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Underwater World diver Philip Chan: Being with the fish – it’s a job to dive for

Mr Chan makes sure the fishes are fed on schedule. During festive periods, he would, for instance, don a Santa Claus costume to feed his "babies" (above).
Mr Chan makes sure the fishes are fed on schedule. During festive periods, he would, for instance, don a Santa Claus costume to feed his "babies" (above).PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Mr Chan (above) makes sure the fishes are fed on schedule. During festive periods, he would, for instance, don a Santa Claus costume to feed his "babies".
Mr Chan (above) makes sure the fishes are fed on schedule. During festive periods, he would, for instance, don a Santa Claus costume to feed his "babies".PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Philip Chan has been with Underwater World Singapore since it opened in 1991

A diver in a red and white Santa Claus costume, with a stringy beard no less, plunges into a tank, sending the fish into a frenzy.

It is feeding time at Underwater World Singapore (UWS), the 25-year-old aquatic attraction on Sentosa whose impending closure at the end of the month has sparked nostalgia and drawn big crowds.

Gliding rays and sharks alike swarm around the diver, engulfing him in a mini fish tornado as he slots food into their mouths one by one.

"I treat them like my babies," said the diver, Mr Philip Chan, 62, the senior supervisor of the curatorial department at UWS, and the head of UWS's team of divers.

But such feeding sessions, which The Straits Times saw last week, will soon be a thing of the past.

Mr Chan, an avid diver who has been with UWS since it opened in 1991, said he is sad to see the animals go.

A LOVE FOR DIVING

Diving is relaxing and trouble-free, and working here makes me happy because I can dive every day and be with the fish. Just being in the water and feeding the fish, understanding their behaviour... was the best part (of my job).

MR PHILIP CHAN, senior supervisor of the curatorial department at UWS, and the head of UWS' team of divers.

His affections lean towards the eagle rays and the nurse sharks, which he describes as "gentle".

Two of the nurse sharks have been there since the aquarium's opening, he said.

While he has been bitten a few times by sharks which mistake him for a fish, they let go once they realise he is not food.

"Whenever I get in danger, I just keep calm. I can overcome any danger by just being calm."

During festive periods, Mr Chan is himself a bit of an attraction along with the sharks and stingrays.

His appearances in the UWS tunnel as Underwater Santa during Christmas and Underwater God of Fortune during Chinese New Year have delighted many a guest.

The two costumes were brought out daily following news of the attraction's impending closure.

While humans loved the costumes, Mr Chan said the fish reacted differently when he first wore them many years ago.

"They were shocked when they saw me dressed up for the first time, but after a while, (they) only cared about the food in my hands," he said with a laugh.

His colleagues described him as a big brother, whose priorities are to keep feeding times for the animals strictly on schedule and to ensure the safety of the divers.

Mr Abdul Shukor, 56, who has been working at UWS as a senior diver for the past 25 years, calls Mr Chan the "lighthouse beacon that guides the younger ships".

Said Ms Nirhayu Matunus, 47, secretary to UWS' curatorial department: "Philip is like the big brother at Underwater World Singapore... He is strict, but he actually has a heart for people."

She recounted how he once drove her to the hospital to see her late father. "He didn't ask me why I was rushing to the hospital or who was hospitalised - he just offered to take me there," she said.

Mr Chan's association with UWS actually started before it opened - he was involved in collecting marine specimens, catching fish and setting up marine life support in 1990, in preparation for the opening of UWS.

He had previously worked in Sentosa's Coralarium - which closed in 1995 - and was involved in the Coral Salvaging Project in 1997, in which he and a group of volunteer divers helped relocate corals threatened by a land reclamation project, from the Southern Islands to Sentosa's north-eastern coral beds.

Mr Chan, who started his working life as a lifeguard in 1975, said his passion for diving began when he took up the sport at the Singapore Armed Forces Yacht Club in his 20s.

Since then, he has clocked an estimated 5,000 dives over the years.

While his wife and two daughters are divers as well, they do not dive as often as Mr Chan, and family dive trips have become rarer as his daughters have grown older.

"Diving is relaxing and trouble-free, and working here makes me happy because I can dive every day and be with the fish.

"Just being in the water and feeding the fish, understanding their behaviour... was the best part (of my job)," said Mr Chan of his time at UWS.

He cited the opening of the aquarium as his fondest memory of his job, recalling the 6,000 to 7,000 visitors every day during its first month, "with lines stretching to Siloso Beach".

While Mr Chan does not know yet what he will do after UWS closes, he is looking forward to a break after working there for 25 years.

Ever the diver, he said: "If I can get my kakis (friends) to go, I'd like to go to our favourite dive spots in Malaysia to snorkel or free-dive."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2016, with the headline 'Being with the fish - it's a job to dive for'. Print Edition | Subscribe