Sunday, November 8, 2009

Faith and the Environment

The Gods must be smiling on us.

At about 6am, I got a text from P., who was wondering whether the event will proceed given that it was raining heavily (it was towards the monsoon season - what can one expect?). As tempting as it was to sleep in on a rainy Saturday morning, there was something more exciting to get up for - a guided walk cum interfaith dialogue, conducted in-situ at Chek Jawa.

When we all got together at the Changi Point Ferry Terminal, the rain had long pettered out and we couldn't have asked for better weather. The clouds shielded us from the scorching sun, and we were treated to a balmy breeze to boot.

There were 10 of us, some of whom were friends of P, some were friends of mine and some from the EiF group of facilitators. The conversations flowed easily on the journey to Chek Jawa, and we started the session by formally introducing ourselves and the faith that we practice. Among us were Hindus, Baha'is, Muslims and Christians. And oh, a Baha'i role-playing a Taoist (thanks P.!) to add diversity to the group.

Everyone knows that breakfast is an important meal to start the day. So, before we set off on the guided walk, we were treated to a breakfast of bread and sardines that one of the participants bought. Food's always a fantastic way to break the ice!

I was supposed to do the guiding that day, but as it turns out, two of the participants, Pu. and M. were avid botanists and I learnt so much from them! This was a different experience of guiding for me. Usually on my walks, I do most of the talking but in this case, the participants are already comfortable with one another and I did more listening instead.

After the walk, we went back to House No. 1 and found that our spot had been hijacked by a rambunctious bunch of schoolchildren so we retreated to the area in front of the rescue tank. The TV was not on, so it was not too distracting though we did get odd stares from people walking by.

I brought my talking object with me, but decided not to use it because I really wanted to find out what it would happen if conversations were allowed to flow freely. What if you had a thought that you want to contribute before the conversation flows another direction? What if some participants would just prefer to listen and not want to feel threatened by having to speak when it comes to their turn? In the end, I suppose it comes down to the facilitator, and at the end of the exercise, I know which one works better for me.

I was really so fortunate to be able to meet with such a learned and expressive bunch of people, who shared their views openly and candidly. I couldn't have asked for a better bunch of people to share the day with. As it was my first time facilitating such a discussion, it was challenging to keep up with the range of views and the very quick twists in the conversations. Sometimes I felt the points raised were outside the topic we set out to explore, but it was difficult to interject when some participants clearly want to say something, and conversations were so animated. It was also difficult to truly listen deeply when replies come fast and furious. Free-flow conversations would probably work better for a brainstorm-type discussion rather than a dialogue-type setting.

In truth, we discussed about a wide range of topics, but for some reason, I came away thinking that religion holds valuable lessons in how to live one with nature, but until we learn that we really need to mend our ways, it seems our shabby treatment of our own living space is set to continue. Human beings seem to only respond when it is something urgent, not something slow like climate change. The participants are already environmentally-conscious, but do they represent the majority? I don't know. Can religion be the answer? Maybe. Would it morph into yet another tool of control in a new domain such as the environment? I don't know.

After the dialogue ended, the tide was at its lowest and we went back to see the orange fiddler crabs waving their oversized packages (their larger than life pincers) and even caught a heron on the dying tree. We then headed back towards the van where those in front caught sight of a family of wild boars.

It took me more than an hour to get home, and as soon as I stepped in, the heavens poured again. Almost as if the rains were held at bay just so we would all have a perfect Saturday afternoon. With great company, lovely environment, food for thought (and the tummy) - it really doesn't get any better than this.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Chasing the Blues away with the Sprout! workshop

Right or wrong, "let sleeping dogs lie" is one of my mottos. Sometimes it works out because matters resolve itself through the passage of time. Sometimes the longer you ignore it, the more it perpetuates. Wise is the person who knows the difference when to take action (or inaction).

But surely, the attitude of "letting it be" wouldn't do justice to the team of people who made the Sprout! Workshop on Blogging and Photography so enriching for everyone that it left me so inspired to resurrect this blog.

At Sungei Buloh Welands reserve, participants got the chance to learn what the old days of pre-blogging was like as Mr Sivasothi set the Chek Jawa story as the context. Mr Kenneth Pinto then delved into how blogging can be used in more ways than just an online journal. These friendly people even shared with me more ways I can spice up and check up students' originality for my online assignments. Next Ms Ria shared the mammoth online resource for Singapore nature that is wildsingapore.

After lunch, Ms Colleen Goh and the Macromaniacs team shared some techniques of macrophotography and that blew me away too. Unfortunately, my point and shoot camera may not be able to achieve what she can, but at least the workshop taught me some helpful tips including one that I'll share here.

