Wild and wet encounters with nature on intertidal walk on Pulau Hantu

Participants exploring marine life during an intertidal walk on Pulau Hantu on Aug 25, 2021. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Participants exploring the marine life during the intertidal walk conducted on Pulau Hantu in the wee hours of Aug 25, 2021. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Mr Richard Kuah (left) guides the participants as they explore the marine life during the intertidal walk conducted on Pulau Hantu on Aug 25, 2021. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - At 5.10am on a wet Wednesday (Aug 25), 10 participants, clad in long-sleeved shirts, trousers and covered shoes, assembled at Marina South Pier.

The group awaited the arrival of a small boat - with a maximum capacity of 12 passengers - to take them to Pulau Hantu, or ghost island in Malay, one of Singapore's more than 60 offshore islands.

Leading the trip was nature enthusiast and freelance tour guide Richard Kuah, 50, who stressed the importance of proper attire. In an hour's time, he said, everyone would be wading in calf-deep waters amid corals, anemone, stingrays and the occasional stonefish.

He added matter-of-factly that some of these creatures could cause an allergic reaction on human skin when touched. If stung by a stingray, a helicopter evacuation would be in order.

The trip was organised by My Community, a non-profit heritage organisation which is holding the My Community Festival from Sept 10 to Oct 3.

Comprising more than 60 programmes, the festival, including workshops with craftsmen and after-dark tours of Bukit Brown Cemetery, is aimed at getting people excited again about local places and people they may already be familiar with.

The "Welcome to My Pulau Hantu with Richard Kuah" tour is one of the programmes on offer, costing each participant $50. This is more convenient than if they chartered their own boat ride over, with no public ferry to the island currently running.

Mr Kuah has prepared magnified photos and maps to get his participants excited. He has been a volunteer guide with the National Parks Board since 2015 and tries to blog on all trips he has gone on, meticulously recording everything he sees so he can make comparisons.

The boat ride took 45 minutes, passing Sentosa Cove, Keppel Bay and the bustling HarbourFront port. Soon, all participants could see were the dark waters around, speckled by large container ships.

Islands, whose names escape most who are unfamiliar with the terrain this far out at sea, beckon amid the dark. It is only after the shock of the bright and futuristic-looking towers on the Shell-operated Pulau Bukom that Pulau Hantu, shrouded in the night, comes into view.

The contrast between the two islands, right next to each other, is jarring, and throws up obvious comparisons between technology and nature.

When participants followed Mr Kuah in alighting from the boat at a basic wooden jetty, there was perhaps a sense of hesitance. Their path was guided only by the dim light of their torch, even as they shielded their faces from the rain that was, by now, pelting down.

Pulau Hantu, with a total area of 12.6ha, is actually made up of two islets - Pulau Hantu Besar (Big Ghost Island) and Pulau Hantu Kechil (Little Ghost island) - getting its name from the spirits of these two warriors rumoured to have died in mortal combat.

Much of it was reclaimed in the 1970s and today, it remains uninhabited, frequented mostly by scuba divers looking for pristine waters.

Mr Kuah told participants to watch out for a lone monkey, also "haunting" the island.

A long-tailed macaque spotted on the leathery soft coral on Pulau Hantu. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

When the sky cleared and the sun rose, an idyllic landscape almost untouched by human hands came into focus. A mango tree stood serenely amid a lagoon. If its leaves turn yellow, it means that the waters surrounding the island are polluted, Mr Kuah said.

By now, participants were walking calf-deep in water, looking down attentively for anything that moved. The tides were receding, revealing a rich biodiversity hidden just beneath the waters in the intertidal zone that would stay walkable for only a few hours.

The first unusual sight to generate a murmur of excitement was a large, pink and fleshy organism half resting in the water - a leathery soft coral, Mr Kuah noted. It houses microscopic algae that produces food through photosynthesis, which is in turn shared with the host.

Then there were the hard corals, the magnificent anemone - where clownfish can sometimes be found burrowing in and out - and the enticing, edible bell sea grapes. The anemone and corals were slightly shrunken without the water, but their beauty was apparent in their colours.

Magnificent anemone, where clownfish can sometimes be found burrowing in and out. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
The enticing, edible bell sea grapes. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Pay more attention - and with the help of Mr Kuah - and more lively creatures could be caught darting around and under rocks. Soon, there was an amusing encounter with a flower crab defiantly raising and snapping its pincers.

A moon snail frantically burrowed a path under the sand. A worm eel, which one participant mistook for a snake, went about its business exploring the many holes that hinted at possible food for it to feed on.

All this time, the only monkey on the island had been stalking us. He looked old, and in need of company. He moved in the intertidal zone effortlessly, to the shame of his human companions.

Two-and-a-half hours passed quickly. On the way back to the jetty, though exhausted, participants stood amazed at the excretions of an acorn worm being expelled above ground in spurts. The excretions were all that were visible, with the worm itself feeding underground.

Mr Richard Kuah (right) guiding participants as they explore marine life during the intertidal walk. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

To wide-eyed faces, Mr Kuah said that the worms can grow up to a metre in length.

The trip back to the mainland was a contemplative one, as participants reviewed the dose of nature they had just experienced.

In parting, Mr Kuah said: "In 100km of Singapore's shoreline, we have practically everything, from petrochemical plants on Jurong Island and Semakau landfill for trash to recreation at Pulau Hantu and Lazarus Island. This needs to be shared with more people and not taken for granted."

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