A magical Christmas sunrise

25 12 2014

The colours of sunrise, as seen at the Tebrau Strait at 6.41 am on Christmas Day 2014.

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A paddle through the magical watery woods

30 07 2014

The process of acquainting myself with the shores of Singapore for a project I am working on, Points of Departure, has provided me with some incredible experiences. One that I was especially grateful to have had was the experience of paddling through a green watery space that is almost magical in its beauty. Set in the relatively unspoilt lower reaches of Sungei Khatib Bongsu, one of Singapore’s last un-dammed rivers, the space is one that seems far out of place in the Singapore of today and holds in and around its many estuarine channels, one of the largest concentration of mangroves east of the Causeway along the island’s northern coast.

Paddling through the watery forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

Paddling through the watery forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The much misunderstood mangrove forest, is very much a part of Singapore’s natural heritage. The watery forests, had for long, dominated much of Singapore’s coastal and estuarine areas, accounting for as much as an estimated 13% of Singapore’s land area at the time of the arrival of the British. Much has since been lost through development and reclamation and today, the area mangrove forests occupy amount to less that 1% of Singapore’s expanded land area. It is in such forests that we find a rich diversity of plant and animal life. Mangroves, importantly, also serve as nurseries for aquatic life as well as act as natural barriers that help protect our shorelines from erosion.

Khatib Bongsu is a watery but very green world.

Khatib Bongsu is a watery but very green world.

The island’s northern coast was especially rich in mangrove forests. Much has however, been cleared through the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, with large tracts being lost during the construction of the airbase at Seletar and the naval base at Sembawang in the early 1900s. The mangroves of the north, spread along the coast as well as inland through its many estuaries, along with those found across the strait in Johor, were once the domain of the Orang Seletar. A nomadic group of boat dwellers, the Orang Seletar had for long, featured in the Johor or Tebrau Strait, living off the sea and the mangroves; finding safe harbour in bad weather within the relatively sheltered mangrove lined estuaries.

Mangrove forests had once dominated much of coastal Singapore.

Mangrove forests had once dominated much of coastal Singapore.

Boat dwelling Orang Seletar families could apparently be found along Singapore’s northern coast until as recently as the 1970s. While the Orang Seletar in Singapore have, over the course of time, largely been assimilated into the wider Malay community, the are still communities of Orang Seletar across the strait in Johor. Clinging on to their Orang Seletar identity, the nine communities there live no longer on the water, but on the land in houses close to the water.

Safe harbour in the watery woods.

Safe harbour in the watery woods.

It is the labyrinth of tree shaded channels and the remnants of its more recent prawn farming past that makes the side of the right bank of Sungei Khatib Bongsu’s lower reaches an especially interesting area to kayak through. Much has since been reclaimed by the mangrove forest and although there still is evidence of human activity in the area, it is a wonderfully green and peaceful space that brings much joy to to the rower.

The canalised upper part of Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The canalised upper part of Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The area around Sungei Khatib Bongsu today, as seen on Google Maps.

The area around Sungei Khatib Bongsu today, as seen on Google Maps.

Paddling through the network of channels and bund encircled former prawn ponds – accessible through the concrete channels that once were their sluice gates, the sounds that are heard are mostly of the mangrove’s many avian residents. It was however the shrill call of one of the mangrove’s more diminutive winged creatures, the Ashy Tailorbird, that seemed to dominate, a call that could in the not too distant future, be drowned out by the noise of the fast advancing human world.  It is just north of Yishun Avenue 6, where the frontier seems now to be, that we see a wide barren patch. The patch is one cleared of its greenery so that a major road – an extension of Admiralty Road East, can be built; a sign that time may soon be called on an oasis that for long has been a sanctuary for a rich and diverse avian population.

The walk into the mangroves.

The walk into the mangroves.

The beginnings of a new road.

The beginnings of a new road.