I have a repository of blur colour cast photos as I have little ideas about what white balance is, (until the Sprout! workshop that is!). So of course all my underwater photos turn out blue! I'll share a tip about how to correct it using GIMP, and would welcome any feedback on a better way to remove the blue colour cast.

Here's the original photo.

For Gimp users, go to Tools> Colour Tools > Levels.

Alternative #1

Drag the black triangle to where the start of the histogram is so that you are squeezing the range. And you are done after clicking "Ok".

Alternative #2

Or you could click on the black and white dropper, and click them on the picture where white and black are supposed to be, respectively, to give the picture a base point for what is supposed to be black and white.

The photo now with the blue colour cast removed. Not perfect, but a definite change.

I have not come across an explanation for "curves" command that I can understand adequately as a GIMP newbie, as I am still hazy about how to move the curve around and how much to move them (or even the rationale for it).

Can any GIMP user tell me a better way to do this? Or should I (sadly) let my photos lie undisturbed in my computer in its blue colour cast glory, and just bring a white slate the next time?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Natural Treasures

Over the last week, I had gone museum hopping as part of the National Heritage Board’s 15th Year anniversary. What struck me at the National Museum of Singapore was that our colonial masters were very enamoured of our natural heritage. Raffles and Farquhar had an extensive collection of paintings depiction the region’s flora and fauna.

But there was still one that I had yet to see. The Raffles Museum of Biodiversity and Research (RMBR). And after Cyrene, Chee Kong and Si Jie turned guides for Jerald and I at the RMBR. The collection at the RMBR is only the tip of the iceberg compared to the actual amount of specimens that they have. Some of the specimens displayed dates back to the 1800s!

Okay, I couldn’t help myself. I was born in the Year of the Monkey after all.

As we left I couldn’t help resting my eyes on the Pentaceraster that was displayed at the corner near the exit. I hope the efforts that are being made would enable Cyrene to remain a reef that continues to be alive, and not just another name in the museum one day.

A Magical Journey to Cyrene

What would it have been if not for Melvin’s magic? Ria believes he has the power to keep bad weather at bay. Yesterday, we had a couple of Cyrene newbies joining us from the Facebook group, as well as from BWV and Nparks. The weaving of Melvin’s magic, coupled with beginners’ luck of the newbies, certainly prevented the sumatras (I learnt something new!) from spilling a drop while we were on Cyrene.

We first landed on the sand bar where our visitors were first exposed to what lies beneath the sand. Sure looks like there is nothing that Ling Ling was pointing to in the sand, but wait...Sand dollars! Ooh! Common sand stars! Ooh ooh!

The Star Trackers were also out doing their project today, and some of us help plant the flags for easy spotting. Cyrene is like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, except that the visitors got to see these star celebrities up close and personal. Of course, they can’t resist taking pictures of these knobblies!

We saw plenty of crabs (soldier crabs, a brown egg crab and hairy crabs) and a moulting as well! As we humans get larger, we grow out of our clothes which can’t expand...and so do crabs! Here Gabriel is holding a moulting which was left behind. The crab is soft and vulnerable for a short period after moulting and begins to rebuild a new tougher shell.

See the storm brewing in the background? Melvin’s magic is still holding out.

Our final stop was in an area with an abundance of the leathery soft corals. We also spotted octopuses, crabs, brittle stars, sea squirts and a variety of other marine life. Jerald spotted this soft coral which was split in the middle revealing its stem.

Soon it became really clear that it was time to split as the heavens are threatening to pour. So, until the next time, when magic of Cyrene would again reveal its secrets. We’ll be back!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Team Seagrass Monitoring at Cyrene (4 August 2008)

The last of the early morning low tides of the year! Today, some of the Teamgrassers went down to Cyrene Reef for a monitoring session.

I got Site 2 again, though it was not as complicated as Semakau’s Site 2. The dominant species at Site 2 Transect 1 seems to be the Thalassia Hemprichii (TH). However, one or two transects also have the Enhalus Acoroides (EA) species as the dominant species. There was also the Halophila Ovalis (HO) species, which Jerald said was humongous over at his end.

Weiling taught me to use a GPS unit today since Helen and I finished early. I took some time to snap a picture of the sun’s reflection on the seagrass meadow.

Jerald and I walked across the coral rubble area and noticed that as with Semakau, the sargassum seaweed were out in full force!

We also saw this nudibranch. At first I thought it was a flatworm, until Jerald noticed its rhinophores.

