• Our Seas, Our Legacy

Glimpses into Singapore's Crazy Rich Shores

Updated: Jun 24, 2019

This was first published in Asian Geographic Magazine, No. 134 Issue 01 / 2019.

Photos and text by Nathaniel Soon.

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.

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, one also often stops short of exploring for themselves 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 Solomon Islands. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), this area is considerably the most extensive and rich 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 consequently susceptible to.

Land reclamation works in 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%. Coastal defense infrastructures, 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 an estimated 39.85 square km in 1953 to 13.25 square km today. As a result, high levels of sedimentation have reduced the visibility in surrounding waters to about 3 to 5 metres at best. Interestingly, these have not diminished the abundance of life in our shores. “Despite the sedimentation, we have actually quite a lot of diversity in our reefs. 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,” reveals Samuel Chan, who currently researches the ecological history of local reefs at the Reef Ecology Lab of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Scientists like Samuel have long gotten the support of volunteer-led initiatives like regular intertidal surveys. One example is WILD Singapore, a one-stop platform founded by Ria Tan, used to catalogue facts about Singapore’s shores. Each day at low spring tide, Ria’s team of volunteers will depart to survey a particular shore and to date, she visits 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 initiative has since grown into a comprehensive database, testament to the richness of Singapore’s waters.

Ria Tan is the founder of WILD Singapore, a one- stop online platform sharing interesting facts and volunteer opportunities about Singapore’s shores.

In the northern shores of Singapore such as Pulau Ubin, Changi and Pasir Ris, the constant supply of freshwater from the Johor River in Malaysia, flushes the surroundings and decreases the waters’ 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 sponge (Cliona patera) which was once 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 attracting 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 cataloguing new records of marine life via the Singapore Biodiversity Records of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, in local waters ever so often. 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 light continues to be placed on Singapore’s crazy, rich shores, 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 ha and is home to stunning coral reefs, seagrass 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 is 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 alike. 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 alluding to the community’s sustained commitment.

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.

In March 2019, as the International Year of the Reef 2018 comes to a close and transitions to sustained efforts to raise awareness of 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 beneath Singapore’s crazy, rich shores.

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