A peek into underwater wonderland

The waters around Singapore may be murky but they teem with colourful life
Audrey Tan Straits Times 30 Jul 16;

Singapore is known for being a Garden City and it lives up to its name - both on land and underwater.

Colourful coral colonies can be found blooming in the waters off the Republic's southern coast, providing refuge for animals such as butterfly fish, nudibranchs (sea slugs) and even sea turtles.

Many may find this hard to believe, considering how murky the waters surrounding the country are - a far cry from the crystal clear waters of popular beach destinations such as the Maldives, or Tioman in Malaysia.

Yet last year, scientists here made two whale-related finds. In July, a whole carcass of a female sperm whale was found floating off Jurong Island. Later that year in November, a sperm whale tooth was found in a lagoon within the Sisters' Islands Marine Park.

It is not clear how the whale or the tooth came to Singapore, but finds like these show that when it comes to the marine life here, out of sight should not be out of mind.

Here is how you can learn more about Singapore's thriving marine life.

THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM

The Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, located within the National University of Singapore (NUS) in Clementi, will enthral both divers and non-divers alike.

Other than learning more about Jubi Lee - the whale which washed up in Jurong last July - visitors to the museum also get the rare chance to gaze upon a specimen of the Neptune's cup sponge, an animal thought to be globally extinct since the early 1900s.

In 2011, the wine glass-shaped sponge - which can grow large enough for a child to sit on - was rediscovered off St John's Island, south of mainland Singapore. Scientists spotted another specimen here in 2014, and its location is being kept under wraps - not surprising, considering the sponge was driven to extinction due to overfishing.

The museum's specimen is housed in its Marine Cycles Zone, where guests can view other interesting marine specimens, such as sea stars.

For a geographical perspective, pay attention to a map depicting the location of the Coral Triangle - an area widely considered the world's richest underwater wilderness - which sits just south of Singapore.

Tickets to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum can be bought at the door - at $16 for adult Singapore residents, and $9 for children. For more details, go to lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg.

DIVING IN SOUTHERN WATERS

It may sometimes be difficult to see past an outstretched arm, but those certified to scuba-dive should take a leap of faith and hop off a dive boat.

Many dive companies here organise dive trips to sites such as Pulau Hantu every weekend.

It is also possible to dive at the Sisters' Islands Marine Park - Singapore's first and only marine park. The National Parks Board (NParks) last year launched two dive trails - one shallow, one deep - there to encourage greater appreciation of Singapore's marine treasures.

The trails have 20 underwater markers - 10 on each - which tell divers where to look for marine life. Station Four of the Shallow Dive Trail, for example, says a live giant clam is nearby, while Station Two of the Deep Dive Trail alerts divers to the variety of sea fans and sea whips. From first-hand experience, the ropes that mark the length of the trail are also useful visual tools for navigation.

Unlike the Pulau Hantu dive site, which is accessible all year round, this is not possible at the Sisters' Islands Marine Park as currents may not be suitable for diving at times. NParks will make available dive windows based on this and the conditions of the marine habitat. This is estimated to be two to four days a month.

To protect marine biodiversity and avoid overcrowding, NParks has imposed a cap of eight divers on each of the two dive trails at the park at any given time.

The trips are conducted by six approved dive operators, who offer packages priced at different rates, depending on the type of package and the services offered.

Divers who wish to explore these trails must have at least 20 dives, with one local dive experience within the past two years.

Those interested can find out more at www.nparks.gov.sg.

DIY EXCURSIONS

For non-divers who want to learn about Singapore's marine life by going out and about, there are options which do not require the donning of a wetsuit.

NParks and marine conservation groups conduct free guided walks to various intertidal areas - places which are not submerged during low tide.

NParks conducts walks at the intertidal area of the Sisters' Islands Marine Park, where visitors can expect to see anemone shrimps and seahorses. For more information, visit www.nparks.gov.sg.

Marine life also thrives in other parts of Singapore. The northern coast, for example, is characterised by mangroves, mudflats and sandy shores, and these habitats are home to a rich diversity of species.

Volunteer groups like the Naked Hermit Crabs conduct free guided walks to places such as the Pasir Ris Mangroves or the Chek Jawa wetlands in Pulau Ubin. Details can be found at nakedhermitcrabs.blogspot.sg.

Although they may not look it, the waters around Singapore are home to a surprising amount of marine life. More than 250 species of hard corals - representing more than 30 per cent of hard coral species found around the world - have been recorded here. In addition, it has 12 of the 23 species of seagrasses in the Indo-Pacific region, about 200 species of sponges and over 100 species of reef fish.

So the next time you have the opportunity, take a peek into our waters. You may find that the biodiversity on our shores is worth protecting.

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