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!

ASEAN + 3 Youth Festival (28 July - 3 August 2008)

The ASEAN + 3 Youth Festival (AYF) started off with a high (both literally and figuratively). The opening ceremony was held at the Jewel Box, at Mount Faber and in style, we took a cable car ride up there.

The delegates and staff were put up at Novotel Clarke Quay, which is the perfect place to accommodate youths. What’s more hip and happening than the revitalised Clarke Quay, with bars, pubs, restaurants, a shopping mall and even a reverse bungee amusement ride? Our rooms weren’t half bad either and for the event, I bunked in with the rest of the facilitators.

The view from the room is fantastic.

The next day we got down to business, starting with an introductory lecture to get the juices flowing on the topic for the Forum part of the AYF, which focuses on sustainable development. The theme was Growing ASEAN: At What Expense?

As I had just returned from the Korea IYF as a delegate, I borrowed a few elements and incorporated it into our breakout sessions when we led the discussions for the delegates. I was a facilitator for the “Environment” group along with Sha, Zheng Rong and Ling. These delegates were really an enthusiastic bunch! Here they are doing the ice-breakers sharing their thoughts on their dream city of the future.

Groups were tasked to come up with ideas for a green leaf (factors that facilitates sustainable development) and a brown leaf (factors that hinders sustainable development). Here they are sharing their thoughts on the issue in their sub-groups before presenting it to the rest of the delegates.

After the sharing, we had the exciting forum theatre performance and debrief before heading to The Arena, touted to be Singapore's largest international live music venue, for dinner.

After The Arena, some of the facilitators and I headed to Cineleisure to catch the Dark Knight. Those involved in the AYF had the privilege of free entrance to Butter Factory, but ol’ fuddy duddy me passed it over. All I wanted to do, and did so at 2am, was have a good uninterrupted soak in the tub and wake up to this.

The next day, the Environmental group headed to the NEWater plant, Singapore WaterWatch Society and the Marina Barrage to learn more about what has been done to promote sustainable development. The delegates were not at another night club – they were toasting with bottles of NEWater at the NEWater plant, where the guide brought us through the process of reverse osmosis (RO). As Singapore is a water-scarce country, NEWater was touted as one of our National Taps for our water needs. The quality of NEWater consistently exceeds the requirements set by USEPA and WHO guidelines and is, in fact, cleaner than the other sources of Singapore's water. While I have no doubts about PUB’s integrity, it would be great as well if the public is educated about the debate surrounding RO water. Though I can’t verify this, it was brought up during the Korea IYF discussions that RO is acidic, which is a problem since there has been supporting evidence that people who live the longest and have the least diseases live in areas where the water has more of an alkaline pH, in other words, a higher mineral content.

We then headed to the Singapore WaterWatch Society, a non-governmental organisation which conducts the patrolling rivers and their catchments, and reports to the relevant authorities if any kind of pollution is found in those areas. Singapore has always prided itself on its cleanliness, and it is such societies which exposes the underbelly of such myths and aims to raise awareness to prevent complacency from setting in. Its office was located below the bridge, which is rather apt when you think about it, because like a support structure for the bridge which is a connection for roads, the society similarly acts as a support system for the health of the connecting rivers.

Here’s what you see outside the office.

We are lucky to be able to take the Duck Tours bridge to get to the Marina Barrage. On the way to the Marina Barrage, we saw a lot of construction, all part of a grand masterplan. Here we pass by the construction area for Gardens by the Bay.

Upon completion, this is what Gardens by the Bay is slated to look like.

We also passed by the site for the Formula One race track which is furiously being constructed.

We had a good view of the Singapore Flyer.

And soon arrived at the Marina Barrage. We are lucky – it has not even officially opened yet!

Here’s the danger area to warn boats away in case the pressure sweeps them in when the gates open.

Shots of the interior of the barrage.

On the rooftop where the solar panels are.

The point of the barrage was to function as flood control (no more high and low tides), a reservoir (water is expected to be freshwater due to continual dilution) and for recreational activities (water is calmer with the barrage so water sports activities can be held). Again, I wish the authorities would give a more balanced perspective of the barrage (then again, of course it’s not their job to do so). What he did not say was that the barrage will lead to massive die-offs of the biodiversity of marine life as the salinity of the water changes.

In fact after the news of the Marina barrage broke, some citizens wrote in suggesting the construction of a Ubin-Tekong reservoir. Here’s Ivan’s reply in the Straits Times citing unjustified costs, cross country boundaries, possible contamination and of course its effect on marine life.

The next day came time to wrap up the Forum, and the delegates did up the green and brown leaves and well as the fruits. The end product was the ASEAN + 3 Tree, which the facilitators are posing with.

Hopefully the seeds are sown, and one day, the fruits from the practice of a greater emphasis on sustainable development will be seen.