SINGAPORE: Diving in Singapore waters is usually like jumping into a massive bowl of miso soup due to the toll that land reclamation and rapid industrialisation has inflicted on the island's reefs and seas.
Specks of sediment swirl around you and the visibility ranges from less than 1m on a bad day, to perhaps 5m on an exceptionally good day.
This particular Saturday (Jun 2), there was a downpour in the morning and we felt lucky we could see beyond our outstretched hands in the murky depths.
Twenty volunteer divers, myself included, had sailed southwest from Singapore out to Raffles Lighthouse on Pulau Satumu for an underwater cleanup and marine BioBlitz organised in conjunction with World Oceans Day, which falls on Jun 8.
The first dive involved hunting for trash; the second, for marine life, which we were to document with our cameras for experts at the National Parks Board (NParks) and community group Friends of Marine Park to sieve through, and add to NParks’ database on marine biodiversity.
Since the beginning of the year, there have been a number of such events organised in Singapore waters. This particular dive trip, organised by the Marine and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), was a little different as Raffles Lighthouse is normally a restricted area.
Other than marine biologists, who conduct their field research here, few dive at this southernmost islet in Singapore waters.
Marine biologist Neo Mei Lin, who has dived extensively in Singapore for her work, told Channel NewsAsia it was her favourite local dive site, as it has a plethora of coral.
"It is also home to numerous marine life such as a nurse shark, pink dolphins and giant clams!” she said.
But for our first dive on Saturday, we were looking for rubbish, not sea creatures. Armed with mesh bags, baskets, shears and gloves, four groups of divers scoured the reef for things that should not be there.
We picked up about 110kg of trash, comprising plastics, netting, fishing lures, ropes and more.
Mr Jeremy Seaward, a regular volunteer at MPA’s marine conservation programmes, said: “The trash that we found were mainly nylon ropes, glass bottles and fishing lines. We also saw some interesting marine life that we don’t usually see elsewhere in Singapore waters."
On the second dive, we looked for fish, sea slugs, coral, sponges and crustaceans, among other marine life. The purpose was to log as many species as possible to aid scientists in their scientific surveys.
The trick, in such low visibility, was to go slow. Then steadily, as we got used to the dimness, the reef gave up its wealth of sea creatures to our searching eyes.
A school of yellow-tailed fusiliers zipped around us as we finned, shy angelfish and damselfish darted into holes when we got close, a large grouper glared with baleful eyes from under a coral overhang and clownfish squirmed in their anemone homes.
Look even closer and you will see the colourful nudibranchs (or sea slugs), slender pipefish, translucent clingfish, pygmy cuttlefish and, at times, the wary eyes of an octopus peeking out from its hideout like periscopes.
MORE CLEANUPS IN LOCAL WATERS
A series of marine cleanups and BioBlitzes were started this year, the International Year of the Reef, with the aim of spreading awareness about biodiversity in Singapore waters and conservation of the environment.
MPA is organising multiple marine cleanups this year, to collect trash underwater and to pick up surface flotsam from kayaks. The BioBlitzes organised by NParks were also started this year.
NParks has also rolled out a new citizen science programme called Beach Patrol where volunteers help look out for certain species along Singapore’s shores, such as sea turtles and their nests, and horseshoe crabs.
For some of their cleanups, MPA works with community group Our Singapore Reefs, which organised Singapore's first community-led underwater cleanup effort in July last year.
Started by marine biologists Sam Shu Qin and Toh Tai Chong, it now works with various partners to run regular cleanups and conservation activities. It has also gathered volunteers to clean up the reefs at the Sisters' Island Marine Park on Sunday.
Besides these efforts, a community group started by Mr Lim Teck Koon, 31, also holds monthly marine and beach cleanups at Lazarus Island, where they have picked up between 100kg and 200kg of trash each time.
Mr Lim started the group, named Small Change, in April 2017 and organised their first cleanup last October. Boat owners have lent their vessels to the group at no cost.
“We pick up lots of plastic cups which are likely from the party boats. The beach clean-up team usually picks up lots of plastic bags and food packaging,” he said.
THE UNDERWATER TREASURE HUNTERS
Underwater photography enthusiasts have also been actively promoting local dive sites such as the reefs at Pulau Hantu, right by the oil refineries of Pulau Bukom.
Mr Kelvin Pung, 40, started the Sg Underwater Macro Photographers Facebook group in 2016 along with Dr An Ng, a former Hantu regular. Mr Pung started diving in Indonesian waters but is now hooked on local diving.
“I dived into Hantu without expectation, but I saw so many nudibranchs I had never seen in my first two years of diving," he said.
While there are no manta rays and a turtle sighting is rare and momentous, there are many tiny gems in local waters, in particular, a large variety of luridly-decorated nudibranchs, which are manna to the underwater photographers.
“Our shores are under-appreciated. Our goal is to discover more new species and photograph them then show it to everyone, create awareness for local diving,” Mr Pung, who is also a para-badminton coach, said.
He hopes that this increased awareness will boost the local scuba diving industry and preserve Pulau Hantu from future reclamation.
Many regulars sign up for trips via another Facebook group, the quirkily named Weird Divers@Singapore. There are now about 100 active divers in the group, according to Mr Pung.
Their effort to dispel the notion that there's "nothing to see" in Singapore waters appears to be gaining some traction.
According to Mr Francis Yeo, who has been running dive operations in Singapore for 25 years, there has been a small surge in interest recently.
He was pleasantly surprised to have dozens of new divers signing up for local dive trips on the Dolphin Explorer, the only large-sized dive boat that takes divers out to local waters regularly.
According to NParks, there is much life yet on our shores and beneath the waves.
“We have seen improvements in our coastal and marine habitats, despite Singapore’s busy waters,” said Dr Karenne Tun, director (coastal & marine) of NPark’s National Biodiversity Centre.
For example, the corals here have shown signs of recovering from coral bleaching events that happened in 1998, 2010 and 2016, she added.