Pulau Hantu - A celebration of marine life

Secret lives and secret worlds hidden in Singapore's most popular coral reef.

Monday, January 31, 2005

A Different Celebration Everyday

The first time I dove Hantu was part of an SSI Save Our Seas cleanup day. As a relatively new diver at the time, I have to admit I panicked a bit as I descended down the line and it started to get dark at 8m. Where's the bottom, I thought? Where am i going? Suddenly, a dark silhouette loomed from about a meter below my fins, and I realized I must be at the bottom. With our net bags in tow, we set out on our mission to collect as much rubbish from the reef as we could. I am happy to report we found very little rubbish. But neither do I recall seeing any fish.

I suppose many people have had similar first impressions of Hantu, and based on that, decided never to return. It's too bad, really, because they are missing out on a unique opportunity to really appreciate the beauty, and fragility, of our local marine environment. Everytime I return to Hantu, I see something I have never seen before. The discovery of the Comet a few weeks back, for example, kept me mesmerised for at least 10 minutes, because as far as I recall, I had never seen such a fish before. Or perhaps I had in other locales, like Tioman or Aur, but the better visibility there actually distracted me from taking notice of these more elusive creatures in the reef. On Saturday, the gorgeous black polyclad flat worm with the royal blue fringe took my breath away with its elegant beauty (see Debby's photo). I'm sure there are many similar flat worms in other places I have dived, but because this one was in Hantu, it made me take notice.

Bubble coral

This is what is special about diving at Hantu. It is a unique and rewarding experience for those of us who are willing to shed ourselves of any expectations or comparisons with other dive sites. Rather than bemoan the poor visibility, we use it to our advantage to get closer, go slower, and take notice of things that we would normally just give a passing glance in other sites in Malaysia, for example. Like the coral. Hantu gives us the opportunity to take a closer look at the coral, something we seem to not talk about so much when we ascend from a dive at Tioman. Yes, the expansive wall of foliate corals on the SW side of the western patch reef really did look like a big salad to me on Saturday! And the bubble coral was draped so beautifully thick over the wall of the reef that it reminded me of a big, soft, woollen carpet. Everytime time I come across a tiny sea fan at Hantu it leaves such a huge impression on me when I consider its resiliency in the face of the harsh conditions imposed by all sorts of human activity and development on and around our local waters.

This is Hantu. This is one of Singapore's unique places. And this is why we celebrate it.

"Sea warriors with a passion to preserve"

"Sea warriors with a passion to preserve." By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 31 Jan 2005 [pdf]. They form 3 groups to protect marine life here from harm and educate public.

AT LEAST three conservation groups have sprung up in the last year bound by one abiding passion - to preserve Singapore's marine wealth for posterity. They not only work to fend off thieves, but also to spread the word via the Internet, by organising tours and by other means about the huge treasure trove of sea creatures in local waters.

The biggest battle this ragtag army of volunteers faces is ignorance. 'It's difficult to get people to appreciate the beauty and importance of something they don't even know exists,' said marine biologist Loh Tse-Lynn, 26. The Blue Water Volunteers [s]he started last year with about a dozen others now have around 200 members, who survey coral reefs and report on damage. They are helped in their quest by the two kindred groups.

One is 11-month-old Hantu Bloggers, which focuses on protecting Pulau Hantu. The other is the Labrador Park Watch initiative, which is trying to stop the theft of corals from the southern Singapore beach.

'We have caught men equipped with buckets and hammers, recklessly breaking the corals,' said teacher Mindy Neo, 26, of the latter. She leads the patrols at the nature reserve. Sometimes, an explanation is enough to stop the illegal harvesting. More often than not, they have to call in National Parks Board rangers, who also patrol the park.

Although Singapore has lost more than 60 per cent of its live coral habitat, it still has about 54 sq km of reef, about a tenth the size of the mainland. Most of the corals are in a cluster of about 20 islands around Sentosa that include Pulau Hantu, Kusu, St John's, Semakau and the Sisters islands.

But they are under threat from land reclamation and dredging activities.

