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Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
Unveiling the Seas
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The sea always seems to be a mystery, full of bizarre and wondrous things. In Singapore, it is no different. Even in the murky waters of the Southern Islands, the diver is richly rewarded with a spectacle of colourful marine creatures in a garden of corals. Chua Sek Chuan sheds some light on this fascinating discoveries. Photos by Robert Khoo.

Animals that look like plants. Plants that sometimes behave like animals. Males that give birth. These are glimpses that the sea occasionally reveals to us land dwellers. For the most part, there is a natural barrier that conceals such wonders from those that do not regularly venture to the sea. This is the water surface. For many people, the water surface is all they would ever know. What lies below is completely unknown and apparently to be feared.

It was not until roughly 50 years ago that man could finally venture underwater on a regular basis with a relatively affordable breathing apparatus. Recreational scuba diving truly opened a new vista for exploration and did so only fairly recently. For this we have to thank the pioneers of the sport such as Hans Hass and the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau. At last, we could stay underwater long enough to observe the life beneath the waves.

Singapore has had its fair share of pioneers that ventured underwater. In the early days, the water was clear enough for one to look down from the surface and be able to identify fish at the bottom. These days, such visibility is only in legend. The growth of Singapore as a country has come at a cost. This cost is the loss of our natural environment. As an island, this is perhaps keenly felt in the marine environment.

In the early 1800s, an account given by a Scottish doctor showed that Sentosa had extensive coral reefs, stretching so far seaward that people had to walk across the reef to reach the land. These have long gone, replaced by man-made lagoons and beaches.

The rampant and extensive coastal changes that took place during Singapore's emerging development into a thriving business society has seen the degradation of the marine environment over a span of 30 years. Reclamation of the coast has drastically changed the shape of our island and caused increased sedimentation in our waters. This reclamation has also caused the loss of coastal habitats that help to protect the land and provide the necessary stock for fisheries. The high level of sedimentation in our seas has significantly changed the make-up of the coral reefs in Singapore.

Despite the pervasive degradation in the marine environment from extensive coastal development, all is not lost. There is a common refrain sung by all in Singapore. According to the man in the street and even local recreational scuba divers: "The waters in Singapore are so murky that there is nothing alive down there." Not so. Even with diminished biological diversity, our marine habitats—the coral reefs, mangrove forests and remaining seagrass beds—are still diverse enough for well-known personages like David Bellamy to comment on their richness.

There is more to see, underwater in Singapore, than many realise. Even on a disturbed habitat like the reefs in Pulau Hantu, there are still a good number of marine creatures that can be found. One must get past this self-imposed mental block that there is nothing in Singapore waters and look! Only then will nature open itself up to our eyes.
colour paintings of some fishes
Singapore's seas offer
a rich diversity of corals
and sponges


Bamboo Shark


Plate Coral

A juvenile

A commensal

A Spanish Dancer

The translucent cuttlefish
is capable of changing
colour to suit
its surroundings

Volute: a marine snail
Developing a country into a first-world nation does not have to mean the destruction of the natural environment. There are still those that tout the evergreen phrase that Singapore is a small country with limited land space and something must be sacrificed in order to become economically successful.

Nature is not economically profitable. Let's build a golf course or coastal resort instead and make lots of money! These were familiar battle cries of those to whom money is god. These days, the modern Singaporean would not think twice about being an armchair adventurer, ready to participate in a virtual jungle walk or watching coral reefs on television. Ironically, there are still coral reefs and some jungle in Singapore, but many do not seem to want to get sweaty and dirty in order to experience the real thing.

While terrestrial nature reserves in Singapore have been gazetted by the government, there exist no equivalent in the marine environment. Currently, there is no legislation that specifically protects and conserves marine habitats in Singapore waters. The first marine park in Singapore was only designated in 1999 and consists of Pulau Kusu, Pulau Seringat, St. John and Lazarus Islands. In what amounted to a landmark decision, there was also space given for a marine research station on these islands. However, this marine park seems to stop at the water's edge and the underwater environment was not specifically mentioned as part of the park area.

Pulau Hantu has also been the focus of increased activity in terms of protection of the marine environment. The underwater component, this time, was specifically cited as the proposal for a Hantu marine park put forward by the Singapore Underwater Federation, an organisation with a definite interest in maintaining the viability of underwater habitats. There are other marine areas that hold promise in biological diversity. Among them are the islands that make up the Live Firing Area, Pulau Jong, several patch reefs in Singapore's waters and even Pulau Semakau (despite the close proximity of a landfill).

While it is true that the richness of marine fauna and flora has dropped a fair bit over the past 40 years, there is still enough that, with proper management of marine habitats, we can ensure that the current level of diversity is at least maintained, if not enhanced. A researcher in one of Singapore's universities has already discovered previously unrecorded species of sea cucumbers. These are totally new to science. With such potential, there should be no reason why other kinds of animals cannot be discovered and Singapore be put on the world map.

The ecology of an island includes terrestrial and marine components, the two often existing in mutual co-operation. If one aspect is affected, so is the other. Visible evidence of this can often be found where land erosion flows down-river into coastal waters, smothering adjacent coastal habitats. On the other hand, the loss of coastal habitats can lead to increased negative effects on the land. Pollution at sea tends to float back to land where it can cause hazards to boating and health.

Although there is an apparent inability to pierce through the veil of the water surface, we must remember that there is still life underwater. Life that needs a chance to survive and live! This story hopes that readers will be more aware that our seas mean more to us than a place for boats to travel over. Perhaps in the future, Singapore will again have a fishery to supply us with seafood.

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