NUS sailing trip draws flak after students return with giant clam shell

Yuen Sin Straits Times AsiaOne 31 Jan 17;

Associate Professor Martin Henz (centre) with NUS students (from left) Darren Wee, Jonathan Yeo, Tan Fangning and Jeremiah Loke. The group is now working on returning the shells to the relevant authorities, having learnt that they are not supposed to be removed. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - A National University of Singapore (NUS) sailing trip, organised as an experiential learning initiative, has come under scrutiny after photos of students posing with giant clam shells collected during trip drew flak online.

Earlier this month, 12 NUS students and alumni had sailed out to Indonesia's Riau Islands on a 60-foot (18m) schooner for seven days with Associate Professor Martin Henz, who teaches at the university's School of Computing and Faculty of Engineering. The group, which included students from various faculties - such as business, geography and computing - had returned to Singapore with several shells and a giant clam shell as keepsakes from the seven-day trip.

But a photo of them posing with the shells in a Straits Times article on Monday (Jan 30) sparked a debate online.

Environmental groups and researchers pointed out that the giant clam is a protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), and that proper permits are needed before any animal parts can be imported across borders, even if these are dead clam shells. Removal of other shells that had washed ashore could also be a threat to the eco-system.

Among those who had criticised the group's actions was Mr David Tan, 27, a researcher from the Evolutionary Biology Laboratory at NUS, who said that it was "alarming" to see that the group had brought the clam shell back.

"One of the stated objectives of the programmes was to encourage a love for nature... but this ran entirely counter to it.

"It's sad that there wasn't really anyone who was able to provide guidance (on conservation) for this trip, especially when it seemed like a ripe opportunity for this kind of education to occur."

Prof Henz, an avid sailor who has taken NUS students on sailing trips in the region since 2013, said that the sailing trip was initiated to "provide our students with a unique out-of-classroom learning experience".

"The voyage team had picked up a few dead shells that were washed ashore, and the team was not aware of the international guidelines on collection of shells which would be applicable even if they are dead shells.

"This has been a learning experience for all involved, and we will be more mindful of our actions in the future to not leave anything behind nor remove anything from nature."

Professor Peter Ng, head of Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, said that he has spoken to Prof Henz about the concerns raised and is working with the group to hand over the shells to the relevant authorities.

Be more thoughtful when visiting beaches
Visitors to beaches should not wear sunscreen that could damage coral, and should refrain from collecting seashells as "souvenirs", as they are important building blocks of the coastal environment.
The Straits Times 2 Feb 17;

As a National University of Singapore (NUS) alumnus, I was disappointed with the complete disregard the students on the sailing trip had for Indonesian laws, and their lack of environmental awareness (Outcry over students' giant clam shell photo"; Feb 1).

When I visited Tioman for an NUS course on appreciating nature, the group was informed not to wear sunscreen that could damage coral and also to refrain from collecting shells.

Unbeknownst to most, seashells are the building blocks of coastal environments.

They act as shelters for crabs, and fish hide in them to avoid predators.

They are also an important building material for birds' nests and provide a surface for sea grass, algae, micro-organisms and sponges to attach to.

Studies show that the extraction of shell fragments and large shells from shores can affect the rate of shoreline erosion.

Despite this, most of us might be tempted to collect "souvenirs" from our beach holidays and might not understand how every individual's action can add up when it is done collectively.

I hope that all faculty members in the university will consider this when taking their students out on any trip to enjoy nature.

Sumita Thiagarajan (Miss)

NUS project team has learnt to be more sensitive to conservation issues
The Straits Times Forum 4 Feb 17;

We thank Miss Sumita Thiagarajan for her feedback ("Be more thoughtful when visiting beaches"; Feb 2).

The Across the Equator team at the National University of Singapore shares similar concerns, including on the importance of environmental awareness and conservation.

We initiated the Across the Equator project to provide students with a unique out-of-classroom learning experience.

We regret that the voyage team was not aware of the international guidelines on the collection of shells and had picked up a few dead shells that were washed ashore.

We appreciate the feedback received and we are now working with NUS' marine science and conservation experts to better understand this matter.

The affected shells were handed over to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore on Wednesday.

