Glimpses into Sin­ga­pore’s Crazy, Rich Shores

Vol­un­teers who sur­vey the wa­ters and shores of Sin­ga­pore share the sur­pris­ing bio­di­ver­sity they dis­cover there.

Asian Geographic - - CONTENTS - Text and Pho­tos Nathaniel Soon

Murky wa­ters, bar­ren reefs and trash-strewn beaches – these are likely the first images that come to mind when one en­vi­sions Sin­ga­pore’s marine en­vi­ron­ments. Truth is, we also of­ten stop short of ex­plor­ing for our­selves what truly lies be­neath the sur­face sur­round­ing this tiny, is­land state – habi­tats teem­ing with colour­ful and di­verse marine flora and fauna. And that comes as not much of a sur­prise. Sin­ga­pore is ge­o­graph­i­cally sit­u­ated near the Co­ral Tri­an­gle, a marine area in the western Pa­cific Ocean that spans the seas of Malaysia, In­done­sia, the Philip­pines, Pa­pua New Guinea, Ti­mor-Leste and the Solomon Islands. Ac­cord­ing to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), this area is the planet’s rich­est in terms of marine life, with nearly 600 species of corals and six out of the world’s seven sea tur­tle species found here. But mis­con­cep­tions about Sin­ga­pore’s marine land­scape of­ten arise as a re­sult of an­thro­pogenic im­pacts, which the world’s sec­ond busiest sea­port is sus­cep­ti­ble to ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.

Land recla­ma­tion works at the ma­jor­ity of Sin­ga­pore’s south­ern and north­east­ern coasts, along with its south­ern islands, have ac­counted for a to­tal in­crease in the coun­try’s land area by over 20 per­cent. Coastal de­fense in­fra­struc­ture, fre­quent ship dredg­ing along its chan­nels and other ex­ten­sive de­vel­op­ment projects have also led to habi­tat loss and co­ral degra­da­tion, most ev­i­dent in the re­duc­tion of Sin­ga­pore’s reef area from around 40km² in 1953 to a lit­tle over 13km² to­day.

As a re­sult, high lev­els of sed­i­men­ta­tion have re­duced the vis­i­bil­ity in sur­round­ing wa­ters to about 3 to 5 me­tres at best. In­ter­est­ingly, this has not di­min­ished the abun­dance of life around our shores. “De­spite the sed­i­men­ta­tion, we have ac­tu­ally quite a lot of di­ver­sity in our reefs,” re­veals Sa­muel Chan, who cur­rently stud­ies the eco­log­i­cal his­tory of lo­cal reefs at the Reef Ecol­ogy Lab of the Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sin­ga­pore (NUS). “For ex­am­ple, what we find are more plat­ing corals be­cause those are the forms that have the most re­sis­tance against the sed­i­men­ta­tion. Ul­ti­mately, these hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties have only in­creased the re­silience of our reefs.”

Sci­en­tists like Chan have long got­ten the sup­port of vol­un­teer-led ini­tia­tives like reg­u­lar in­ter­tidal sur­veys. One ex­am­ple is WILD Sin­ga­pore, a one-stop on­line plat­form founded by Ria Tan that cat­a­logues facts about

Sin­ga­pore’s shores. At low spring tide,

“Peo­ple are shocked that these images I take of these re­ally cool sea slugs and corals are ac­tu­ally all found in Sin­ga­pore”

Tan’s team of vol­un­teers will de­part to sur­vey a par­tic­u­lar shore, vis­it­ing over 50 different sites each year. The photograph­s taken by vol­un­teers are then con­sol­i­dated and shared on WILD Sin­ga­pore’s larger data­base. Jonathan Tan, a reg­u­lar vol­un­teer and stu­dent, re­calls, “I can­not list the num­ber of times peo­ple are shocked that these images I take of these re­ally cool sea slugs and corals are ac­tu­ally all found in Sin­ga­pore.” This cit­i­zen sci­ence ini­tia­tive has since grown into a com­pre­hen­sive data­base, tes­ta­ment to the rich­ness of Sin­ga­pore’s wa­ters.

