MAX BENJAMIN 1947 - 2020: A DIVING PIONEER
One of the most popular and respected diving pioneers, Max Benjamin, 72, died this week. He was the founder of the renowned Walindi diving resort in New Britain in Papua New Guinea and, along with his wife Cecilie, a passionate ambassador for the diving in Kimbe Bay. Together they established the resort in particular, and PNG in general, as one of the best diving destinations on the planet. He encouraged extensive scientific research into the marine life of the area and was tireless in supporting the local community.
Here is a collection of tributes to a remarkable man - updated 21 July
DIVE World Editor Douglas David Seifert
'Sooooo, when are you coming to see us in Kimbe Bay?' A twinkle in the eye, a sly smile and a drag off a cigarette from a man with sandy hair, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the English actor John Hurt albeit with an Australian accent. And thus my first impression of Max Benjamin, co-creator and co-owner of Walindi Plantation Dive Resort on the shores of Kimbe Bay, on the large island of New Britain, to the east of the Papua New Guinea mainland.
Of course, the idea of intentionally going to Papua New Guinea for scuba diving was really rather adventurous in the 1990s, the destination itself far far away and hard to get to by any account. (FYI: That has not materially changed much some 25 years later). No one ever just ended up in Papua New Guinea, you really needed to want to go and to go badly enough to endure long plane flights to eventually reach the capital of PNG, Port Moresby, and from there, an odious internal flight to New Britain, then a torturous unpaved road journey to the resort. There was no way to arrive except shattered, shaken not stirred.
Max Benjamin was unique: he was the charming and effective combination of an indefatigable One-Man Tourist Board, an outgoing-extrovert ambassador, and an ebullient cheerleader — effectively casting him as the PT Barnum of scuba diving. His passion for bringing likeminded people of discerning tastes into the waters of Papua New Guinea was a force of nature.
Without his tireless attendance at trade shows around the world, for weeks out of every year, year in and year out, for decades, from the United States to Germany to Moscow to Singapore and all points in between, the underwater community might very well be unaware of Papua New Guinea at all. Indeed, Max, along with his PNG mafia of dive operators and partners in promotion made the diving world sit up and take notice and truly care about Papua New Guinea, it’s unspoiled underwater riches, and also about the country itself, its rich culture and fascinating people.
Although he had to work hard to persuade, to convince, to cajole divers to the travel distance to dive the reefs of Kimbe Bay, once the divers arrived and had their first look underwater, they were instantly, passionately fans for life — and, despite the travel hardships, repeat customers. Max’s love of the ocean was unequivocal and so sincere you couldn’t help but submit.
The images made on Kimbe’s Reefs over the years are the quintessential eye candy that stimulates the aspirations of divers around the world, showing how glorious nature can be revealed within crystal clear seas teeming with colourful and plentiful fish and living reef structures.
In the 1990s, I was one of those budding underwater photographers carving out my career photographing sea life and writing features. I was introduced to Max at the DEMA trade show in Orlando and was offered the 'Golden Ticket' to visit Walindi as his guest and to create a feature.
So I went.
From the feature in DIVE (then Dive International) 2000:
'Walindi is the brainchild, the dream, the ideal, the creation, the labour of love, the cathedral, the carnival, the pleasure palace, the nirvana and the gift to ocean enthusiasts brought wholly into existence by Max and Cecilie Benjamin. Max, as a young Australian out seeking his fortune, came to PNG first in the mid-sixties as a Highlands Ranger. He fell in love with the country, stayed on, and, with his wife, purchased the plantation in 1969.
The palm oil business was good, and work consisted mostly of management of local workers, waiting for the palm trees to grow and bear fruit, then harvesting the palms: a combination of intense work, then long, long periods of waiting. In the lull(s), Max filled his spare time by diving the untouched, pristine reefs and saw their potential as a world-class diving destination.
In 1983, Max and Cecilie created, and opened for the first time, Walindi Plantation Resort – initially more as a diversion than anything else (after all, what sane person could expect the world to flock to a remote corner of an out-island of Papua New Guinea, which, of course, is exactly what happened) – on a block of waterfront land contained within the property of their 500-acre palm oil plantation.
