Murky waters hide rich bounty

A diver reading a signboard along the Deep Dive Trail at the Sisters' Islands Marine Park.
A diver reading a signboard along the Deep Dive Trail at the Sisters' Islands Marine Park. PHOTO: NPARKS

The murky waters surrounding Singapore are usually not on any scuba diver's bucket list. But as I learnt first-hand, the Republic has plenty of bounty under the sea.

For one thing, more than 250 species of hard coral have been recorded in our waters, about 40 per cent of the types of corals found in South-east Asia.

And each of the five dives I have done in Singapore's southern waters was like drifting through an underwater garden, even though it was sometimes difficult to see past my outstretched arm.

There have been flitting butterfly fish, sea anemones that sway in the current like miniature trees in the wind, and colourful nudibranchs (sea slugs) in the nooks and crannies of the reef.

While I have yet to encounter larger marine animals such as dolphins, sea turtles or reef sharks, they are lurking here too.

For me, the main difference between diving in Singapore and popular dive spots such as Bali or Tioman is visibility. The two new dive trails off the Sisters' Islands - where the waters are not crystal clear and currents can get strong - are at relatively shallow depths for divers. The trails also have 20 underwater markers to tell them where to look for marine life.

Station Four of the Shallow Dive Trail (4m to 6m), for example, says a live giant clam is nearby, while Station Two of the Deep Dive Trail (10m to 16m) alerts divers to the variety of sea fans and sea whips. The ropes that mark the length of the trail are also useful visual tools for navigation.

During a preview of the dive trails last Thursday, I was so taken by Station Eight of the Shallow Dive Trail that I lost the rest of the team and had to surface. That station is known as the Pinnacle because of its rocky outcrop of hard coral, and appeared to be the most prominent structure on the reef. It serves as a point of orientation for the fish. I was blown away because it was the first time I saw so many fish, with what seemed like hundreds congregating in one spot.

Compared with other Singapore dive sites, such as at the nearby Pulau Hantu for example, the fish at the Sisters' Islands Marine Park were more abundant and bigger too. I saw Harlequin sweetlips with their brown polka dots and rainbow-streaked parrot fish that were at least as long as my forearm, the biggest I'd ever seen here.

A remora, a type of suckerfish, also attached itself to my fin.

Even more encouraging - the presence of the butterfly fish which depend on the reef for food, and the hefty fish sizes all point to a reef in the pink of health. And I was pleasantly surprised by a school of yellowtail barracuda near the Pinnacle - a sight I almost missed while clearing the fog from my mask.

If we continue to protect our marine habitats, Singapore's waters could one day become much-loved by scuba divers, with reefs that are not just pretty attractions, but also nurseries for important seafood and protectors of our shorelines.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 28, 2015, with the headline 'Murky waters hide rich bounty'. Print Edition | Subscribe