A marine treasure trove at Sisters’ Islands Dive Trail

Singapore’s waters boast an impressive diversity of marine life. Rare and endangered species of seahorses, clams and sponges, and around one-third of all hard coral species worldwide can be found here.
Ray Yeh Channel NewsAsia 15 Nov 15;

SINGAPORE: The reef at Sisters’ Islands Marine Park may be small, but it boasts a rich biodiversity of more than 250 species of hard corals, 100 species of reef fish and about 200 species of sponges waiting to be discovered by keen-eyed divers.

Singapore's first marine park includes the two Sisters’ Islands, the waters around them, as well as the western coasts of Pulau Tekukor and St John’s Island. It spans an area of 40 hectares and a dive trail officially opened to members of the public last weekend.

Dr Karenne Tun is the deputy director of the coastal and marine branch of the National Biodiversity Centre under the National Parks Board (NParks). She has been diving and working in Singapore waters for over 30 years. “If you take it in context, we have in the region – we’re talking about Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia – over 500 hard coral species, in Singapore we have at least half of those, so it is pretty diverse,” she said.

The marine park also provides a safe haven for rare and endangered species of seahorses, clams and sponges, despite being in close proximity to one of the world’s busiest ports. Singapore’s strategic geographical location is why its waters are teeming with marine life.

“Singapore is located at the south of Malaysia, in a conflux of three major water bodies. We get waters coming in from the South China Sea, we get waters coming in from the Andaman Sea through the Malacca Straits, and the waters coming in from Riau. This conflux of waters actually brings in a lot of diversity, so Singapore is naturally centred towards having good biodiversity,” said Dr Tun.

However, the treasure trove of marine animals is often hidden from the untrained eye. Underwater visibility in Singapore is notoriously low, at times shrinking below one metre. Some divers jokingly equate diving in Singapore to diving in tea.

“Go to any nearshore environment fringing the coastline, you tend to have lower visibility, that’s natural. If you have a river flowing out into the coast, it’s going to bring with it sediments,” explained Dr Tun. “Compared to oceanic reefs, or reefs situated away from mainland, we would never get water as clear as them, that’s the reality.”

Massive developments like the construction of Tuas Terminal also impacts marine life. “When there are development projects, there could be elevated levels of sediments. There are a lot of measures to manage the amount of sediments that are introduced into our waters. That being said, there will still be some impact,” Dr Tun said.

Sediments in Singapore waters also may have drifted in from neighbouring countries. “If you look at the satellite map of the region, you’ll see pockets of brown waters around and that brings in sediments. That is part and parcel of being what we are, where we are,” Dr Tun said.

The best months to dive at the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park are November to March, when turbidity decreases and visibility increases to about 3 to 6 metres on good days.

Divers have two separate but connected dive trails to choose from. The shallow trail takes divers around a circuitous loop to a maximum depth of 6 metres, and the deep trail reaches a maximum depth of 15 metres. The entire Dive Trail totals 100 metres, and is marked with underwater signboards that serve as both station markers and educational resources.

“We want to have the opportunity to interact with Singaporeans, in an environment that teaches them about the marine life. The dive trail is essentially to allow divers to have a more immersive experience,” said Dr Tun.

Divers have to have at least 20 dives under their belt in the last two years, at least one of them done locally.

“We need them to have enough experience diving in lower visibility. If you’re an advanced diver, you do night diving. It’s in a way diving in lower visibility, so we have requirement that all divers at least train to advanced level or above,” Dr Tun said of the stringent guidelines NParks put in place.

“We also realised that for divers who dive outside of Singapore might find diving in turbid waters a bit of a challenge, so we do require them to have at least one dive in local waters, outside of the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park. And we ask that they have good buoyancy control, so they don’t fin and damage the reef around them.”

On why she still looks forward to diving in Singapore, Dr Tun said: “I’ve dived in Singapore waters for over 30 years and I find that every time i go diving, it’s always exciting. It’s almost like diving for the first time, because you never know what you’re going to find. We’re always on the lookout for new records, or even new species within our waters, and I think they’re there. Sisters’ Islands is a beautiful place to dive.”

Keen on diving at the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park? Check NParks website for the next dive window.

- CNA/ry

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