Although the plantation itself remains a working commercial venture, sixteen years later, Walindi Plantation Resort has come into its own and has grown into a rambling complex of twelve secluded, self-contained, thatched roof, bure-style bungalows, a dining room, administration offices, pool deck, dive shop, and a lounge bar.
The lounge bar at Walindi is perhaps the greatest watering hole in the world (its got my vote, anyway), with Max holding court nightly. Max dispenses wisdom as freely as the dive shop dispenses air. Discussions are lively and, surprisingly or not, intellectually stimulating. The topics are multidisciplinary and range all over the place, from thoughts about underwater photography, the diving world, marine conservation, and industry gossip, to experiences from three decades in Papua New Guinea, to bold-faced lies about greater than great dives, near-death experiences to other subjects of world importance.
All are given exhaustive consideration and many careers in the underwater world have been shaped in these nightly sessions. All the while, Frank Sinatra croons 'New York, New York' in the background, so out of place that it absolutely makes perfect sense.
Divers have about twenty-five different dive sites to choose from, all of them a minimum of ten to a maximum of seventy-five minutes boat ride from the quay.
The majority of the dive sites are reefs which have been named after female guests who have graced Max and Walindi with their visits over the years; a sampling of these reefs named: Susan's, Christine's, Kirsty-Jayne's, Joy's, Katherine's, Vanessa's, Emma's, and Donna's. The few non-female-named sites are Kimbe Island, Bradford and Inglis Shoal and Bob's Knob (don't ask).
Each dive site features a different topography or specific animals, but all have in common one essential factor: divers are visiting one of the most biologically diverse and biologically rich underwater regions in the world. More than 900 species of fish have been identified in Kimbe Bay and more than 400 species of reef-building corals (more than half the species worldwide) flourish in this environment. Add to this equation the combination of warm water and exceptional visibility and it is no surprise at all that Kimbe Bay is considered one of - if not the - premier dive sites of the world.
The name 'Walindi' means 'meeting place under the sea' in the local dialect and no truer, more descriptive name could apply. Unique among dive operations around the world, Walindi is the destination of choice among both serious amateur and professional photographers. In fact, during a recent visit, the professionals seemed to outnumber vacationing divers. Conservation remains a priority in Kimbe Bay. In 1995, Max donated a block of his plantation land to The Nature Conservancy and the European Union supplied the funds to establish a field station for scientists to study the ecology of Kimbe Bay.
A new organization, Mahonia Na Dari ('Guardians of the Sea', in local dialect), is undertaking a long term assessment of the riches of Kimbe Bay and creating and implementing management plans that will be beneficial to the environment, to local people, and to visiting divers from around the world.
Ultimately, one man's dream has become a reality for the world to share in. One man has publicized a natural wealth and shared it with the world in order to preserve it. Often, the lengths (and depths) divers go to encounter unique sea life at times seems a peculiar form of madness… Or does it? At Walindi Plantation, on the shore of Kimbe Bay, on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea, it makes perfect sense.'
That first visit to Walindi was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Max and his amazingly talented, resourceful, and resilient bride Cecilie, married to Max for 45 eventful years — and that is like 100 years as life in PNG is anything but uneventful.
Walindi’s genesis sprung from a dive vacation in the Red Sea in 1978. Max was a visionary and recognized the Red Sea had nothing on Kimbe Bay, so he and Cecilie together created the Walindi dive resort on the site of their palm plantation. Slowly, the word goes out to PNG expatriate divers as well as the more adventurous Australian divers.
In time, Americans and Europeans made the journey as well as divers from other Asian nations, initially Japanese, then Hong Kong Chinese, Singaporean and other Asian countries. In time, reefs further afield cast their siren call and that call was answered by Captain Alan Raabe and his liveaboard dive ship, the FeBrina, who became a part of the Walindi family.
