There is a kingdom of coral in the principality of the Pacific Ocean called Kimbe Bay. “It is a world,” says photographer David Doubilet, “more alien than the edges of space.” Unlike cold space, it lives and breathes, and in its universe are galaxies of fish and coral formations as spectacular as the burst of a supernova. The bay, shaped like the cup of a chalice, sits on the coast of New Britain, Papua New Guinea. An uneasy geology—the region straddles two colliding plates—has produced a landscape of volcanoes (three of them active); a narrow coastal shelf that falls off, as if at the end of the world, into an abyss a mile and a quarter deep; and underwater mountains crowned, over the course of millennia, by reefs.
Seventeen years ago Doubilet spent eight days at Kimbe for a story, and the experience—though to call it an enchantment would be closer to fact—provoked a longing to return. It was an obsession born of a memory of a submerged paradise with silver schools of fish, meadows of red sea whips, and water with the clarity of crystal. Was paradise intact? he wondered.
“Some reefs,” he says, “are kinetic, like an abstract by Jackson Pollock.” Kimbe—Doubilet’s memory reef—is languid, “like an Impressionist painting, a Monet.” To tally the marine life that sways, swims, or crawls in those currents is to witness diversity in bloom. The accounting includes 536 types of coral (more than half the world’s species) and about 900 species of reef fish. Marvels small (the pygmy seahorse, so tiny it can fit on a pinkie fingernail) and large (the sperm whale) share its waters.