On the north­ern shores of Sin­ga­pore such as Pu­lau Ubin, Changi and Pasir Ris, the con­stant sup­ply of fresh wa­ter from the Jo­hor River in Malaysia flushes the sur­round­ings and de­creases the wa­ter’s salin­ity. As such, unique va­ri­eties of marine species which thrive in less salty con­di­tions can be found aplenty. Chek Jawa, which is a large in­ter­tidal flat­land at the east­ern tip of Pu­lau Ubin, was des­ig­nated as a wet­lands re­serve and is in­cred­i­bly pre­cious be­cause sev­eral different marine ecosys­tems have made the area their home. One can find man­grove forests, rocky shores, co­ral

rub­ble and sea­grass mead­ows all in one place, pro­vid­ing a sanc­tu­ary for en­dan­gered flora and fauna, no longer seen else­where in Sin­ga­pore.

To the south, not too far from the main­land, a colour­ful, thriv­ing land­scape of co­ral reefs can be found. In fact, this area was the main sur­vey site for the Com­pre­hen­sive Marine Bio­di­ver­sity Sur­vey (CMBS) launched in Novem­ber 2010 and led by Na­tional Parks (NParks) and NUS, aimed at tak­ing stock of the state of marine bio­di­ver­sity in Sin­ga­pore. Over three phases be­tween 2010 and 2015, more than 10,000 spec­i­mens of flora and fauna were col­lected and pre­served, seven species new to sci­ence were de­scribed, and more than 160 new records for Sin­ga­pore were also recorded. New dis­cov­er­ies be­neath the sur­face con­tinue to be made fre­quently. In 2011, a liv­ing spec­i­men of the gi­ant Nep­tune’s cup

“Be­tween 2010 and 2015, more than 10,000 spec­i­mens of ora and fauna were col­lected and pre­served, seven species new to sci­ence were de­scribed”

sponge (Cliona pat­era), which was thought to be ex­tinct for a cen­tury, was re­dis­cov­ered off the coast of St. John’s Is­land.

The al­lure of Sin­ga­pore’s bio­di­verse reefs con­tin­ues to at­tract loyal divers and en­thu­si­asts to get up close and per­sonal espe­cially with the colour­ful crit­ters in an­other of Sin­ga­pore’s south­ern is­land reefs – Pu­lau Hantu. De­spite its for­bid­ding name, which means “ghost is­land” in Malay, Pu­lau Hantu has grown into a favourite des­ti­na­tion for lo­cal divers who em­bark on trea­sure hunts every week­end dur­ing their muck dives. “Muck div­ing” got its name from the silty sub­strate of reefs like those of Pu­lau Hantu, but re­mains ap­peal­ing be­cause of the wide ar­ray of sea slugs, nudi­branchs, crabs, sea­horses and other in­trigu­ing an­i­mals that divers can get a chance to see. The fre­quency of lo­cal div­ing in Pu­lau Hantu has re­sulted in divers, every so of­ten, cat­a­logu­ing new records of marine life via the Sin­ga­pore Bio­di­ver­sity Records of the Lee Kong Chian Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum. Div­ing en­thu­si­ast Toh Chay Hoon has been a keen con­trib­u­tor of these re­mark­able dis­cov­er­ies

dur­ing her trips around Sin­ga­pore’s shores. “Be­sides find­ing new sea slug records at Pu­lau Hantu, I also made an in­ter­est­ing dis­cov­ery of a tiny co­ral rub­ble crab that was found to be a new species to sci­ence, and sub­se­quently de­scribed by tax­onomist Pro­fes­sor Peter Ng and named Nur­sia to­hae, af­ter my last name,” Toh ex­plains. Vis­i­tors to Sin­ga­pore’s south­ern shores are at times also for­tu­nate to en­counter the oc­ca­sional Indo-Pa­cific hump­backed dol­phins, hawks­bill and green sea tur­tles and white-spot­ted ea­gle rays.