Max and Alan were truly brothers from another mother and together manifest a sublime chemistry, a glowing aura of cheeriness and warmth that was fantastic to witness, simultaneously contagious and irresistible and so much fun to be a part of — every moment was precious. When they were together, they fed off each other’s manic energy and quick wits, it was the Mad Max and Mad Dog show — a cabaret with Cabernet and more laughter than any ten standup comedians could muster.
Cecilie and Max have made tireless contributions to marine conservation and in improving the quality of life for the local communities, creating employment, educational opportunities through schools and continuing education, as well as supporting local micro-entrepreneurs businesses. Max’s generosity towards all continues to inspire.
I have the fondest of memories of exploring new places, attending social events and the inevitable late-night revelries with Max and the PNG Crew, where important matters both ocean wise and of a global problem-solving nature were examined and discussed, always with great humour and intelligent discourse — and a crippling headache the next day. These get-togethers occurred in many towns on various continents over two decades and everyone was a highlight and prized memory. They were always the best of times, never the worst of times, simply the times you wished would never end.
Max’s invitation and introduction to Kimbe Bay and the reefs of Papua New Guinea was the greatest possible gift to me and to dozens of my friends, colleagues, fellow divers. His legacy will be as a family man, the contributions made to the local community and the image of the country as a whole, the hospitality and sponsorship of dozens of influential photographers and journalists and magazine editors, as well as the recipients to whom he provided grand prizes in innumerable photo competitions over the years to further promote the image of the reefs he loved so much; many of those competition entrants would go on to become professionals. I should know, I won the Grand Prize in the PNG Underwater Photo Competition 20 years ago.
Max Benjamin touched so many lives, always to the betterment, in so many ways. He was remarkable, truly a giant and his influence and reach extended from a remote island in the South Pacific to encircle the globe like the warm embrace of a bear hug. This is a truly devastating loss. Our hearts go to Cecilie, Cheyne, Charmaine, Alan, their families and the entire Walindi family.
Rest In Peace, dear Max. You have left the party way too soon and that really isn’t like you at all.
Graeme Gourlay, Publisher of DIVE
I last saw Max on a boozy Sunday lunch in a pub on the Thames in Hammersmith in January this year. It was a typical Max encounter. He was full of fun, telling outrageous stories, surrounded by a gang of friends and colleagues, indiscrete, irreverent and always championing the place had lived for most of his adult life - the glorious Walindi Plantation in Kimbe Bay.
I first met Max nearly 25 years ago at one of the first dive shows I attended. He was irrepressible and whether it was at Antibes in the South of France, DEMA in New Orleans, BOOT in Germany, or even a dive show in Birmingham, it was always a delight to bump into him and Cecilie.
We have published many stories over the years about Walindi. It was impossible not to. It attracted the best photographers, writers and scientists and they all came back from New Britain with fabulous stories to tell about mind-blowing biodiversity, discoveries of historic wrecks, cutting edge research, the best liveaboard adventures and much more.
The photographs from Kimbe Bay for a long while set the pace. Whether it be macro delights of obscure marine life or wide-angle wonders of wandering whale sharks.
The best of the best from David Doubilet to our own Douglas Seifert have taken some of their greatest work in Kimbe Bay and have dreamt up crazier and more elaborate schemes for further adventures with Max in the bar at Walindi - possibly the best dive bar in the world!
Max, you will be greatly missed!
Howard and MIchele Hall
When we considered shooting a substantial portion of our IMAX feature, Under the Sea 3D, in Papua New Guinea, we contacted Max Benjamin for advice. His encouragement and enthusiasm for the project convinced us that Papua New Guinea should be a major location for the film. Max’s support and guidance not only made shooting in Papua New Guinea possible, but he also made the experience fun. We will certainly miss sitting with Max at the Walindi Resort and laughing about the good times we shared.
