The forgotten stars of Singapore

15 07 2014

It is good to be reading about Dr Siti Maryam Yaakub’s work on Singapore’s unseen and unheard of seagrass meadows in Saturday’s edition of The Straits Times. We did, as Dr Siti points out in the article, once have lush meadows of seagrass, ones rich in life and ones which contributed to some of my happier childhood experiences off Changi Beach.

The star of our fast disappearing seagrass meadows.

The star of our fast disappearing seagrass meadows.

Common Sea Stars.

Common Sea Stars.

A sea hare - a type of sea slug.

A sea hare – a type of sea slug.

Coincidentally, I found myself in wading through another meadow, early in the morning of the day the article was published, found at one of offshore Singapore’s patch reef systems that is known collectively the Cyrene Reefs. The meadow, one of the larger surviving meadows in a part of the world where a certain emphasis has been placed on creating land where the sea is, is one that is teeming with life – the most noticeable of which are the huge red or pink knobby sea stars, which had also been prominent in the fields off Changi that featured in my youthful days.

A view across the sandbar at the Cyrene Reefs towards the new container terminal at Pasir Panjang.

A view across the sandbar at the Cyrene Reefs towards the new container terminal at Pasir Panjang.

An anemone.

An anemone.

And a false anemone.

And a cerianthid.

JeromeLim-6083

JeromeLim-6090

More Knobby Sea Stars at Cyrene.

More Knobby Sea Stars at Cyrene.

Surveying the landscape from the rather expansive sandbar at Cyrene at 4 in the morning, does provide that sense of the reef and its seagrass meadows having been put under siege by the industrial empire, one that has left its unsightly scars on much of Singapore’s western coast. To the north, the bright lights of a Pasir Panjang relieved of its “pasir” (sand in Malay) reveal that S$3.5 billion container terminal that is only a temporary one – port operations we hear would eventually be consolidated at Tuas. To the south lies Pulau Bukom, the first of Singapore’s islands to be committed to industrial exploitation and to its west Jurong Island, the monster of an island created by joining a cluster of lands through land reclamation has created; both dominated by stacks smoking in the cover of night.

What's smoking on Pulau Bukom at 4 in the morning.

What’s smoking on Pulau Bukom at 4 in the morning.

A fire worm.

A fire worm.

A shrimp.

A shrimp.

A sea cucumber.

A sea cucumber.

The visit to Cyrene, was perhaps to be remembered not for the opportunity it did provide to reacquaint myself with the seagrass adventures of my youthful days, but for the possible misadventure it might have turned into, as the quickening pace of the winds from the west – the much feared Sumatras, promised not just to cover us in rain but also threaten us with a show of light. The attempt the winds prompted to scamper off as quickly as we could from what would have been a location that was completely exposed, was one that Murphy seemed to want to intervene in when the inflatable boat that was to get us out floundered in the wind and the waves; the increasing frequency at which the flashes lit up the sky as well as the fast rising tide adding to the drama.

Before the storm ... an anemone.

Before the storm … an anemone.

The escape as captured by Juria.

We did somehow find ourselves in the relatively safety of the bigger boat. The “escape” is described as Ria Tan of the Wild Shores of Singapore saw it in her post “Near Death at Cyrene!“:

Fortunately, by some miracle, the Sumatras made a U-turn around Cyrene! The winds and waves died down. Kok Sheng redirected the dinghy to a less rocky spot, with Chay Hoon using the paddle to hold it away from the shore as every clambered on board. Eventually, everyone made it safely back to the big boat. Phew. Thanks to Alex and crew for making sure we don’t drown! (Why is it we often have a near death experience on Cyrene? During our last trip there in Aug 2013, Russel found a living cone snail!) 

The NEA weather map showing the u-turn of the storm.

The incident brought to mind a close encounter with lightning that I had as a child, the setting for which was provided once again by the waters off Changi Beach. That did teach me about the respect one has to show for the untameable forces of nature as did this new encounter. The incident did also heighten the respect that I have for the folks I was in the company of and the risks they expose themselves to. It is through their tireless efforts, that attention is drawn to the many offshore habitats we have, as well as the many threats to the habitats as Singapore looks to create more land from the sea.

The view towards Jurong Island to the reefs' west.

The view towards Jurong Island to the reefs’ west.

The news over the weekend of the creation of Singapore’s first marine park at Sisters’ Islands is a positive outcome of some of these and other similar efforts and hopefully, it with the efforts of researchers such as Dr Siti and enthusiasts such as the group I was with, we will see a lot more emphasis on the conservation and revitalisation of the once rich offshore habitats that have survived in the waters of Singapore.


The visit to the Cyrene Reefs is part of a series of visits to some of the lesser known shores of Singapore, in search of words and sounds for an IRememberSG funded project, Points of Departure.






Paradise found in a paradise lost

7 08 2012

Very early on a Saturday morning, I found myself boarding a boat headed for Singapore’s offshore landfill at Pulau Semakau. Established in the sea space that once separated two of Singapore’s once inhabited southern islands, Pulau Sakeng (or Seking as it was also known as) and (the original) Pulau Semakau, and contained by a 7 kilometre bund, the landfill has seen the creation of an enlarged single island which has kept the name of the larger of the two islands, Pulau Semakau.

The enlarged Pulau Semakau has been created from a landfill between two existing islands the original Pulau Semakau (to the west) and the smaller Pulau Sakeng (to the east) that is contained by a 7 km perimeter bund.


(Memories of Pulau Seking (Sakeng) posted on youtube by a former resident)

The original Southern Islands of Singapore – Pulau Seking (Sakeng) can be seen south of Pulau Bukom. The larger island to the west of Pulau Seking was the original Pulau Semakau to which it is now attached .

