Friday, 26 July 2013

I'm back...for now...I think...

Well, this is awkward...

I had planned to make this some type of long term commitment. But apparently, commitment isn't my thing. I got enlisted... POPed and some other stuff happened. Kinda slacked off.

Anyway, I've been wanting to go back to Pulau Semakau for weeks. And I finally got the chance to go with Team Seagrass! I was so hyped for the whole of this week. I learnt how to tie a Shemagh to beat the mosquitoes and the heat ( , if you're interested). I packed everything on Friday and slept early.

Saturday, I woke up at 0430 (I have to use this format, now that I'm in the military) and set off to Marina South Pier. I was going to go there with my friend, Yu Hui. We had agreed to meet at Simei MRT at 0515.

The time was 0525. Yu Hui was nowhere to be seen. So I called him up.

"Dude, where are you? We're gonna miss our ride!"
"What? Isn't the trip tomorrow?"


Well, at least I called him at Simei... Anyway, I walked back home, my head hung low.

I decided not to waste my early Reveille and decided to visit Pasir Ris mangrove instead. So, armed with my trusty camera and my other not-so-trusty camera, I set off.

I got to Pasir Ris, which had a strange mist hanging around. Not a haze, though.

I waited for the sun to  rise a little bit more, to allow for my primitive eyes to actually see something and strode into the boardwalk.

At first sight, there wan't much to see. An old uncle doing taichi. Some cleaners. I saw the occasional mud crab.

A bit hard to see, but it was pretty dark.
As I went further, I saw more and more grumpy mudskippers.

This one was chasing another mudskipper away. The dorsal fin was going up and down. Pity there wasn't a push-up competition.
And then, BOOM! I got what I came for. I saw a juvenile water snake in the small stream of water. Can't tell exactly what it is, but I see them occasionally in that stream. It might mean that they're reproducing.

While they are easier to see than terrestrial snakes, I find water snakes much harder to photograph. At any rate, this was a real treat.

At that moment, my camera died. Curses.

So I went to the jetty to do some snakespotting/birdwatching.

As far as snakespotting was concerned, I saw two more dog-faced water snakes! Haven't seen them in months... Other reptiles were several monitor lizards, which were active despite the chilly conditions and a tiny red eared slider.

I could hear a lot of birds. But the mist made it harder for me to find them. At the end, I managed to find 2 grey herons, a striated heron, a common kingfisher (which was huge), several parakeets and even some cockatoos.

So after that, I walked back to Simei. All in all, not a bad day. Could have done with some more juice in my camera.

I wish I could have revived this blog with a little bit more pomp (SEMAKAAAAAAUUUUUU), but this will do, I guess... I'll be going to Semakau tomorrow. Let's see if I can make a blog post about it.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Mangrove Madness (Part 2)

I know I said tomorrow. I got distracted. And tired.
So, anyway...
Day 4
Fully recharged from my previous work, I came back to the mangroves! Well, almost...
We got rained in...
I met Rick at his lab at NUS and we set off for Kranji, praying for good weather. Of course, as the image shows above, we didn't get what we wanted. We stayed around at Kranji for a good hour, seeing if the rain would abate. Unfortunately, it didn't and we went back to Rick's lab.

Once back at the lab, Rick taught me how to use the total station. The total station, using trigonometry and a little bit of magic (It's really complicated math) is able to determine the elevation of a point very far away. Despite how complicated it sounds, the operating system of the total station is actually pretty easy and straightforward to use. The main trick is getting the tripod to be totally level. That takes about 5-10 minutes of trial and error.

That's me adjusting the tripod to make it totally level. It's more fun that it looks!
Once that's done with, you have to calibrate it with a pre-set benchmark. The rest is simple, as one person goes around holding a prism on a pole at a pre-set height. The camera will send a laser towards the prism, which reflects the laser. Using the aforementioned magic (i.e. really complicated math), the camera calculates how far away and how tall the point is. It's intense. After that Rick shows me some of the maps he's been able to draw. Using the data, he was able to construct a 3D map of the whole of Mandai Mangroves and superimpose it on a satellite image. Such data is truly useful for future work in that area.

Rick believes that accurate equipment is necessary for good ecology. After visiting his lab, I agree. There's no point in wasting time and energy in collecting inaccurate data with inferior equipment. That's why accurate and precise equipment is really needed to do proper data analysis.

Day 5
Once more, I visited Rick in his lab and met up with his friend Aloysius, who was looking to get some experience in muddy environments. Naturally, the mangroves were the perfect practice area. So, we set off!

Yes, we do this for fun. Why do you ask?
This time, I didn't wear my track pants. NEVER DO THAT. It's really uncomfortable, especially when you're walking through a field of pandan. Luckily, most of our work was on dry land on that day. I got to use the total station on the field for the first time. It was definitely quite an experience; sniping for the prism.

It put a demonic spark of joy in my eye.
So, we mapped out many trees that Dipti and Rick had tagged on the day I took a hiatus. Along the way, we  met some friendly residents of the mangrove, including a tree climbing crab.

Which was... climbing a tree.
Aloysius took the chance to practice his swordsmanship as well.

En garde!
And that was it for Day 5! It was really fun.

Day 6

Final day. I met Rick at the lab again and we took the stuff to the mangroves once more! This time, we took a taxi, so we got to relax. While Rick talked animatedly to the taxi driver, I sat at the back, thinking about life and other deep stuff such as that. We picked Dipti up at the MRT station and went to the mangroves. This time, I had the good sense to wear  track pants. However, when we reached the mangroves, the tides were too high to do any sort of work. So Rick gave us a tour of the other side; the side I hadn't seen yet.