This has been a learning experience for everyone involved, and we will be more mindful of our actions in the future so as not to leave anything behind or remove anything from nature.

We are also working with our NUS marine science and conservation experts, as well as other organisations to improve future voyages.

Martin Henz (Associate Professor)
National University of Singapore

Sailing trip taught them to love nature
For 7 days, NUS students navigated a ship through storms and explored Riau Islands
Yuen Sin Straits Times 30 Jan 17;

Associate Professor Martin Henz and undergraduates (from left) Darren Wee, Jonathan Yeo, Tan Fangning and Jeremiah Loke, with mementoes of their trip, including a map charting their route and clam shells from the islands they visited.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Half of them had no sailing experience, and some could not even swim.

But for seven days this month, before the school semester started, a group of National University of Singapore (NUS) students headed off in a type of ship called a schooner to the Riau Islands in Indonesia on a remarkable voyage.

Armed only with tentative plans, they navigated through sudden storms, explored desolate islands and swam across the Equator, living and working together on the 60ft (18m) schooner despite being strangers at the start.

The trip - the first of its kind to be organised by NUS - was the brainchild of Associate Professor Martin Henz, who is from Germany and teaches at NUS' School of Computing and Faculty of Engineering.

An avid sailor with eight years of experience who has been taking NUS students on sailing trips to islands in Singapore and Bintan since 2013, Prof Henz approached a contact, Captain Warren Blake, a New Zealander in his 70s, around June last year.

The captain had taken students from international schools here on learning trips in the region on his schooner Four Friends, which is berthed in Batam.

"I was wondering if it would be possible to engage NUS students from all disciplines in a longer voyage, so that they can learn some of the methods used in other disciplines, and share their perspectives," said Prof Henz, 50, who has been in Singapore for two decades.

In the middle of last month, he called for students who were interested in sailing out at sea for a week to sign up for the trip, which cost $400 each after subsidies from NUS.

Twenty people expressed interest, and places were given out on a first come, first served basis.

Eventually, nine students from various faculties, including computing, business, and arts and social sciences, set sail from Batam on Jan 1 after two planning meetings, accompanied by Prof Henz, Captain Blake and his wife, three NUS alumni who saw posts about the trip online, as well as a crew member.

What set the voyage apart from other student exchange programmes, where one would usually be more passively introduced to experiences and new places, was how involved the students were in the whole process, said third-year student Jeremiah Loke, 23, an English literature and geography major.

Supervised by Captain Blake, the 12 students and alumni took turns to be at the helm of the ship when they sailed in the day.


Being immersed in nature was a new experience and helped me realise how we can work with nature to form a sustainable living system.

They were divided into groups of four and rotated through four-hour shifts each day, with each person assigned roles such as steering, plotting their course and being on the lookout for potential obstacles, including objects or fishing boats.

Said Mr Loke: "There is a degree of interactivity and consideration between you and the landscape, you and your peers, even you and yourself (that is required)... We had to look out for one another's well-being and always be ready to help out."

When the group was planning the route south to Pulau Lingga, existing information showed that a narrow channel through Pulau Sebangka that could save them from taking a longer route was apparently too shallow for the schooner to sail through, leading them to start out with a more conservative itinerary.

But using a depth sounder which uses sonar, the team did its own survey of the actual depth of the channel and corrected some of the maps after determining that it was, in fact, deep enough for them to pass through.

Despite "small emergencies", including a sudden and violent storm that woke them in the middle of the night, the group managed to visit the Indonesian islands of Benan, Pulau Sebangka, Pulau Lingga and Pulau Gojong, and dived off the ship to swim across the Equator, which lies between Pulau Sebangka and Pulau Gojong.

They also kayaked through mangroves and swam in a waterfall.

First-year accountancy student Jonathan Yeo, 20, who is a national sailor, said he has a deeper appreciation for nature after the trip.

"Some people say Singapore is a concrete jungle... Being immersed in nature was a new experience and helped me realise how we can work with nature to form a sustainable living system," he said.

Prof Henz, said that he was really happy with the students' accomplishments and is keen to take others on similar trips in the future, though plans are still tentative.

"I tried to scale back their expectations (initially) and we had a pretty conservative itinerary...