The groups have a supporter in Nature Society president and Nominated Member of Parliament Geh Min, who on Jan 25, made an impassioned speech in Parliament on the need to preserve the island's coral reefs. [link]

The 8,000 species of plants and animals recorded here mean Singapore has a greater diversity of marine life than Australia's Great Barrier Reef, she said.

Volunteers are also using the Internet as a tool.

National University of Singapore researcher Jani Thuaibah from the Blue Water Volunteers (www.bluewater volunteers.org) and freelance writer Debby Ng from the Hantu Bloggers (habitatnews.nus.edu.sg/news/pulauhantu) regularly post photographs with descriptions of their finds. 'Even though visibility is usually poor, you sometimes get to see the most beautiful things,' said Ms Thuaibah.

Ms Ng says she and fellow divers have spotted many rare creatures, such as sea-horses and sea snakes. She has taken 200 people on dive tours.

Another enthusiast is amateur photographer and civil servant Ria Tan, 44. Her snaps of clownfish (like the well-known cartoon character Nemo), shrimp anemones, sea horses, sea urchins and dozens of other creatures are found at www.wildsingapore.com.

She said: 'This is possibly the only place in the world where pristine rainforests, tropical mangroves and rich coral reefs all lie within 20 minutes of each other.'

'That,' she adds, 'is what is uniquely Singapore.'

Some of these sea warriors have been on NewsRadio 93.8FM's Living Room recently. Listen to their interviews at Habitatnews.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Another fantastic day at Hantu!

Lucky for us the great vis held up! Water was a little chilly tho', 27deg C Brrr... Deciding to take advantage of the clear waters and easy currents, we explored the mudflats to the SSW of the island, away from the reefs, where the little sea fan above was photographed.

A completely different habitat, we moved from seafans to amazing tube worms and a myriad of hydriods anchored onto the mudflat. There were heaps of fish crusing around the sand - goatfish, whiptails, breams and wrasses.

Again, great coral coverage on the outer reefs.

More gorgeous coral!

Another cool critter for the day! Gorgonian shrimp! This is our second sighting of this bizarre and absolutely beautiful animal. Extremely rare, right here at home.

More big beautiful coral...

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Super duper Hantu dive!

Pretty flatworm (Polyclad flatworm Pseudobiceros sapphirinus)

We had a great dive at Hantu this morning! With an amazing 2-3m vis, even at 12m it was very brightly lit and all of hantu's grandeur could be appreciated! This great vis is very encouraging and motivating, as the life that can be witnessed on days like this gives evidence to the health, beauty and value of our local reefs. Such beauty should not remain hidden behind low vis and silt - everyone should be able to see and be amazed by it!

Icon seastar! (Iconoclaster longimanus)

The western slope of the west patch reef was AMAZING! Excellent coral coverage that just went on and on into the deep and all through the slope. Jeff Greig, Hantu Blog volunteer divermaster commented, "It looks like one big salad!" Bubble coral and Foliaceous coral simply spread over the entire slope. What an awesome sight!

Magnificent anemone Heteractis magnifica on the NW slope

Towards the NW slope were sprouting sea fans/gorgonians, sea whips, and Magnificent anemones!

Mouth of a tubeworm (Sarbellastarte sp.)

With the great vis none of the animals escaped our sight! Red swimmer crabs were busy feeding off little animals carried in the current. Saw also saw Vermiculated angelfish, Copper banded angelfish, HUGE Sergent fish, several anemonefish and their damselfish cousins. Thankfully they weren't too aggressive and territorial today. Maybe it's because they could see us and didn't have to be shocked by our sudden appearances! There were also massive cushion stars and FAT sea slugs (Phyllidia sp.). Then there were butterfly and paradise whiptails - ALWAYS a pleasure to observe! They're so pretty!

Who says pretty things can't come in small packages! This nudi was about a centimeter long!

And then there were yellowstripe snappers (Lutjanus kasmira) and sand gobies and colourful wrasses and busy goatfish and emperor fish and MORE damsels and demoiselles! We also met up with some cardinalfish, groupers and a school of what I think are are sprats. AMAZING!