I last spoke to Max a couple of months ago during lockdown when he was moaning about the bane of his life, ‘that bloody volcano’ which would randomly drop ash on the runway of Walindi’s nearest airport, Hoskins. Over beers in Dusseldorf in January at the BOOT show, ‘that damned volcano’ was the subject of another rant, and Max, ever the great raconteur, was telling me about the summer of 2019. An eruption had dumped ash on the Hoskins runway and in the absence of an effective government, Max organised a workforce to clear the runway. It took more than two weeks. The ash had been cleared and the first test flight sent in from Port Moresby. However, so much ash ended up in the engines as the plane flew out it had to spend a week getting cleaned up in maintenance. Flights were due to reopen imminently to everyone’s relief, as the island had effectively been cut off by air. The volcano had other ideas and dumped another ‘shitload of ash’ straight on to the recently cleared runway. ‘At least we knew better how to clear the stuff off the second time around,’ said Max in his usual pragmatic manner.
But its not just for his ash wrangling skills that Max will be remembered. He and his wife and partner of 45 years, Cecilie founded an NGO Mahonia Na Dari to promote marine conservation in Kimbe Bay, house scientists studying there and to educate youngsters from PNG in the rich marine life and its importance as an ecosystem. Some of those young people went on to study marine biology at university and became ambassadors for the marine environment both in their local communities and across the wider country.
I first met them both back in the nineties in Cap D’Antibes at the annual underwater festival held there. Even back then they were a diving royal couple, with friends across the planet.
I forget what it was called, but Max had a favourite café – Max had a favourite bar wherever he went, and that is where we would all gather to drink and talk diving and ocean conservation – be it in Dusseldorf, New Orleans or Antibes. I’ve lost track of the number of times we had too many beers together, but they were always fun evenings.
I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to Walindi on several occasions and have written about the marine ecosystems and Mahonia for Geographical, DIVE and several other publications. Each visit was rewarding in a different way, but the month I spent looking for oceanic whitetip sharks was pretty memorable.
But I’ll leave Max with the last word, he would have liked that. Back in the nineties, he asked me: ‘Why don’t you bloody journalists want to write about the work we are doing at Mahonia na Dari?’ I had to reply that since the organisation was only in its youth, the story needed a little more time to mature, but that I’d be back to do the job for sure. It took me twenty years to return, but that was perfect in terms of being able to see the true legacy that Max and Cecilie had established. Both Max and Cecilie were delighted with the final result.
Cecilie, Cheyne, and the whole Walindi family - we’ll all miss Max’s wry sense of humour, drive and energy, he leaves a large gap in the diving community.
If the measure of a man is the worth of the things he cares about, then Max Benjamin was simply beyond measure. Whether it be his family, friends, the local community or the environment, Max displayed that affection with real action as he and his wife Cecilie championed life-changing conservation and education initiatives in the land they made their home. Their philanthropic activities benefited thousands, whether it be at the Mahonia Na Dari marine education scholarships, the local elementary schools they sponsor or the sense of environmental stewardship they instilled in their local community.
What I will always remember is his warmth and generosity, his sense of humour, that unending curiosity and what a genuinely nice person he was. It is with great sadness that I write these words but as I write them I realise what a great privilege it was to have known him and to have called him a friend. Rest in Peace Max.
GERALD R ALLEN
Max was a real gentleman in every sense of the word. I immensely enjoyed his company and soft-spoken demeanour. Max’s enthusiasm for his beloved Kimbe Bay was infectious. He was a strong supporter of the scientific community and his wonderful generosity facilitated a variety of natural history projects, including my work on reef fishes. Max’s legacy will endure and that is certain.
Thanks to his efforts Kimbe Bay is now recognized as a global biodiversity hotspot worthy of special conservation measures. In 1994 I discovered a beautiful new fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus) while diving at Kimbe Bay. My intention was to name it benjamin in his honour, but Max did not want any personal glory and insisted it be named Walindi instead. This was a great example of his unassuming nature and modest attitude.