The Sungei Khatib Bongsu mangroves, lies in an area between Sungei Khatib Bongsu and the left bank of Sungei Seletar at its mouth that lies beyond the Lower Seletar Dam that has been designated as South Simpang; at the southern area of a large plot of land reserved for public housing that will become the future Simpang New Town. The area is one that is especially rich in bird life, attracting a mix of  resident and migratory species and was a major breeding site for Black-crowned Night Herons, a herony that has fallen victim to mosquito fogging. While there is little to suggest that the herons will return to breed, the area is still one where many rare and endangered species of birds continue to be sighted and while kayaking through, what possibly was a critically endangered Great-billed Heron made a graceful appearance.

Evidence of the former prawn ponds.

Evidence of the former prawn ponds.

Kayaking into the ponds.

Kayaking into the former ponds.

It is for the area’s rich biodiversity that the Nature Society (Singapore) or NSS has long campaigned for its preservation and a proposal for its conservation was submitted by the NSS as far back as in 1993. This did seem to have some initial success and the area, now used as a military training area into which access is largely restricted, was identified as a nature area for conservation, as was reflected in the first issue of the Singapore Green Plan. Its protection as a nature area seemed once again confirmed by the then Acting Minister for National Development, Mr Lim Hng Kiang, during the budget debate on 18 March 1994 (see: Singapore Parliament Reports), with the Minister saying: “We have acceded to their (NSS) request in priorities and we have conserved Sungei Buloh Bird Sanctuary and Khatib Bongsu“. 

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Unfortunately, the area has failed to make a reappearance in subsequently releases of the list of nature area for conservation, an omission that was also seen in subsequent editions of the Singapore Green Plan. What we now see consistently reflected in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plans (see: Master Plan), is that as part of a larger reserve area for the future Simpang, the area’s shoreline stands to be altered by the reclamation of land. Along with land reclamation, plans the Public Utilities Board (PUB) appears to have for Sungei Khatib Bongsu’s conversion into a reservoir that will also include the neighbouring Sungei Simpang under Phase 2 of the Seletar-Serangoon Scheme (SRSS), does mean that the future of the mangroves is rather uncertain.

A resident that faces an uncertain future.

A resident that faces an uncertain future.

Phase 2 of the SRSS involves the impounding of Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and Sungei Seletar to create the Coastal Seletar Reservoir. Based on the 2008 State of the Environment Report, this was to be carried out in tandem with land reclamation along the Simpang and Sembawang coast. The reclamation could commence as early as next year, 2015 (see State of the Environment 2008 Report Chapter 3: Water).

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In the meantime, the NSS does continue with its efforts to bring to the attention of the various agencies involved in urban planning of the importance of the survival of the mangroves at Khatib Bongsu. Providing feedback to the URA on its Draft Master Plan in 2013 (see Feedback on the Updated URA Master Plan, November 2013), the NSS highlights the following:

Present here is the endangered mangrove tree species, Lumnitzera racemosa, listed in the Singapore Red Data Book (RDB). Growing plentifully by the edge and on the mangrove is the Hoya diversifolia. On the whole the mangrove here is extensive and healthy, with thicker stretches along Sg Khatib Bongsu and the estuary of Sg Seletar. 

A total of 185 species of birds, resident and migratory, have been recorded at the Khatib Bongsu  area. This comes to 49 % of the total number of bird species in Singapore (376, Pocket Checklist 2011, unpublished  )  – almost comparable to that at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. 13 bird species found here are listed in the RDB  and among these are:  Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, Straw-headed Bulbul, Ruddy Kingfisher, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, White-chested Babbler, etc. The Grey-headed Fish Eagle  and the Changeable Hawk eagle are nesting in the Albizia woodlands in this area.

The mangrove dependent species present are : Crab-eating Frog, Dog-faced Water Snake & Malaysian Wood Rat. The Malaysian Wood Rat is regarded is locally uncommon.   In 2000, Banded Krait (RDB species) was found here near the edge mangrove. Otters, probably the Smooth Otter, have been sighted by fishermen and birdwatchers in the abandoned fish ponds and the Khatib Bongsu river. 

URA Master Plan 2014, showing the reserve area at Simpang.

URA Master Plan 2014, showing the reserve area at Simpang.

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It will certainly be a great loss to Singapore should the PUB and the Housing and Development Board (HDB) proceed with their plans for the area. What we stand to lose is not just another regenerated green patch, but a part of our natural heritage that as a habitat for the diverse array of plant and animals many of which are at risk of disappearing altogether from our shores, is one that can never be replaced.

