG booth at dive shows such as DEMA, Antibes and ADEX was always the best and the parties that they held were legendary.
“Max with his fun-loving nature was always the force behind these wonderful events and many a sore head turned up the next day. Visits to Walindi just got better and better over the years. Max and Cecilie were a wonderful team and once you had visited you became part of the family. On a recent trip to Walindi I loved seeing Max the grandad, so proud and so happy, the gentle side of Max, not the Max who loved an argument!
“Together, Max and Cecilie have given so much to the community, and ecosystems of PNG. One thing close to Jayne’s heart where Max and Cecilie have been been supportive over the years is hosting scholars from the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS).
All scholars that have visited Walindi have loved the time gaining both knowledge and hands on experience at the resort, dive liveaboards and with NGO Mahon Na Dari.
A few years ago, it was Jayne’s great pleasure to take Max and Cecilie to New York to meet the OWUSS family and learn what the scholars they once hosted are now doing.
“Visiting the Explorers Club and New York Yacht Club was a first for Max, and before we left to go he was quite worried he had no tie. A quick scrounge through (my husband) Colin’s selection and he was sorted.
“Max you are a legend and lived such an incredible life and even a few days before the end you were still planning how to get PNG back on track after the devastating start to 2020. We will miss you, but your legacy will live on through Cheyne and the family.”