I remember the first time I met Max; it was in the early ’90s, a time I was starting out in underwater photography journalism. I recall fondly the conversation we had at the Ocean Realm booth in DEMA, San Francisco. Very quickly, he somehow sensed my enthusiasm for coral reefs. He said: 'Come visit us at Kimbe Bay'. Thus, began my first and many visits to Walindi Plantation Resort, exploring Max’s Backyard – his magnificent playground he shared so kindly with the world. Max is a true-blue gentleman, a quiet philanthropist, a local hero.
Beyond contributing to the local community, his kindness of sharing the richness of his backyard has helped launch the career of many underwater photographer and scholars to greater heights…including mine. Max is the guardian of Kimbe Bay. He pioneered the used of the submerged buoy mooring system, that has become an essential, a game-changer for preserving coral reefs from the impact of marine tourism. Though Max has left the ‘party’, his pioneering spirit and legacy remained. Max is a legend of underwater PNG.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Max and his partner Capt Krunch (AKA Capt Alan Raabe) aboard the M/V FeBrina in the mid 90s. It was not long after that, that the three of us Max, Alan & I became friends, business partners (M/V FeBrina & M/V Star Dancer) and then, due to circumstances beyond our control ex-partners but ALWAYS friends! Capt.Allan & I (after a few brews) frequently teased Max about his 'smaller than ours' physical stature but we will both tell you: 'Max was a GIANT among men!' Friend, partner, gentleman, legend, leader & pioneer!
Thanks to Max’s dedication to and love for PNG, but particularly the North side of New Britain Island and specifically Kimbe Bay, PNG is among the most highly respected dive destinations in the world today - if PNG, Walindi Plantation Resort, M/V FeBrina and/or M/V Oceana are not on every diver’s wis list - they certainly should be!
Twenty plus years ago I stepped foot on to Walindi Plantation Resort and immediately fell in love with its wild tropical vibe and family feel. Max and Cecilie made Walindi your home-away-from-home. Every return visit was like being back at home. Even with such a distance and lack of communication for months or years, whenever we reconnected it was as if we had seen each other the week before. Max was a true character and always wanted you to have the best time whether heading out to the reefs, touring the WWII sites or heading out for a birding excursion. He always made suggestions and kept you from any tribal war encounters as best as possible! He was a phenomenal human being, a genuine friend to many and a diving pioneer in PNG.
VALERIE MAY TAYLOR
Max was a dear friend warm, kind and willing to share his amazing knowledge about the marine world he loved so much. Ron and I first met Max I think the late 1970s several years after Papua New Guinea had been given independence. Our land on the island of Wuvulu had been reclaimed by the government. I think we were in Rabaul. Ron and myself were moaning about the government taking our piece of paradise to fellow diver Max Benjamin.
Max who ran and possibly owned a copra planation told us he was running a modest dive operation in Kimbe Bay, New Britain. We thought he had no hope. The government was taking away land, houses and jobs from the 'dim dims' (white people). How wrong we were. Max ended up with the best and most successful dive operation in the country. He will be sadly missed not just by divers but the people of New Britain, especially the local village inhabitants who he treated with great respect and generosity.
Max, thank you very much for supporting an unknown, unexperienced photographer as I was in the days when I visited Walindi Resort and MV Febrina.
Max was a gentle soul with a huge heart. He loved PNG and sharing what it had to offer. I remember arriving on my first visit very jet-lagged and Max introducing himself offering me a glass of wine which turned into a bottle, it as often did at Walindi as we discussed diving and he enthusiastically told me about his beloved reefs in Kimbe Bay. As we finished our evening Max said he was diving with us the next morning as he had a very special reef he wanted me to see.
We dove the most beautiful reef the next morning and back on the boat Max asked me what I thought and I told him it was one of the most spectacular reefs I had ever seen. He then explained to me that only two years ago it had been completely dead totally bleached white from warm water coral bleaching but had now come back. I was amazed as there was no sign today of that coral bleaching. Max said scientists did not believe him but were coming to do research and try to understand why.