The present shoreline at Simpang, threatened by possible future land reclamation.

The present shoreline at Simpang, threatened by possible future land reclamation.

The white sands at Tanjong Irau, another shoreline under threat of the possible future Simpang-Sembawang land reclamation.

The white sands at Tanjong Irau, another shoreline under threat of the possible future Simpang-Sembawang land reclamation.





Beting Bronok: that bit of Singapore beyond the northern shores of Tekong

20 06 2014

I have made a habit of getting up at ungodly hours of late. While I may not be alone on that in Singapore since the excitement of Brazil began last week, my motivation has little to do with the beautiful game and what I really am losing sleep over is a desire to acquaint myself with some of Singapore’s lesser known shores for a project I have embarked on.

One example of the colourful company one gets to keep that compensates for the lack of sleep.

One example of the colourful company one gets to keep that compensates for the lack of sleep: a noble volute – a variety of large sea snail.

One of the magical moment I am losing sleep over - first light over a submerged reef at exposed at low tide.

One of the magical moments I am losing sleep over: first light over a submerged reef on Beting Bronok, exposed at low tide.

Monday morning had me on a boat at 5 in the morning bound for a relatively remote and unheard shore north of the restricted military island of Pulau Tekong. A submerged reef with a rather curious sounding name, Beting Bronok, I did only hear of it when it came up as one of two nature areas identified for conservation in the 2013 Land Use Plan that was released in support of the hotly debated Population White Paper, which was confirmed in the recently gazetted 2014 Master Plan.

More views of Beting Bronok at first light.

Another view of Beting Bronok at first light.

Marine conservationists carrying out a survey on the reef.

Marine conservationists carrying out a survey on the reef.



Land Use Plan on Beting Bronok & Pulau Unum

We have added Beting Bronok & Pulau Unum and Jalan Gemala to our list of Nature Areas, where the natural flora and fauna will be protected from human activity. Beting Bronok and Pulau Unum extend the Pulau Tekong Nature Area. These sites contain a wide array of marine and coastal flora and fauna. Of particular significance are two locally endangered mangrove plant species (out of 23 species from 13 families), three very rare and ten rare mollusc species (out of 36 species from 16 families). Some of the wildlife species found here are the Knobbly Sea Star (Protoreaster nodosus) and Thorny Sea Urchin (Prionocidaris sp.).

Beting Bronok and Pulau Umun is one of two nature areas identified for conservation.Beting Bronok and Pulau Umun is one of two nature areas identified for conservation.


‘Beting’, as I understand, refers to a sandbar or a shoal in Malay. That sandbars were identifiable by names is perhaps an indication of the interactions that the people of the littoral might once have had with them. The opportunity for interaction today has of course been drastically diminished with the tide of development sweeping the people of the sea to higher and dryer grounds and many of the staging points for such being closed off.

The view across Beting Bronok to the gaping mouth of Sungai Johor.

The view across Beting Bronok to the gaping mouth of Sungai Johor.

A glass anemone.

A glass anemone.

The Bronok Sandbar and the waters around it, are ones once rich in marine life drawn to its reef, which is exposed only at low spring tides. The only submerged reef left in the northern waters, it unfortunately is in poor health due to the effects of nearby reclamation work. The indefatigable marine conservation champion, Ria Tan, with whom I had the privilege of visiting the reef with, likens what are her annual visits to reef, to watching a favourite grandmother “painfully, slowly fade away” (see her recent post Beting Bronok is slowly dying).

A biscuit star.

A deformed biscuit star.

Walking with a walking stick on water - Ria Tan.

Walking with a walking stick on water – Ria Tan.

Staring into the gaping mouth of Sungai Johor, the reef is fed by waters where a huge amount of fresh water is mixed in with the sea. The river, is one that does have a history. It was at the heart of the early Johor Sultanate that was established in the fallout from the loss of Malacca to the Portuguese, its waters disturbed by the movements of the floating instruments of colonialisation headed up river in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The incoming tide with a view of Pengerang on the left bank of Sungai Johor.

