askST: What exactly is the International Year of the Reef?

S'pore going all out with events for International Year of the Reef

If this year had a colour, it would be blue - blue for the oceans and the creatures that live there.

Welcome to the International Year of the Reef.

It may be only the first month of the year, but things are already in full swing, with programmes being rolled out worldwide to raise awareness about marine habitats, and the need to conserve them.

Singapore, too, has planned a series of public events for the year ahead.

But what marine habitats are there in Singapore, and are they worth visiting? The Straits Times dives into the Republic's underwater universe to find out.

Q What exactly is the International Year of the Reef (IYOR)?

A It is a global campaign that aims to get people thinking about the world's marine habitats.

For the land-bound, underwater habitats, such as coral reefs or seagrass meadows, are often "out of sight, out of mind". As a result, they remain a mystery to many people.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve during high tide in January 2015. Habitats like Sungei Buloh are not only a source of marine life, but also provide a natural escape for city dwellers. PHOTO: ST FILE, NPARKS

The IYOR hopes to change that.

Governments and conservation groups have joined forces to organise events and programmes that raise awareness of these habitats, and why they need to be conserved.

They include exhibitions, guided walks and workshops.

This year marks the third edition of the global event. The first two were celebrated in 1997 and 2008. 

The IYOR is an initiative of the International Coral Reef Initiative - an informal partnership founded in 1994 between nations and marine conservation organisations.

Q What activities have been planned to celebrate the event in Singapore?

A The National Parks Board (NParks) and marine conservation groups have lined up activities that anyone - including those who would rather stay dry - can take part in.

Exhibitions on Singapore's marine biodiversity are being planned for March and April at The Seletar Mall and the Asia Dive Expo at Suntec City respectively. There will also be workshops and talks on seagrass meadows, marine trash and turtle ecology.

Partially bleached coral around Big Sister’s Island in November 2016, the year that warming seas caused Singapore’s corals to suffer the longest bleaching incident on record. PHOTOS: ST FILE, NPARKS

People can sign up for patrols to look for turtles or horseshoe crabs on Singapore's beaches, or take part in inter-tidal and coral reef surveys with scientists.

For those who would like to literally get their hands dirty, they can join volunteers in picking up marine rubbish on Singapore's shores. This year would also be a good time to visit the Sisters' Islands Marine Park.

The list of activities planned by NParks and the marine community, along with details about how to take part, can be found at

The sheer variety of activities available may be surprising to some.

After all, Singapore is a global transshipment hub with busy shipping lanes, and the murky waters surrounding the Republic may beg the question of whether there is anything alive in them.

The answer: A resounding yes!

Q What's so special about Singapore's marine habitats?

A Singapore may wear a concrete crown but it is laced with a necklace of blue.

The Neptune’s cup sponge, once thought to be extinct and re-discovered here in 2011. It is among 200 species of sponge in Singapore waters. PHOTO: TAN HEOK HUI

The Republic is home to many different types of marine habitats - from colourful coral reefs in the south, to mangroves in the east and north-west, to seagrass meadows, rocky shores and sandy beaches on other parts of the coast.

And they sustain a surprising amount of life.

Dolphins and endangered sea turtles have recently been spotted in Singapore's waters. The carcass of a sperm whale was found floating off Jurong Island in 2015 - the first time the species has been found here. Hungry dugongs munching through local seagrass meadows have also left their mark.

But it is not just these charismatic animals that have found a home in Singapore's waters. The Republic's marine habitats are also full of little creatures.

For example, there are more than 250 species of hard coral in Singapore, which make up about a third of hard coral species found worldwide. More than 100 species of reef fish can also be found in coral here.

The 12 seagrass species in Singapore make up more than half the total number recorded in the Indo-Pacific region.

Singapore's waters are also home to 200 species of sponge - including the Neptune's cup sponge, a sea creature shaped like a large goblet.

Once thought to be globally extinct, it was re-discovered in Singapore waters in 2011, and there are now five known Neptune's cup sponges in Singapore.

A feather star on Cyrene Reef in the Southern Islands. Feather stars are marine creatures that can be found near coral reefs or in inter-tidal areas. PHOTO: DAVID LANE

Q Why do these habitats need to be conserved?

A Simply put, they are in danger.

The International Coral Reef Initiative has declared that coral reefs are now one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet as a result of both climate change and local human-induced pressures, such as run-off from industries.

Warming seas caused Singapore's corals to suffer the longest bleaching incident on record in 2016.

Corals depend on symbiotic algae, called zooxanthellae, for energy. Bleaching occurs when abnormally high sea temperatures cause coral to expel the algae, turning the coral white and depriving it of a key source of nutrition.

The coral on the fringes of Singapore's southern coast started bleaching in early June 2016 and the sea temperature only returned to normal in December that year.

Singapore experienced two earlier bleaching incidents. In 2010, bleaching started in June and ended in September. The 1998 incident lasted from June to August.

In addition, land reclamation and development has also put Singapore at risk of losing other marine habitats, such as mangroves and seagrass meadows.

Tiger tail seahorses at the Sisters’ Islands. The tiger tail seahorse is threatened with extinction and can be found in the southern shores. PHOTO: SISTERS’ ISLANDS MARINE PARK

A study found that development involving filling the island's coastal waters with sand for almost five decades has killed 1.6 sq km of seagrass - nearly half of the country's total.

And Singapore may have lost almost 90 per cent of its mangroves since the 1950s because of land reclamation in the north and south-west.

Losing these habitats will mean losing more than just the loss of colourful coral, plants and animals.

Marine habitats also provide an array of ecosystem services that benefit humans.

For example, healthy coral reefs draw in marine life and function as a nursery for baby fish. Seagrass meadows and mangroves can store large amounts of carbon. Seagrass meadow soil around the world has accumulated an estimated nine billion tonnes of carbon, according to a New York Times report.

All these habitats also provide a natural escape for city dwellers - as visitors to Singapore's beaches or the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve will attest to.

That tiny Singapore has such a variety of marine habitats and lifeforms despite its busy port and history of intense land reclamation is something to cherish.

As Dr Karenne Tun, director of the coastal and marine branch of NParks' National Biodiversity Centre, said: "Our marine biodiversity is our common natural heritage."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2018, with the headline 'Global campaign on reef awareness to make a splash'. Print Edition | Subscribe