Shufen called out to us, and Collin asked if we wanted some raisins. Ah, but there is a catch! In return for the raisins, Jerald and I were asked to help these sly Nparks officers dig out specimens for the International Year of the Reef Team Seagrass exhibits. It turned out that Collin has a special undiscovered talent for digging out good seagrass specimens (as QC-ed by Shufen)!

As we headed back, we spotted a Greenpeace boat at the docks! What exciting event could be happening here in Singapore?

False alarm. They were only docking here for repairs heading towards Israel.

Nevertheless, an exciting event is going to be happening in Singapore this coming weekend at the International Year of the Reef launch at the Botanic Gardens with exhibits, talks, naming of knobbly sea stars and other fun activities for the whole family.

Want to know more about the coming Reef Celebrations? More details found here.

Want to go Cyrene? Enter the Cyrene Blogging contest!

Seagrass Monitoring at Semakau (3 Aug 2008)

At 430am in the morning, a group of Team Seagrassers met up at Marina South Pier to make a trip down to the Semakau monitoring site. We scratched ourselves down to the seagrass meadow through the forested area, unceremoniously accompanied by the constant buzz of the mosquitoes.

I teamed up with Hannah to do Site 2. Site 2 is a bit of a challenge as the seagrasses are almost knee-deep (bearing in mind we are talking about vertically challenged ol’ me) in water in some parts.

Some of the quadrats also have 4 types of seagrasses – the Enhalus Acoroides (EA), Cymodocea Serrulata (CS), Halodule Uninervis (HU) and the Thalassia Hemrichii (TH).

The TH species here are quite errant. Why? No. 1 – forget about their sickle-shaped characteristics. No. 2 - it’s so much fatter than the other TH that I come across on other sites. Another way Shufen taught me how to recognise CS through the long thin stem, whereas the TH leaves comes from a sheath.

After more than an hour of (meticulous) monitoring, it was time to do some hunting. For some reason, the sargassum seaweed is in full bloom and covered many parts of the shore.

I saw this species of nudibranch for the first time.

We were fortunate that after the monitoring, the driver uncle agreed to give a Semakau tour, with Ria doing the commentary. Pulau Semakau is Singapore’s only remaining landfill situated offshore among the southern islands of Singapore. The current island was formed by the amalgamation of the then much smaller Pulau Semakau and Pulau Sakeng. It covers a total area of 3.5 square kilometres and has a capacity of 63 million m³. To create the required landfill space, a 7 km perimeter rock bund was built to enclose a part of the sea off between Pulau Semakau and Pulau Sakeng.

It is currently estimated that the landfill, which began operations on 1 Apr 1999, will last till 2040, as not all the cells are filled yet. The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, along with the National Environment Agency which manages the landfill, hopes this deadline will be extended through various waste minimisation and resource conservation initiatives.

Semakau Landfill is filled mainly with ash produced by Singapore's four incineration plants, which incinerate the country's waste, shipped there in a covered barge (to prevent the ash from get blown into the air) every night. Contrary to popular belief that Semakau Landfill would be another dirty and smelly landfill, the care put into the design and operational work at the landfill have ensured that the site is clean, free of smell and scenic. In fact, we ran into the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research guides who had a barbeque there the night before.

During construction, silt screens were installed to ensure that the corals were not affected during the reclamation works. The landfill is lined with an impermeable membrane, and clay and any leachate produced is processed at a leachate treatment plant. Regular water testing is carried out to ensure the integrity of the impermeable liners. (adapted from here.)

And oh, this structure is a reminder of the good intentions of men thwarted by opportunistic behaviour of others. Before it was abandoned, it was used by Shell to guide their vessels and powered by solar battery...which keeps on getting stolen.

As we left to go back to the pier on the bus, there were some excited shouts of black tip sharks sighting. Which just turned out to be stationary black rocks.

Before I headed back, I had lunch at Labrador Park food centre which was slated to be torn down next month.

I’m not sure if the food centre had any fans who had clamoured for it to remain, but I am so glad to be with fellow friends who are fans of nature, and who will clamour for its conservation when the time comes for it.

Shore Trip at St. John's Island (2 Aug 2008)

It was a quiet morning at St. John's Island, so it was actually a good time to figure out how to use my camera during night time.

Still, it was an early morning shore trip that did not disappoint. Among the special finds is this baby blue spotted fantail ray.

A phymanthus species that I have never seen before.

A black-and-white striped feather star. I'm going to dub it the Bandit Crinoid!

And this school of juvenile catfishes. Such cuties!

Next 2 mornings will be spent on seagrass monitoring. Don't fancy the early mornings much, but the marine animals are definitely worth waking up to!