The incoming tide with a view of Pengerang on the left bank of Sungai Johor.

An octopus.

An octopus.

The cannons the waters hear today, are only imaginary. Fired from dry ground on nearby Tekong, in mock battles fought in that rite of passage required of young Singaporean men as reluctant recruits. The bigger battle for many on Tekong, would be fought in their minds as the young men, many fresh out of school, struggle to adapt to the rigours and physical demands of boot camp away from the comforts of home.

Another anemone.

Another anemone.

And another.

And another.

The passage in the dark through knee deep waters from the boat to the dry ground on the sandbar, while it did not quite require a battle, was one that was filled with trepidation – the graphic accounts told on the boat of painful brushes with the not so gentle creatures of the shallows does have the effect of putting the fear of God in you (see also: Chay Hoon’s encounter with a stingray at Beting Bronok and Ivan Kwan stepping on a stonefish). The utterance during the passage of what did sound like “I see a stripey snake” did surely have added effect – especially in recalling an encounter from my youthful days that had a similarly decorated creature sinking its fangs into an ankle belonging to a friend of the family.

Probably a false scorpion fish I am told.

Probably a false scorpion fish I am told.

That encounter, wasn’t so far away, at Masai in the waters of the same strait, taking place in the confusion that accompanied a frenzied rush to vacate the waters, from which we had been harvesting ikan bilis, that followed shouts of “snake, snake”. The family friend was extremely fortunate. No venom was transferred in the exchange, and other than the shock clearly visible in the colour and expression that he wore, there were no other ill effects.

A Bailer Snail making a meal of another snail.

A Bailer Snail making a meal of another snail.

Standing on the sandbar at the break of day is as surreal as it is a magical experience, especially so at the moment when the luminescent early light reveals the sandbar’s craggy coral littered surface – the magic is especially in the sense that is does also give of space and isolation, a feeling that does seem elusive on the overcrowded main island.

A nudibranch.

A nudibranch.

A seahorse taking shelter.

A seahorse taking shelter.

It didn’t however take very long before I was reminders of where in time and space I was, the roar of the emblems of the new colonial powers of progress and prosperity on an angled path from and to one of the busiest airports in the world at Changi, was hard to ignore. The area lies directly below one of the the approaches to the airport located close to Singapore’s eastern tip and built on land that has come up where the sea once had been, sitting right smack over what had once been one of Singapore’s most beautiful coastal areas, and an area in which I had my first and fondest memories of our once beautiful sea.

JeromeLim-3999 Beting Bronok

JeromeLim-4009 Beting Bronok

As did the seemingly fleeting moments I did steal from the lost paradise of my childhood days, the fleeting moments discovering Beting Bronok’s fading beauty will leave a lasting impression on me. My hope is that, unlike the names of the places of the lost paradise that have faded into obscurity, the curious sounding Beting Bronok is a name through which our future generations are reminded of what had once been our beautiful sea.

The wild shores are perhaps a little wilder than you think.

The wild shores are perhaps a little wilder than you think.

 





Northern lights

15 06 2014

This evening’s spectacular show of colours over Johor Bahru at 7.19 pm, as seen from the north of Singapore at Woodlands Waterfront – a stretch of the northern coastline running from the former Royal Malaysian Navy (TLDM) jetty westwards to the Causeway. The stretch had once been part of the huge British naval base, within which the TLDM operated and maintained their main base. The TLDM continued to operate the base after the British pull-out in 1971 and up until 1979 maintained it as their main base, vacating it only in 1997. Since the opening up of the base this stretch of coastline has been left relatively untouched until it was redeveloped as the Woodlands Waterfront.

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Early light over the strait

8 06 2014

Another long exposure. This time to capture the early light over the Straits of Johor through another rain coloured morning, at 6.22 am on 7 June 2014.

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Colours of dawn 31 May 2014

31 05 2014

Colours of dawn, 6.31 am, 31 May 2014, as seen at the unmanicured beach of Kampong Wak Hassan.

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Early light

11 05 2014

6.29 am, 10 May 2014, Kampong Wak Hassan.

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