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.
To a portfolio of nudibranchs>>
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
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
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
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 habitatsthe coral reefs, mangrove forests
and remaining seagrass bedsare 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.
Singapore's seas offer
a rich diversity of corals
A Spanish Dancer
The translucent cuttlefish
is capable of changing
colour to suit
Volute: a marine snail
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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