Max was like a proud papa and understandably so. Kimbe Bay is a very special ecosystem. On the ride back to Walindi we were surrounded by dolphins and Max said put on a mask and snorkel and slip in the water holding a line. I was a bit nervous with the engines running but did it anyway and had the experience of a lifetime with the dolphins all around me singing, pinging me, putting on a show as I was being pulled alongside the boat. Just one day 25 years ago Max had made me fall in love with Walindi and the magic that is Kimbe Bay. This is only one small Max story there are so many more including his conservative efforts, the fun ones such as his birthday parties and his love of Lawrence Welk music and the pranks we played on him. The many nights at Walindi I know all of his friends can relate to.
Anyone who runs a dive operation in a place like Papua New Guinea has to be strong, smart, independent, and dedicated to the underwater world. I did not know Max Benjamin well but benefited from Walindi's location and services on several trips to PNG. He was obviously a remarkable man and will be hugely missed by our dive community.
In 1990, I began asking questions in the dive industry about where the newest hot spot was. Walindi Resort and Kimbe Bay was all the talk at the DEMA Show. Within 18 months I was on my way and have returned many, many times to explore the territory from Walindi Resort or the MV FeBrina.
I also was building a strong bond and friendship with the Benjamins and Alan Raabe. Remembering one of those first encounters makes me laugh hysterically. On board the Ema, of the resort’s dive skiffs and named after one of three children, Max insisted that I crawl into the 'hammock of death' that was lowered at the side of the small vessel.
Hanging in there for dear life and with a grip on my camera, the Ema moved at a slow speed and the local pod of dolphins came to play. Even though I felt I would drown, mostly from being charmed by three chirping and jumping creatures, it was quite the experience.
The stories of all our dives and encounters would be talked up at the infamous bar and with a bit of bragging rights.
There was Max, his usual slow saunter, impish grin and sparkle in his eye asked: 'So how did you like that, dahlin?'
Max never changed that look and added so much generosity and response to several projects I’m very proud of today. Thank you, Max. You will be deeply missed.
Max was one of the most generous human beings I have met as well as the most passionate about diving in Papua New Guinea.
I remember the old good days in Antibes festival in the 1990s. I got the silver prize for the portfolio in 1997. After the results were released, Max came to me and told me: 'If you want the gold prize, you need to come to Walindi'. Of course, I said thank you. The next day he came up to me again: 'You didn't understand what I meant. Come to Walindi, you are my guest'. So, I went. The next year I again entered the Antibes portfolio competition. I was quite nervous. I felt like I made a commitment to Max. I got the gold prize. I was so happy and relieved, but I think that Max was even happier than me.
Max and I first met up maybe 40 years ago, at the time I was running a diving operation in the Red Sea at what many thought was the end of the world, and Max was starting up his paradise resort of Walindi, arguably the other end of the world and equally remote and exotic. I think this created an instant bond between us, and we traded stories about 'A' list diving adventurers, photographers and filmmakers, who had dived with both of us, Red Sea Divers or Fantasea 1 and 2 in the Red Sea and at Walindi and Febrina out of Kimbe Bay.
How envious I was, of those guests after hearing their stories about Max and Walindi and I was determined one day to make my way to Walindi and the Febrina to see for myself.
For 20 years our contact was mostly at dive shows, DEMA in the US, Boot Show in Germany, Salon de Plongee in Paris, Birmingham, Singapore, Bologna and we even froze our asses off in Moscow on occasion. It was always a pleasure to meet up with Max or a chat about life and business over a beer or even fleeting moments at one of our booths.
Finally, in 2004, the time was right and I had a chance to take him up on one of his multiple offers to come dive and visit him in Walindi and to see for myself what so many diving pros and filmmakers had been raving about all these years.
This Red Sea Diver finally had a chance to see someplace else in the diving world which had been favorably compared to 'my' diving paradise. Often with such high expectations, you tend to be disappointed. Walindi and Febrina did not disappoint, not one iota.
My experiences there with Max and the ever-capable Capt Alan where among the very best adventures of my life. The diving was superb but no less superb was the kindness, graciousness and warmth from Max, Cicelie Alan and their team.
