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.





A visit to the lighthouse on Singapore’s One Tree Island

12 04 2011

An hour by boat from Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal, lies Pulau Satumu, which by virtue of being the southernmost island of Singapore, is the southernmost point in Singapore. The island, which is some 14 km south of the nearest point on the main island of Singapore is also home to a lighthouse, Raffles Lighthouse, one of four offshore lighthouses operated by the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA), the others being on Sultan Shoal, Pedra Branca and Pulau Pisang which is on Malaysian territory. Being very much one who has always taken an interest in all things nautical, I have always been drawn to lighthouses … my very first encounters with one being the one that had shone its beacon from the top of the Fullerton Building that I loved watching on the many strolls with my parents down Collyer Quay, and when the opportunity arose to catch a boat to Raffles Lighthouse, I certainly wasn’t going to give it a miss.

Pulau Satumu or "One Tree Island", the southernmost island of Singapore, is home to Raffles Lighthouse.

The visit to the lighthouse, part of a learning journey organised by the MPA in conjunction with Singapore Maritime Week was a rare opportunity. Lighthouses are protected places in Singapore and access to the islands that the lighthouses of the form that most of us have an impression of is restricted, and I certainly did not need a second asking. So, on an overcast and rather muggy day, I found myself sitting in a launch at Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal with a large group of students, as I keenly anticipated the start of a journey that would take me to the first ever operating lighthouse that I would have ever visited in Singapore, to the gentle rolling of the launch to the undulations on the surface of the sea.

Lighthouses currently operated by the MPA, as seen on a nautical chart at Raffles Lighthouse.

The ride which took a little more than an hour, provided me with an excellent opportunity to have a look at the massive changes to the waters around the south west of Singapore. What greets the eye immediately upon leaving the ferry terminal is the reclamation taking place off Pasir Panjang, part of the effort to expand the container terminals that the area now hosts. Moving off along with the launch we were in, was a double ended ramped single deck vehicle ferry with a load of construction vehicles, a sign of the frenzy of activity that is now surely taking place offshore. The Semakau landfill (perhaps more appropriately “seafill”), which has joined Pulau Semakau with Pulau Seking (a.k.a. Pulau Sakeng), is clearly visible from the start, the long building that serves as a receiving station is instantly recognisable. The first island we actually pass along the way is Pulau Bukom on which the Shell Refinery has long been a feature, and moving southeast we soon see Pulau Jong, a tiny rocky island which is topped by green vegetation, before going past Pulau Sebarok which houses petroleum products receiving and discharging facilities as is evident by the many tanks and berthing spaces on the island. It was in going around Pulau Sebarok that we catch the first sight of Raffles Lighthouse in the grey of the overcast sky … just as I had envisaged it – well, almost … there are certainly more than a single tree that one might have expected knowing the origin of the name of the island that the lighthouse was built on. Pulau Satumu, based on information found on Wikipedia, “means one tree island — sa refers to satu (one) and tumu is the Malay name for the large mangrove tree, Bruguiera confugata”.

On the launch to Pulau Satumu.

Pulau Jong.

The receiving station at Pulau Semakau, looking beyond Pulau Jong.

Pulau Sebarok.

Enroute to Raffles Lighthouse.

The stern and exposed propeller of an unladen tanker - probably undergoing sea trials ....

Raffles Lighthouse on Pulau Satumu as seen on the approach to the jetty.

Raffles Lighthouse as seen on land.

Once on land, whilst waiting to be taken up to the lighthouse, MPA was kind enough to provide the participants of the tour with lunch, and it was over lunch that I had a chat with a member of MPA’s staff. One of the interesting things he did mention was that there were holiday facilities for staff at Sultan Shoal, as well as there being rooms within the lighthouse that were reserved just to allow Ministers to take a holiday on the island. One thing we could do before going up was to have a walk around what certainly seemed like one of the few idyllic places left in Singapore, that is until the silence was punctured by the roar of jets flying above – the island being in close proximity to the live firing range used by the Airforce at the cluster of islands that lay to the west of Pulau Satumu: Pulau Senang, Pulau Pawai, and Pulau Sudong. Still, the island does exudes a charm that has been lost from the coastal areas of Singapore with a little beach and coconut grove leading to the southernmost point of Singapore.

A bench at Raffles Lighthouse.

An idyllic scene from Pulau Satumu.

The beach leading to the southernmost point of Singapore.

Pulau Senang.

It was soon time to ascend the flight of steps up to the top of the lighthouse – 107 steps we were told, 86 built into the lighthouse and a further 17 on the iron stairway up to the top – hard work even for the fit. Standing some 72 feet high, the lighthouse, the second oldest operated by Singapore (the oldest being Horsburg Lighthouse built in 1851), was built in 1855, on what was then referred to as Coney Islet, and looks none the worse for wear in spite of its age. A little bit of its history can be found in the infopedia stub on the lighthouse. At the top we were greeted by one of the two lighthouse keepers on duty Mr. Mani. The lighthouse keepers work on a rotating 12 hours shift for 10 days, returning to the mainland for 10 off days, and are involved in the upkeep of equipment and in the event that the beacon fails – would require to operate the emergency beacon run off batteries. It is quite a quiet and lonely life for ten days … something that is probably hard to imagine in the fast pace world that we live in today. Lighthouses, which have always been important aids to navigation, has with the advent of GPS and electronic navigation means, been rendered somewhat obsolete. However, these are still around and serve an improtant function as a backup in event that electronic means onboard ship fail.

The stairway to the top ...

A window at the bottom of the lighthouse.

A pressurised vapour kerosene mantle burner system that was employed at the turn of the 20th Century at a landing just before the top.

Up the last flight of stairs.

The beacon at the top of the lighthouse.

A radar reflector.

Mr Mani, one of the two lighthouse keepers on duty showing us around at the top.

All too soon, it was time to leave, the launch taking a different route that took us to Marina South, with a stop off Marina South to watch a demo by MPA’s fire-fighting vessel Api-Api, throwing a spray of sea water with its two monitors. Soon back on dry land, we were to be greeted by a different spray altogether – one of a shower that was threatening to come down on us the whole day … fortunately we had made our trip to Raffles Lighthouse and back, with pleasant memories of a rare foray to an otherwise off-limits southernmost part of Singapore.








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