WOW! Were we happy to see this critter! Coral shrimp Dasycaris zanzibarica

On top of all the animals were the awesome corals of course. Huge serpent corals, hundreds years old! Patches of carpet anemones and their curious inhabitants! Mushroom coral, soft coral, sponges, ascidians...

Impressive serpent coral... Amazing...

Unfortunately, we're never allowed to forget the threats our natural marine heritage continues to face with continuing and progressive coastal development.

On our way back to West Coast Pier, this dredger and a barge were photographed at the mouth of the channel, about 5 minutes from shore. It is said the dredging works around the Southern Islands has reduced the depth of the seabed by some 5 meters. We are reminded of the urgency for sustainable development measures to be implemented in order to safeguard our islands...

I could go on forever naming all the amazing things we saw, but nothing can communicate the humility gained from engaging with Hantu's marine environment on your own. Do find the opportunity to come see it for yourself! Celebrate our natural heritage!

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Volunteers patrol park to stop illegal coral collectors

'Corals are being picked up all the time,' said Mr Grant Pereira, head of the Green Volunteers Network, an arm of the Singapore Environment Council.

'Instead of pointing fingers, we decided to set up the Labrador Park Watch about six months ago.'

Made up of volunteers from the network, Nature Society and a National University of Singapore group called Blue Waters, the group patrols the beach twice a month during low tide with at least one park ranger.

They look out for people who illegally take corals home for their aquariums, or for sale. Full story

An excerpt from the article by Joyce Teo, The Straits Times Interactive. January 26, 2005

Exquisite adaptations: Allied cowries

Typical of Allied Cowries, this speciman matches almost exactly both the color and texture of the whip coral it lives on.

The image of this extremely rare and exquisite creature, was taken at Pulau Hantu on January 21, 2005, by Ivan Choong.

Though the Allied Cowrie is known to occur throughout the Indo-Pacific Region, Ruben Clements, a graduate student at the National University of Singapore with a special interest in mollusks, says this is possibly the first record of Hiata spp. in Singapore.

Awesome... Thanks for sharing Ivan!

Got a picture to share?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Blog's Volunteers amongst Singapore's first National Geographic Divers

Singapore's first NG divers: MI Stephen Beng, DM Debby Ng, DMT Jimmy Woon, DM Jeff Greig, and OWSI Vincent Chew.

Our volunteers are National Geographic Divers!

The Hantu Blog is extremely thrilled by the progressiveness of our volunteer divemasters, who never cease to develop their dive skills and expand their knowledge of the underwater environment. It is often overlooked that in order to protect our reefs, a diver has first to possess the adequate dive skills that make research gathering more efficient, reduce if not eliminate environmental damage, and of course to ensure safe and fun dives.

The National Geographic Diver course, conducted in partnership with PADI, the most widely recognised diving certification in the world, is a program designed to enhance the adventures of diving by teaching divers to explore with detail, identify important underwater features and navigate with certainty.

As part of this course, our volunteer divemasters were required to map a section of Hantu's reef along a transect line. This gave new insight into the life of the reef, reinforcing the rewards of moving slowly and maintaining neutral buoyancy while observing and documenting life on the reef. As a wrap, some very cool presentations were prepared and shared, allowing volunteer divemasters to identify and gain new techniques, methods and prespectives of observing our reefs.

Hantu Blog volunteer divermaster, Jeff Greig: Now part of an elite group of explorers, adventurers and conservationists.

Dive skills are something you never stop honing in on. The more you dive, the more you learn about yourself, and the underwater environment. We're really proud our volunteer divemasters have decided to compliment their skills and passion for marine life by taking on this course.

Now, with more competent reef guides, exploring our amazing local waters can be more exciting and meaningful. All of us look forward to sharing Singapore's ever-surprising reefs with renewed vigor!

More information: Seahounds PADI NG Divers

Monday, January 24, 2005

Speaking of spiders...

