Sand and a sargassum sea

29 01 2015

The landscape of our southern seas, once of tiny islands, reefs and sandbars within which sea nomads and pirates took refuge, is one that has drastically been altered. Totems of the new-age now mark the landscape, particularly in the southwest, a landscape that in a matter of time would only be one of the sea’s lost innocence.

The totems of the new age seen on Pulau Ular, from Beting Pempang, with the silhouettes of trees on Pulau Hantu in the foreground. Pulau Ular is an island that is now part of a larger landmass that has it joined it to Pulau Busing to its west and Pulau Bukom Kechil to its east.

The totems of the new age seen on Pulau Ular, from Beting Pempang, with the silhouettes of trees on Pulau Hantu in the foreground. Pulau Ular is an island that is now part of a larger landmass that has it joined it to Pulau Busing to its west and Pulau Bukom Kechil to its east.

Thankfully, not all innocence has been lost and in the shadows of the grey emblems of our industrial advance, we still find some of the joys of our shallow seas, joys that perhaps offer us some hope.

Navigation chart showing locations of patch reefs and sandbars south of the Bukom cluster.

Navigation chart showing locations of patch reefs and sandbars south of the Bukom cluster.

The seascape in the area of the Bukom group of islands and Pulau Hantu, is one we do still find joy in. It is where a cluster of submerged reef and sandbars, in being exposed during the lowest of tides, reveal a world now hard to imagine, rich in life we might never have thought could be there. The reefs also offer us a glimpse at a landscape that is perhaps as alien in appearance as it is bizarre – especially in juxtaposing it against a backdrop painted by the fast encroaching industrial world.

A sea of sargassum. The view across Terumbu Hantu towards Pulau Busing, which is now part of a larger land mass that joins Busing to Pulau Ular and Pulau Bukom Kechil..

A sea of sargassum. The view across Terumbu Hantu towards Pulau Busing.

One particularly outlandish sight is that of a yellowish green sea, under which one of the submerged reefs, Terumbu Hantu, just west of the island of Pulau Hantu. While it probably cannot be described as a pretty sight, especially with the high chance of stepping on a venomous creature such as a stone fish when treading through what is a seasonal sea of sargassum, it does have a hard to describe appeal that does has one stopping to admire it.

A sea of sand ... the view across a sandbar, Beting Pempang, towards a Pulau Busing and Pulau Ular now dominated by a huge petrochemical complex.

A sea of sand … the view across a sandbar, Beting Pempang, towards a Pulau Busing and Pulau Ular.

Another view across Beting Pempang.

Another view across Beting Pempang.

Green green grass of the sea.

Green green grass of the sea.

Across from the yellow-green sea, a sandbar, Beting Pempang, proved a little more inviting. The views across it, while nothing as strange as the sargassum sea, did not disappoint. Without the cover its eastern neighbour had, it offered an opportunity to find more joy in, joy in the form of the amazing lifeforms many of us who cut ourselves off from the sea, would never imagine could exist.

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A flat worm.

A flat worm.

A spider conch.

A spider conch.

A brittle star.

A brittle star.

A swimming file clam.

A swimming file clam.

An eel.

An eel.

In a Singapore that has little sentiment for such little joys, the future does not seem bright for the reefs in this cluster. The 2013 Land Use Plan identifies it as an area in which offshore reclamation is possible in a future when we may need ourselves to spill into the sea to gain breathing space, buried under land that will extend the shores of the Bukom group southward and westward – not a pretty thought. As long as its still is there however, there can be hope.

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reefs (and the islands).

Possible future reclamation identified by the 2013 Land Use Plan sees a bleak future for the reefs south of Bukom.

The sky at twilight from Beting Pempang, coloured by the advancing petrochemical plants that now dominate much of the southwestern shores.

The sky at twilight from Beting Pempang, coloured by the advancing petrochemical plants that now dominate much of the southwestern shores.

More at Ria Tan’s Wild Shores of Singapore: Terumbu Hantu and Terumbu Pempang Kechil.

 

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The tanks at Tanjong Berlayer

22 12 2014

The impressions I have long held of the Tanjong Berlayer area were ones formed by the road journeys to the area of my early years. That came at the end of the 1960s when the squat cylindrical tanks at the end of Alexandra Road would be the signal that I was close to my journey’s end.

Dawn over the land on which the Maruzen Toyo / BP refinery had once stood, a landscape once dominated by oil tanks.

Dawn over the land on which the Maruzen Toyo / BP refinery had once stood, a landscape once dominated by oil tanks.

An aerial view of Tanjong Berlayer in 1966, showing the BP refinery (source: National Archives of Singapore).

An aerial view of Tanjong Berlayer area in 1966, showing the BP refinery (source: National Archives of Singapore).

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The BP refinery storage tanks (photo online at https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/753/20557489428_aaea44065e_c.jpg.

The end of the same journey is today greeted by very different landmarks. The tanks, emblazoned with what had been the recognisable British Petroleum (BP) shield, are no longer there, having belonged to a refinery that has since been shut. The land on which the refinery had operated on has been empty since the end of the 1990s, and it is now a host of other structures, including that of the 42 storey PSA building, that is what catches one’s attention.

PSA Building and not the oil tanks, is one structure that will now catch one's attention at the end of Alexandra Road.

PSA Building and not the oil tanks, is one structure that will now catch one’s attention at the end of Alexandra Road.

The opening in 1962 of the small 28,000 bpd refinery at Tanjong Berlayer, Singapore’s second, coincided with the industrialisation efforts of the early 1960s and came on the back of Shell establishing a refinery on Pulau Bukom in 1961. The refinery had started its operations, not as a BP run one, but as one operated by the Japanese partnership of Maruzen Toyo, supplying fuel to the nearby Pasir Panjang Power Station. What was significant about this was that it represented the first major Japanese industrial investment in Singapore. The Japanese interests in the refinery did not last very long however. It was sold to BP in June 1964, just over two years after it had opened.

An aerial view of the Maruzen Toyo refinery at its opening in 1962 (photograph online at http://www.kajima.co.jp/).

With the redesignation of the area’s land use preventing BP from extending its lease in the longer term, it decided to pull-out from the refining business in Singapore in the mid-1990s. Operations at the refinery stopped in 1995, with BP maintaining the site as a storage facility for a few more years before returning it to the State in 1998. Subsequently cleared, the site had been left empty until today, awaiting a transformation that is promised as part of the future Greater Southern Waterfront. And, as with the Keppel Bay area on which the former repair docks of the Harbour Board and later Keppel Shipyard were sited to the site’s immediate east, the transformation will erase what little has been left to remind us of a time and a place we seem only to want to forget.

A fire-fighting exercise at the BP Refinery in 1968 (source: National Archives of Singapore).

A fire-fighting exercise at the BP Refinery in 1968 (source: National Archives of Singapore).

The site today.

The site today.

The landscape will eventually be dominated by the futuristic structures of the Greater Southern Waterfront.

The landscape will eventually be dominated by the futuristic structures of the Greater Southern Waterfront.