I even managed to get Digger back in the water with one of my ProEar masks, the smile on his face will stay with me forever.
Max, you were the consummate professional and gentleman, gracious even when facing the multitude of challenges that every diving pioneer faced in these remote and challenging locations. For that, I salute you will remember those wonderful times we shared together.
My most sincere condolences to the Benjamin family and all of the Walindi team. Max may your memory be blessed.
I came to know Max from the international dive show circuit, where he worked tirelessly to promote the unique underwater scene of Papua New Guinea. It wasn’t until 2011 that I finally visited the legendary Walindi Plantation Resort and witnessed its marvels for myself. He was a busy man, but Max took the time to help me understand Kimbe Bay and its beautiful seamounts. He told me of the resort’s history, of the ongoing studies into its remarkable biodiversity and how he wanted to help assure the long term health of its coral.
Max was a practical man with a dream, to tell the world about the diving around New Britain and to ensure that future generations would also be able to see a fully cohesive coral reef with all the layers of the food chain complete and functioning. I hope and believe Max’s influence will continue to spread, and that more eco resorts will be protecting their local ecosystems by promoting a sustainable degree of diver traffic.
Thank you, Max, for showing us all how it should be done.
Many will remember Max for his kindness, charm, and affability. Rightly so.
The first time I communicated with Max was in 1998. Singapore Airlines had commenced offering shark fin soup on flights. I was in up late at night, in my pajamas, organizing an ad hoc global campaign to educate the airline about why their well-intentioned offering to premium passengers posed a serious problem. It was the early days of the Internet when companies like Alta Vista and Geocities were the gatekeepers of cyberspace.
One of the people I contacted at random was Max. I sent him the information package I had prepared, along with my explanatory email and a sample letter addressed to the CEO of Singapore Airlines. I had never met Max. He didn’t know me either. Yet he replied almost immediately and offered his help, as well as the invaluable support of the PNGDA.
Singapore Airlines ceased serving shark fin soup soon thereafter.
Electronic friendship evolved into in-person friendship, with many hours spent chatting, drinking (way too much) together, and cooperating to make the world a better place.
Photographic pursuits have kept me occupied and away from PNG in recent years, which means I haven’t spent time with Max for a while. Much too long, as it turns out.
It is with the heaviest of hearts that I received the news of Max’s passing. Max was a pioneer. A leader. A visionary. A gatekeeper of the oceans.
Rest in peace dear friend.
I met Max for the first time over 20 years ago – in the domestic terminal of Port Moresby airport where we were 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 heading.
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 seemed to be able to 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. You would pass through a relatively prosperous and bustling town of Kimbe and arrive at Walindi 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 them realize 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 on the resort’s website by Cecilie.
Less well known though 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 to 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 actual 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, 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.'
GUI GARCIA & CATHRYN CASTLE GARCIA
Max Benjamin can be described as the grand statesman of Kimbe Bay. Guests and divers at his boutique Walindi Plantation resort experienced this firsthand, as Max and Cecilie and their family and staff have always demonstrated a special care and concern for Kimbe Bay and all who lived and visited this magical area of Papua New Guinea.
Max’s dedication ran deep and extended well beyond the shoreline. He and his family greeted us when we visited by private yacht in 2016. We weren’t treated with transactional 'white boat' stiffness common in the yachting world, but instead received a hearty welcome and a personalized guided tour of the resort and the adjacent school and environmental centre. The Benjamin family’s pride in Walindi is clearly a direct result of Max’s passion and perseverance.
I first met Max in 1989 when I was working in dive travel. Part of my job was leading groups and my first time in PNG was to Walindi Plantation Resort.
This was going to be my first dive ever in PNG, the images looked amazing. I was told before leaving that if I arrived at Walindi with a bottle of Cointreau it would be well appreciated by Max, the owner and we would get on well.
My first day diving there was with Max, I was so excited about going to see beautiful corals and reefs. After loading the boat with numerous thermoses of tea (Max liked his tea) we headed out. Max decided en-route 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. Other times, 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 Loloata over rhinopias – a beautiful lacy species of marine life - and the competition between them of who had the most rhinopias in their area.