What had motivated me to catch a taxi at 4.15 in the morning just to get on the boat wasn’t so much a fascination for what Singapore does with its waste, but a intertidal walk on, what may surprise some, an expansive tidal flat on what is left of a natural shoreline that has long been known to be rich in marine biodiversity – that despite the extensive disturbance of the natural environment caused by what has gone on around the island. The large tidal flat is one of the few that’s also left in a Singapore that has been robbed of much of its natural shorelines by the extensive land reclamation work that has been carried out both on its mainland and offshore and offers an experience that is well worth waking up at 3.45 am for.

Part of the natural shoreline of the original Pulau Semakau which has an expansive tidal flat still exists in the north-western corner of the enlarged island, home to an offshore landfill.

The journey to Pulau Semakau began with a boat ride at 5.15 am.

A very comfortable hour’s boat ride from Marina South Pier was all it took to get to the island. The ride in the darkness before daybreak offered none of the excitement that had accompanied my first journeys to the southern islands, but the ride was certainly by a very similar sense of anticipation. The point of landing on Pulau Semakau was the area which once had been Pulau Sakeng, the last to be vacated of the two islands in the early 1990s and cleared of its stilted wooden dwellings that extended out from its shoreline, bears no resemblance at all to an island that for its inhabitants would have seemed like a little piece of paradise compared to the all too crowded mainland they now find themselves in.

… which arrived at about 6.20 am at what once was Pulau Sakeng (now part of the enlarged Pulau Semakau).

What was meant to have been a half an hour’s walk to the north-west corner of the enlarged island and where what is left of the tidal flats which had once surrounded the original Pulau Semakau is still left relatively untouched, turned into one that took a little more than an hour with the distraction caused by the colours of the fast lightening sky behind us. From the wide roadway built on top of the northern bund we had walked along, we trudged through a small mosquito infested forested area to get to the tidal flats, which by the time we got there, lay exposed by the tide which had already ebbed, with a few bakau mangrove trees to greet us and perhaps remind us of the coastal vegetation which would have once encircled the island, and is thought to give the island its name.

The walk into the darkness towards the western end of Pulau Semakau.

The colours of the sunrise served to lengthen what would have been a half an hour’s walk along the bund.

The view towards Pulau Jong.

Tidal flats have for me always served as wonderful places for discovery and walks I am now able to take on such flats always bring to mind the wonderful excursions of the sea grass fields off Changi Beach of my childhood, during a time when the sandy seabed there was littered with an abundance of knobbly sea stars, sea cucumbers, and crabs darting across and burrowing into the sand. Those were times when armed with a butterfly net, we would fill a small plastic pail with harvest of edible marine snails (gong-gong), shrimps and flower crabs which we could put on a grill.

A forested area separates the natural shoreline at the western end from the paved road constructed on the bund.

The sun rises over the flat.

Evidence of a concrete jetty that was once used by the island’s inhabitants seen in the mangroves.

A lone mangrove on the tidal flat.

Mangrove regeneration … besides the naturally occurring regeneration of mangroves, mangroves have been replanted along the areas of the coastline disturbed by the work that has gone on.

A group of photographers walking across the tidal flat.

Another view of the tidal flat looking towards Pulau Bukom.

A field of sea grass.

The tide starting to flow in – a view towards the edge of the tidal flat.

A sense of the space on the flat.

Right at the beginning of the walk on the tidal flat, our guide, Ron, made a very interesting discovery – a red nudibranch (sea-slug) that he had not previously spotted on the flats in the many other occasions he has visited it. There was a lot more that the flat was to reveal over the very interesting two-hour walk including three varieties of sea cucumber, two other very pretty looking nudibranchs, moon snails, anemones, flat worms, a giant clam, knobbly sea stars and even a very shy octopus that dove for cover as soon as it was spotted – best seen through the photographs that follow …

A red nudibranch not seen on the flats before.

A very pretty nudibranch – the Gymnodoris rubropapulosa.

A third nudibranch – Jorunna funebris (Funeral Nudibranch).

A flat worm.

And one in its natural environment.

Close-up of a maze coral.

Knobbly sea stars.

A tube anemone.

Another anemone.

Sea cucumber.

Zoanthids.

Moon snail.

The intertidal walk that I participated in is one of several ways in which Pulau Semakau can be visited, and was one that was run by licensed tour guide Robert Heigermoser. Other ways in which the island can be visited are on activities organised by interest groups such as the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, the Nature Society Singapore, The Astronomical Society of Singapore (TASOS), and the Sports Fishing Association (Singapore) that needs the blessing of the National Environment Agency (NEA). Guided tours and walks would often include a landfill tour. The tour which is interesting in that it introduces various aspects of the landfill including its history, as well as a bus tour around the landfill and the receiving station where waste incinerated at one of the three incinerators on the mainland is transferred from barges to tipper trucks which carry the waste to the landfill site. More information on Pulau Semakau, activities on Pulau Semakau and the landfill at the NEA website can be found at this link (Landfill Brochure) and also on this link link (Semakau Landfill).

One of the cells of the landfill that has been filled up.

The southernmost point of Singapore that the public has access to is at the end of a bund that contains a lagoon that will be used for phase 2 of the landfill when all the cells in phase 1 have been used.

The view from the bund southwest towards Pulau Pawai and Pulau Senang which is a live-firing area.

Part of the visit also included a drive through of the receiving station where incinerated waste from the mainland’s rubbish incinerators are transferred from barges onto tipper trucks.

The boat back and with the receiving station in the background.