Here's a little bit of trivia.
I'm personally very excited by the evidence of sea spiders Jimmy Goh aka. FatJim has shared with us, and am eager to learn more about these exquisite animals.
Here's what I came across while surfing the web (Yup! On the web looking for spiders! Hah =P)

Ancient Sea Spider Fossils Discovered In Volcanic Ash

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Hantu's creepy crawlies...

"Sea spiders" or pycnogonids, are members of Phylum Arthropoda, along with land spiders.

Like their land-lubber cousins, sea spiders are carnivorous, some feeding on other invertebrates by sucking out the juices, while others tear their prey apart and pass it into a proboscis for feeding. The digestive system extends into the legs, and the pair of simple eyes are positioned near the end of the trunk.

As a diver, sea spiders are not commonly encountered. Because of their extremely small size, unusual shape, and lack of movement they don't tend to attract attention to themselves. This photograph was captured on Saturday, January 21, by "FatJim", a diver from the FinsOnline Forum found the three (YES! Three! Can you spot them?!) pictured here crawling on a hydriod, which seems to be a common hangout for these strange creatures. They move very slowly-- so slowly, in fact, it's sometimes hard to tell if one is alive.

For further information, the University of California Museum of Paleontology maintains a page titled Introduction to the Pycnogonida. The Melbourne Museum's Infozone features an info page with a video clip. For a detailed anatomical description and diagrams, see Dr. Richard Fox's Sea Spider online laboratory page, sponsored by Lander University, South Carolina, USA.

More of FatJim's pix

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Freakin' Great Dive at Raffles Lighthouse!

We had a excellent, stupendous, terrific dive at Raffles Lighthouse on 19 Jan! Visibility was 4m, but that's not all, as finally the schools of fish came into view and astounded us all.

Check out the full story with 44 photos at

And a sample photo:

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Batfish at Hantu

You found me!

Cruising along the patch reef along handy West on Monday, 17th January, I was made a friend by a huge and mature Teira Batfish Platax teira. I would've missed it if I hadn't looked up for a second to view the reef along my right shoulder (I was squinting at the reef looking for macrolife). This extreme friendly fish followed me for a good minute or two before swimming back down into the blue. I wasn't too deep, about 10m. Yup, Hantu always manages to pleasantly surprise me...

Teira Batfish are distinguished by the presence of a dark blotch below the pectoral fin, and a second elongated, dark mark above the origin of the anal fin. Viewed from the side, the body is roughly circular with a low hump on the nape (the area behind the eye). They are silver, grey or brownish.

Juveniles of this species have very long dorsal and anal fins. These become relatively shorter as the fish grows.

This species is recorded though much of the tropical Indo-West Pacific. They are found in shallow coastal habitats to deeper offshore, from tropical to temperate marine waters.

It grows to 60cm in length.

Reference: Australian Museum Online

Monday, January 17, 2005

Hantu Blog goes ON THE AIR

Tune in to MediaCorp NewsRadio 93.8 from 10.30am-Noon on Tuesday, January 18!

It's a Lifestyle segment called The Living Room and The Hantu Blog's goin' ON THE AIR for the first time ever!

Update - Thanks to Habitatnews , you can download the mp3: Part I - Part II - Part III

Monday, January 10, 2005

Letter from RMBR Curator of Fishes

Upon hearing of the Comet sighting in Hantu on Jan 2, 2005; curator of fishes at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity, Kelvin Lim writes:

Wow, what a haul of goodies on your first dive of the year! The sighting of the comet is an excellent one, and the second in Singapore to my knowledge.

I first came across the presence of this fish in Singapore waters in the coffee table book produced by the NSS Marine Conservation Group the year before, Unveiling Our Seas. There's a nice picture of a specimen photographed locally. The absence of earlier records appear to be due to its secretive nature, and its preference for deeper waters. Therefore it can't be easily caught by nets, and it is unlikely to be found at low tide on reef flats. If you've been snooping around aquarium shops selling marine fish, you'd have known that the Comet is a popular ornamental fish. The best way to catch this species would be to use poison, but that will be destructive. And I think cyanide is what collectors use in the Philippines used to obtain this species for the aquarium trade. When I first saw the picture in that book, I had a nagging suspicion that it could have been a released pet.