In­creas­ing fo­cus con­tin­ues to be placed on Sin­ga­pore’s bio­di­verse wa­ters, which has trans­lated into a con­ser­va­tion im­per­a­tive amongst the com­mu­nity here. Launched in July 2014, Sin­ga­pore wel­comed its first marine park – the Sis­ters’ Is­land Marine Park, which spans about 40 hectares and is home to stun­ning co­ral reefs, sea­grass mead­ows and a safe refuge for marine bio­di­ver­sity in the south­ern islands. In Novem­ber 2018, a 10-me­tre-high con­crete and fi­bre­glass in­stal­la­tion was es­tab­lished at Sis­ters’ Islands, the first of eight such struc­tures which are part of Sin­ga­pore’s ef­forts to cre­ate the largest ar­ti­fi­cial reef habi­tat to boost the va­ri­ety of marine life within the area. This was one of many new and hope­ful ini­tia­tives geared to­wards con­serv­ing Sin­ga­pore’s marine bio­di­ver­sity and pi­o­neered as part of an event­ful year of Cel­e­brat­ing Sin­ga­pore Shores, in con­junc­tion with the In­ter­na­tional Year of the Reef 2018. The need for con­ser­va­tion was fur­ther re­in­forced through the launch of the third it­er­a­tion of the Sin­ga­pore Blue Plan last year, which is an ex­ten­sive plan put to­gether by sci­en­tists, non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions and vol­un­teers. The plan makes six rec­om­men­da­tions, in­clud­ing im­proved laws to pre­serve Sin­ga­pore’s marine land­scape and sus­tained fund­ing for fu­ture re­search and de­vel­op­ment pro­grammes, all of which al­lude to the com­mu­nity’s sus­tained com­mit­ment.

In March 2019, as the In­ter­na­tional Year of the Reef 2018 comes to a close and tran­si­tions to sus­tained ef­forts to raise aware­ness about Sin­ga­pore’s shores, we con­tinue to cel­e­brate

and ad­vo­cate for how Sin­ga­pore lives up to its rep­u­ta­tion as a Gar­den City, not just on land but also un­der­wa­ter. With over 250 species of hard corals, rep­re­sent­ing more than 30 per­cent of species in the en­tire world, 12 out of 23 species of sea­grass in the Indo-Pa­cific re­gion, 100 species of reef fish and 200 species of sponges recorded in our wa­ters, it is clear that we are ac­tu­ally only scratch­ing the sur­face of what lies be­yond Sin­ga­pore’s crazy, rich shores.

Nathaniel Soon is cur­rently his pur­su­ing his un­der­grad­u­ate stud­ies in en­vi­ron­men­tal an­thro­pol­ogy at Yale-NUS Col­lege in Sin­ga­pore. He is in­ter­ested in doc­u­ment­ing dis­ap­pear­ing cul­tures, hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ters and re­cov­ery ef­forts and marine con­ser­va­tion en­deav­ours. He is the founder of Our Seas, Our Legacy, a col­lec­tive us­ing vis­ual sto­ry­telling to raise aware­ness about en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges and ad­vo­cate for bet­ter oceans. The col­lec­tive screened its first doc­u­men­tary se­ries ti­tled Our Seas, Our Legacy, which show­cases what Sin­ga­pore­ans are do­ing to con­serve our marine en­vi­ron­ment, at the Sin­ga­pore Eco Film Fes­ti­val in Novem­ber 2018.

RIGhT Ria Tan is the founder of WILD Sin­ga­pore, a on­estop on­line plat­form shar­ing in­ter­est­ing facts and vol­un­teer op­por­tu­ni­ties about Sin­ga­pore’s shores. mAIN Pu­lau Jong, or Junk Is­land, is a 6,000-square-me­tre un­in­hab­ited con­i­cal is­land found off the south­ern coast of Sin­ga­pore. It is among the last un­touched islands in Sin­ga­pore and has a huge ex­posed reef flat at low spring tide. It is also one of the com­mon sites for WILD Sin­ga­pore’s in­ter­tidal sur­veys.

The co­ral cat shark, Atelomyc­terus mar­mora­tus, one of sev­eral shark species in Sin­ga­pore’s wa­ters is found at Terumbu Bem­ban, one of the coun­try’s south­ern reefs. TOP RIGhT Go­nio­branchus fidelis, oth­er­wise known as the re­li­able nudi­branch or faith­ful sea slug, is one of many species of nudi­branchs found in the wa­ters of the is­land na­tion. ABOVE A glit­ter­ing cut­tle­fish found dur­ing a dive at Pu­lau Hantu

TOP

ABOVE Vol­un­teers sur­vey the ex­posed co­ral reefs of Bet­ing Bem­ban Be­sar is­land, which lies off Pu­lau Se­makau. It fea­tures sandy areas and sea­grass mead­ows, along­side rub­bly co­ral habi­tats.

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