It was not only at Walindi there fun to be had - 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. One of my last trips 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!
One thing close to my heart where Max and Cecilie have been supportive over the years is hosting scholars from the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS). A scholarship that is dedicated to providing young leaders with exemplary experiences in the underwater world. It strives to cultivate an organization built on mentorship, encouragement, tolerance, and mutual respect, thereby engendering a welcoming environment for all. All scholars that have visited have loved the time gaining both knowledge and hands-on experience at Walindi, Oceania and the Mahon Na Dari.
It was wonderful to finally get Max and Cecilie to New York a few years ago to experience the OWUSS family and what the scholars that have visited are now doing. Visiting the Explorers Club and New York Yacht Club was a first for Max, I don’t think I had ever seen Max in such a big city before where there was no dive show and before we left to go Max was quite worried he had no tie, a quick scrounge through 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.
Thanks to Max I’ve been to PNG at least 15 times. I don't remember the exact number but every trip brought fantastic experiences – I would never have done so without Max's courtesy, determination, and energy. I did two books and countless magazine pieces about PNG, helping to spread the word about such a perfect corner of the world. t will never be the same to dive in PNG without Max.
I first met Max when Bob Halstead and I were working on the first Lonely Planet Diving and Snorkeling Guide to Papua New Guinea. We divided the country into areas and lucky me, I got Walindi. Max was welcoming, extremely helpful, knowledgeable and fun. His sincere love of PNG and PNG diving were evident the first evening we sat down by the Walindi pool and discussed diving. It was the first of many trips I made to Walindi. Max was the glue that made PNG's unique divers' association strong. He worked tirelessly at trade shows and was always supportive of any project I came up with, offering wisdom and wit. This COVID fiasco caused me to cancel a trip to Walindi in early April of this year. I was really looking forward to seeing Max and getting his input on yet another bright idea of mine. But more just to see his bright smile and hear how he and everyone in he PNG dive world was doing. Sadly, that won't happen now. Max lived a great life doing what he loved and helping a lot of folks along the way. I am gonna miss him.
When Barry Andrewartha introduced me to Max Benjamin at one of the early ADEX shows in Singapore, the first thing Max said to me was as he said to Douglas Seifert, 'Sooooo, when are you coming to see us in Kimbe Bay?' I didn’t dare say yes to that invitation then. I was, after all, a novice macro photographer with not enough diving experience. Max asked me the same question every time he was in town for ADEX and in 2012, I finally said yes. Rather than the usual: 'We would host you the resort for so many days…' I was asked instead: 'How long you can stay with us?' was very well looked after at the resort. Beautiful room, amazing food, even better dives! I especially enjoyed the time Max spent talking with me, every time he mentioned his son Cheyne, his eyes lit up proudly.
After that trip, Max’s question for me every ADEX became: 'Sooooo, when are you coming BACK to see us in Kimbe Bay?'One year, he came up to me with great enthusiasm: 'You are visiting us again this June!' When I told him I had not booked anything with Walindi that summer, he turned towards a colleague in horror and said: 'I had given another person named William Tan a free trip!' Instantly, the three of us broke into uncontrollable laughter.
Last May, when David Doubilet, Jennifer Hayes and I were in Brisbane at the invitation of Underwater Tour 2019, I saw Max for the last time when he and Cecilie walked with us from the hotel to the show venue. I will miss Max greatly. plan to return to Kimbe Bay to visit everyone. I am booking myself a paying trip with Cheyne once the COVID travel ban is lifted.
Birgitte (Deda) Wilms
Max will be remembered as an explorer and visionary. Thanks to Max’s effort, so many of us have had the chance to experience world-class diving in Walindi and onboard FeBrina. He was an inspiration to us all, on how to live life to the fullest, explore new frontiers, and always have a smile on your face. I will always be grateful to Max and his contribution to the diving community and to our lives!
Max Benjamin 1947 - 2020