However, bearing in mind that the absence of earlier records could have been due to difficulty in finding this fish, the present sighting does strongly indicate that it is a genuine native species. Coooool!


The Hantu Blog always shares its findings with the scientific community. This information helps scientists monitor our seas, which in turn gears toward protecting the reef. It's unlikely a comet has only been sighted in Singapore waters twice, but that's probably because most sightings go unreported. If you enjoy our reefs and would like to contribute to its protection and study, report your sightings with notes of depth, time, site and sediment.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Sketchy Comet

Jeff's logbook sketch

On January 2nd, Blog volunteer Divemaster, Jeff Grieg, "spotted an interesting fish which i think is a wrasse, but could not find in books. Dark with white spots, large white spot on short but long dorsal, pointed backside with virtually no tail fin."

The "virtually no tail fin" is distinctive of catfish, of which there are a few species in Hantu. However, "dark with white spots" didn't quite fit the appearance of any of the catfish species known to be present in Hantu, which are the White-lipped, striped, and Black. So we thought, having no tail fin and being spotted, that it might be a blenny eel. But blenny eels are long, and this one, apparently, wasn't.

Jeff knew this would be something interesting, and promptly made a sketch of it in his logbook, with notes of the animal's distinctive features. When he brought it down to Seahounds to share, we first noticed the ocellus on its dorsal fin, then its shape, then its dark colour with numerous white spots. After staring at the sketch for awhile, we realised, to much excitement, that the critter was a comet Calloplesiops altivelis!


The Comet is a secretive fish which is not often observed during the day. When alarmed, it will flare its dorsal and caudal fins, merging the rear edges with the lanceolate tail. With the ocellus mimicking the eye, the fish looks like the head of a Whitemouth Moray Eel, Gymnothorax meleagris. It also looks as if it does not have a tail. However, when relaxed, its fins crease up and trail along as it swims.

Comet occur on coral reefs throughout the Indo-west Pacific, and grows to 16cm in length.

Plate sketch of comet with its fins relaxed. Source: Allen, G. (2000). Marine Fishes of Southeast Asia.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Anything is possible under the sea: Tozeuma armatum in Pulau Hantu

Gorgonian shrimp Tozeuma armatum photographed at Pulau Hantu, West Patch Reef.
Jan 2, 2004 © Debby Ng

Can you tell? Take a closer look and you'll see a Gorgonian shrimp Tozeuma armatum on a sea whip Junceela sp. It's a crummy picture I know, but that's the best I could do with my dingy camera, and this is far too exciting to not post a blog because I don't have a picture that's up to standard. So here...

Tozeuma armatum are a type of shrimp with an elongated and stretched body shape, from the family Hippolytidae. They're not known to get any larger than about 5 centimeters. To date, there've only been a few reports of their presence in the Indo-Pacific region but their ability to camouflage with their environment probably makes their encounters with divers go unnoticed.

Female Tozeuma armatum outsize the male by 2-3 times. Sometimes they hang out together on a single strand of sea whip, while at other times only one occupies the space, as was the case for this individual. Research in Thailand has found that if left unharmed, Tozeuma armatum populations have a huge potential to grow as long as there remain enough whips on the reef. So if you'd like to see more of this cool creature around, take care when you approach or fin past sea whips along the reef and reef bed.

The benefits of this organism may not be clear for ecological and/or fishery reasons. However, they certainly attract divers because they're extremely unique, both in physique and behavior - researchers understand Tozeuma armatum are always found near interesting sea creatures. In fact, just down from where this critter was, was a Needle shrimp Stegopontonia sp., which I again didn't manage a picture of because it was beyond my camera's capabilities. Hiding from predators upon their sea whips, Tozeuma armatum feed on microscopic plankton.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami Disaster Relief: How we can help from Singapore

Habitatnews has established a webpage to give direction on how you can assist disaster relief from Singapore.

It is an exhaustive site with the phone numbers of organisations and institutions, detailing the kind of assistance they need and how you can become a part of the effort. It also includes several useful links to news agencies so you may keep abreast with developments of the situation.