The stilt supported bungalow growing out of the sea

10 07 2021

Influenced by the many tales that were told of lighthouses and their keepers, any mention of the word “lighthouse” through much of my younger days would conjure up images of large waves breaking against a lighthouse’s rocky foundations, and of lighthouse keepers with weather-worn faces dressed in their oilskins. I have formed quite a different impression of lighthouses over the years — at least of the ones in Singapore where it isn’t quite as chilly enough to be comfortable in oilskins and where the seas, with the exception of that around Horsburgh Lighthouse during the Northeast Monsoons, are much less tempestuous. What has helped in forming that altered impression were visits to Raffles Lighthouse at Singapore’s southernmost island Pulau Satumu and the numerous occasions on which I had set eyes on the lighthouse on Sultan Shoal, which I first spotted from the days when I was involved in ship trail trips as a naval architect.

The two lighthouses, Raffles and Sultan Shoal, are among four conventionally styled lighthouses that Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) operates. A less conventional fifth, is perched on the top of a high-rise building along the east coast. Together they play a crucial role as aids to navigation in an area of the world in which the sea lanes are among the most congested. Raffles and Sultan Shoal lighthouse are also part of a trio of lighthouses marking key points around the western entrance to the Singapore Strait. The third lighthouse of the trio is one on Pulau Pisang, an island off southwest Johor. The fourth conventionally styled lighthouse, Horsburgh Lighthouse, marks the eastern entrance to the Singapore Strait.

The lighthouse on Sultan Shoal is one that fascinates me. Built in 1895, the lighthouse wears quite distinct look and is quite eye-catching. While it now finds itself perched on a 0.6 ha island, the lighthouse originally rested on a shoal and looked like it was in the middle of nowhere when the tide had the shoal submerged. Having been built on a shoal, a two-storey house that has been described as a “stilt supported bungalow growing out of the sea” — to accommodate its keeper and a lascar as well as for stores and water that wraps around the lighthouse, has also given it quite a distinct external appearance.

Plans for Sultan Shoal Lighthouse (National Archives of Singapore)

Locally known as Terumbu Karimum (Trumbu Carimon) and named by British navigators after a ship that ran aground on it in 1789, Sultan Shoal was quite a treacherous spot close to the western entrance to the Singapore Strait. This prompted a tripod beacon to be placed on it before it was converted into one with a granite base. Even with the lights, the shoal made the news frequently for groundings occurring on and around it. One occasion in which this happened was in 1869, when the Mata Mata, a ship that had set sail for Penang to provide accommodation for the visiting Duke of Edinburgh, ran aground on the shoal. By the 1880s, a lightship or a ship used as a lighthouse, appeared on the scene. Used to mark the equally dangerous Ajax Shoal, one nautical mile south east by east half east of Sultan Shoal, the lightship served also as a navigational marker for ships entering the western entrance of the Singapore Strait. Ajax Shoal was named in quite a similar manner as Sultan Shoal, with Ajax being the name of a steamship which scrapped its bottom on the shoal in 1877. Commissioned in 1896, the lighthouse on Sultan Shoal took over the lightship’s role in marking the northwestern entry point to the Singapore Strait. Being quite remotely located and surrounded by little but the sea, the lighthouse was also armed. Two rifles, each of which was fitted with a bayonet, were kept in it in case of pirate attacks.

Sultan Shoal before reclamation.

Sultan Shoal would come into the spotlight in February 1942 when a troopship – part of a convoy of three ships that included the City of Canterbury and Felix Roussel, came under attack as it was approaching Ajax Shoal. The ship, which bore the brunt of the attack, caught fire. As the fires burnt uncontrollably, anchors were dropped off Sultan Shoal to keep the ship in position to permit evacuation. The ship eventually sank several days later and its wreck remained in place until last year. In all, just sixteen out of the 2235 troops and 416 crew on board lost their lives – a remarkable low number given the severity of the attack. An anchor salvaged from the wreck is currently on display at the National Museum of Singapore to remind us of this incident.

The Empress of Asia burning after an Imperial Japanese Army Air Force attack on it off Sultan Shoal on the morning of 5 Feb 1942. Sultan Shoal Lighthouse can be seen on the right of the photograph.
Blue Mountains Library, (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The anchor from the RMS Empress of Asia troopship on display.

The face of the shoal would change with land reclamation around the shoal in the 1970s. With an island to rest on, a holiday bungalow could be added for use by senior officers with the Port of Singapore Authority and in the Civil Service. That change pales in comparison in what has been happening in the seas around the former shoal since 1995, with reclamation extending Jurong Island — created from the reclamation around a cluster of southwestern islands that has brought it well within sight of Sultan Shoal to the east.

To the shoal’s west and immediately to its south, work reclamation work on the fingers of the already reclaimed Tuas South extension that will accommodate the future mega-port is taking place at relentless pace. Phase 2 of the work, which involves the construction of a finger that will come almost within touching distance of Sultan Shoal is well underway with a large section of the massive caisson seawalls being installed having already been put in place. The reclamation, which will create some 26 km of deepwater wharves that would accommodate mega-container ships of up to the hypothetical “Malaccamax” size – the largest size vessels that the 25 metre deep Malacca Strait would be able to accommodate. On the evidence of the extent of reclamation work it does look like that Sultan Shoal Lighthouse, having played a key role in the development of Singapore’s port for over a century, may no longer be relevant to the port it has nurtured. The port has certainly grown too big for the lighthouse and what the future now holds for it and the expanded shoal that it rests on, is anybody’s guess.

The caisson seawalls for the Tuas Mega-Port Phase 2 reclamation, with Sultan Shoal in close proximity.
A chart showing the relative position of Sultan Shoal (the black dot on the left on top of the second finger being reclaimed).
Another chart showing the proximity of Sultan Shoal to the second finger being reclaimed.



Sultan Shoal Lighthouse in 2014.
A closeup of the lighthouse in July 2021.
A southward view, with the caisson seawall behind the expanded shoal.





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.