"But I must say, every single day exceeded my expectations in terms of what we managed to accomplish and the places we saw," he said.

Second-year geography major Tan Fangning, 20, the only girl from NUS who went on the trip, said she conquered uncharted territory on the trip.

"I don't know how to swim, so there were definitely instances when I had a fear of the water.

"But being out there in the open sea showed me that we really know very little about what the earth has to offer," she said.

Voyage across the equator
NUS News 30 Jan 17;

"From left: Jonathan, Darren, Assoc Prof Henz, Fangning and Jeremiah and mementos from their trip, including seashells found on the pristine shores of Pulau Gojong, their map charting "Selat NUS", and watercolour sketches of the islands." This photo was originally posted on the NUS News article but has since been taken down.

Nine NUS students kicked off their new year earlier this month by sailing off on a ship for a week-long voyage across the equator.

Sailing aboard an 18-metre schooner, the students, together with three NUS alumni, one faculty member and the ship’s captain and crew, set off from Batam at the crack of dawn on 2 Jan for their destination Pulau Lingga, an Indonesian island on the Equator. Along the way, they learned how to sail, and picked up lessons in maritime navigation and geography, and a renewed perspective on nature and the environment. For half of the team, this was also their first time sailing.

The week-long 400-kilometre voyage started off from Batam, with stops on the islands of Benan, Sebangka, Lingga, Gojong, before anchoring at Pulau Telang on their return.

Their adventure on the high seas saw them through a range of new experiences, from keeping watch aboard the ship to navigating by the stars, and swimming across the equator. They also dealt head-on with an unexpected Sumatran squall.

Darren Wee, Year 2 student from NUS Computing, recounted, “It was a sudden and violent storm, and our first on the voyage. It was about 4 in the morning. Some of us were sleeping in hammocks on the deck when someone shouted ‘rain!’ I was barely awake at first, but the gusty winds just suddenly picked up.”

Jonathan Yeo, Year 1 student from NUS Business and a former national sailor, shared how the team scrambled to remove awnings and shelters on the deck as the rain beat down on them. “The wind was blowing the ship at an angle, going at 40 knots, or 80 kilometres per hour. Thankfully we were already anchored for the night, and our very experienced captain took charge, using the ship’s engine to counter the force of the wind”.

Another memorable point of the voyage was when the students charted their own course through a channel that existing maps showed to be too shallow for a ship to pass through. As they approached Pulau Lingga, they were faced with two choices: they could either take the longer route around the island, or take a shorter route across the narrow channel of uncertain depth. Under the captain’s guidance, the students chose the latter.

Using a depth sounder than runs on sonar, they charted the channel’s depth at one-minute intervals as the ship proceeded slowly. The actual depth turned out to be up to 20-metres deep, more than enough for a ship to sail through. They made it across the channel, and christened it “Selat NUS” — selat being the Malay word for channel or strait. They have also shared the data collected with the marina at Nongsa Point, Batam, which will be made available to others sailing in the area in the future.

The idea for this unconventional learning journey came from Associate Professor Martin Henz, from NUS Computing and Engineering, who is an avid sailor and had previously worked with students on various sailing-related projects. “We wanted not just a longer voyage, but one that encourages multi-disciplinary learning and cross-fertilisation of ideas and perspectives between students,” said Assoc Prof Henz.

For the students, it was a trip that took them out of their comfort zone, where their perspectives were challenged and new friendships were forged. Many were introspective as they recounted their trip.

Tan Fangning, a Year 2 NUS Arts student, was attracted by the sense of adventure when she first heard of the trip. It was a bold move to sign up for a voyage as a non-swimmer with no sailing experience. “This was literally uncharted territory for me," she said. "I have never had the experience of going out in the open seas. But I learned to push my fears to the back of my mind.”

Darren shared how he appreciated the opportunity to be off the grid for a week and learned to relax, while Jonathan developed a deeper appreciation for nature, and a curiosity in the bigger picture and the universe.

For Jeremiah Loke, Year 3 student from NUS Arts, the trip had "an ideal combination of physical activity and space for reflection”. He summed it up, “I came back feeling more relaxed. It uncluttered my mind, just by being out at sea with the regulating calm waves. I am more purposeful when I do things now.”

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