The Hantu Bloggers: Opening others' eyes to what lies beneath

Photojournalist aims to raise awareness of rich marine life in Singapore's waters
Straits Times 4 Dec 10;

SINGAPORE is not the first place that springs to mind if you are a diver looking for a rich and diverse underwater habitat - but photojournalist Debby Ng hopes to change that.

Ms Ng, who is also a keen diver, has spent the past eight years trawling the seas around the island to chronicle its abundant marine heritage.

Like others in the volunteer world, she has a mission: to get more people to realise that Singapore has many hidden natural treasures off its coast and that these deserve to be preserved.

Most of these gems are concentrated in the waters around the southern island of Pulau Hantu.

Ms Ng, a nature enthusiast who loved hiking and bird-watching before she got into diving, set up The Hantu Bloggers (www.pulauhantu.org) in 2003, where she posts pictures and descriptions of her underwater discoveries. She also gives talks in schools and has taken more than 800 divers on undersea expeditions.

It all started innocuously enough in 2002 when the then rookie diver began visiting blogs and forums to learn more about good diving spots.

Ms Ng, a Ngee Ann Polytechnic communications graduate, found that most divers raved about regional spots, so she began asking what was wrong with diving in Singapore.

The response was pretty blunt, with divers telling her 'there was nothing but trash down there'.

The 'negative reaction' did not surprise her. 'A lot of people used to say the same things about Singapore's biodiversity before Chek Jawa happened,' she says, referring to ecologically fertile wetlands on the south-eastern tip of Pulau Ubin. The Government put reclamation plans there on hold in 2001 after a survey by local volunteers showed the area to be rich in biodiversity.

With that in mind, Ms Ng began diving around Hantu on her own, hoping to prove sceptics wrong about Singapore's marine heritage.

She admits the water is silty but found starfish, nudibranchs, pufferfish and molluscs among the corals in Hantu's waters.

The marine life is concentrated in a 12ha patch of the sea, about the size of 16 football fields.

She began writing about her experiences on blogs in 2002, but was confronted with sheer dis-belief. 'People told me I was lying. There is no way I could have seen such things in Singapore's waters.'

Unperturbed, she bought a cheap underwater camera and with the help of friends set up The Hantu Bloggers and began taking sceptics on guided dive tours. She has done more than 500 dives off Hantu.

Unlike many others, volunteering is not something this photojournalist with an online magazine does in her 'free time'. 'It is something I make time for, simply because I believe in the cause,' she says.

Her passion is slowly bearing fruit. While Pulau Hantu will never rival the Great Barrier Reef for spectacular diving, she takes heart from the fact that awareness of its marine life is on the rise.

Experts now believe that while Singapore's reefs are 0.05 per cent the size of the Great Barrier Reef, they contain a third of its marine biodiversity.

She acknowledges that diving in Singapore is not always a pleasant experience. 'It's sometimes like trekking in the forest on a rainy day. But just because you can't see something does not mean it doesn't exist,' she says.

Ms Ng and a team of volunteers have been working with the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity and an Australian natural history museum to catalogue their finds.

She also holds talks in schools to make students aware of what lies beneath Singapore's shores. 'I still meet secondary school students who don't know what a coral reef is, let alone that it may need to be protected,' she says.

While she believes Singapore's marine wealth deserves to be safeguarded, her primary work is to spark awareness, not activism.

'Awareness will eventually lead to concern - and hopefully proactiveness to protect what we have,' she says. 'But right now, we are still very much spreading awareness.'

RADHA BASU

Debby Ng, 28
Day job: Photojournalist
After hours: Diver and chronicler of Singapore’s marine life
How long: Eight years

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