This was how high the tides were.
Here's us fooling around before the tour.
So, during the tour, Rick introduced us to many species of mangroves that we were unable to see on the other side, such as Sonneratia trees. Again, I should do a dummy's guide to mangroves sometime. We also saw Nipah! It's the only palm that grows in saltwater. The fruit is naturally sweet, and is a vital addition to Ice Kachang.

That's the fruit. Inside, is the attap chee
We also saw proof that people have lived in the Mandai Mangroves. It's possible that these structures were built by the fishing village that lived here and was relocated by urbanization. It was cool, albeit slightly eerie to think that many people had been born and had died in that area. In a sense, is it not our national heritage?

 Pretty cool huh? I was amazed too!

Rick showed us the setup for another experiment. This was attached. Guess who did the Tamil translation...
We also got a great view of Malaysia!

Rick taught us all the distinguishing features of the mangrove trees.  Truly an enriching experience.

Once the tide receded, we returned to the sandbar and continued mapping and tagging the trees. It was, as usual really hard work. Once it ended, we all breathed a sigh of "TGIF!"
Remember, Rick always needs help. So, do try to volunteer for his cause. Where else can you go all He-man in the mangroves?

It looks like 'Hey Rick', but it actually reads 'Help Rick'
SO GO HELP HIM! Do the manly thing of walking in knee-deep mud... for science!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Mangrove Madness (Part 1)

I'M BACK! *confetti*
OK, so now that my school is over, I've been getting dirty again. This time, I went to the mangroves with Rick!

That's Rick, after his talk at NUS High School

Rick is a mangrove ecologist. He has graduated from NUS and has conducted various mangrove surveys locally, regionally and internationally. Rick is also the founder of the Mangrove Action Squad, whom I have joined for one of their Pair Ris Mangrove tours! Do visit the Mangrove Action Squad and see what you can do to make a difference.

Day 1
So, on the first day, it was just me and Rick. I met him at 11.30am at Kranji MRT and he explained what his research was about. Rick is mapping every single mangrove tree in Mandai Mangroves. Not an easy feat for only one person. Furthermore, I can tell you first-hand that walking into the mangrove is no joke. Even at low-tide, the mud can be at knee-height. Wearing track pants and booties and carrying the total station equipment, we trudged into the mangroves. Rick brought me to a sandbar, where we deposited our bags. I took a few photos...

This is the view from the sandbar. The city in the background of the first picture is Johor Bahru.
Anyway, we set to work. Rick tagged every tree and marked them with chalk to indicate that I had to measure them. I went to each tree that was tagged and measured their diameter using a special measuring tape called DBH tape. DBH tape removes the need to divide the circumference by pi to derive the diameter of the tree. After measuring the diameter, I wrote it down in the data booklet, that was made of this awesome time of paper that can't get wet.

Picture above: My reaction
While measuring, I learnt a lot about the trees that were in the mangrove. I should do a post about a dummy's guide to the mangroves... Anyway, I noticed that many of the trees had holes that were simply FILLED with ants. Luckily, they did not bite. However, after a while, I noticed a strong smell of vinegar, which I thought was weird. Until I noticed that I only smelt the vinegar when I was near some ants. I remembered my trip to Christmas Island, where I encountered the Yellow Crazy Ants (One of the world's worst invasive species). The YCA can spray formic acid into the eyes of the native red crabs, blinding them. I realised that the vinegary smell came from the ants similarly spraying formic acid at me. COOL!
Note: The ants weren't YCA. I think it's interesting that they can do this. I need to read up more on this trait...

Rick told me that the previous two days had rained on him. "Thank God the weather's good today," he said. At the exact same moment as he said that, we heard the ominous rumbling of thunder in the distance. With moments to spare, Rick set up the total station, while I held the prism next to each tree. Unfortunately, after mapping a few trees, the rain came and we had to pack up. Like men of the woods, we didn't use ponchos and walked through the rain to the nearby petrol station via the Green Corridor. This was my first time on the  Green Corridor, so I enjoyed it a lot.

And that's just Day 1...

Day 2
I met up with Rick in his lab this time, which is super cool! They've got their own Safety Justin Bieber and all... (It's a cardboard cutout of JB telling you to wear a mask in the lab) Plenty of science jokes too.
This is a feather that Rick found on a previous trip. Could it be a raptor?
I also visited RMBR before I went to see Rick. But I'll write about that some other time. I met Dipti, who is from India. Needless to say, Rick and I get along great with her. We discussed Indian food all the way to the mangroves. The tide was unusually high, but we braved them and went towards the site. We met a juvenile Dog-faced Water Snake on the way. Couldn't take a photo, though because I was knee deep in water. At any rate, we reached the site and sat around, waiting for the tide to recede. Finally, we set up the total station and got to work. Luckily, this time, we saw no rain at all. So we were able to make a lot of progress, tagging, measuring and mapping all the trees in the area.

Just as we were halfway through, Rick saw a yellow thing in the water. "Is that a kayak?" I asked. He said, "Yeah, I think so." We tried to retrieve the drifting kayak. But upon closer investigation, it simply turned out to be a floating mattress. What a disappointment. Nevertheless, it serves as a reminder that we should not dump rubbish into the sea.

I regret to say that at that juncture, Dipti and I got tired. Rick was full of energy as he ventured into areas unknown, clambering over Rhizophora roots to get a good measurement and trudging through the polychaete infested mud, armed with nothing more than a prism on a stick.

Anyway, we made some great progress. I had a great time walking back along the Green Corridor.

Day 3
I took a break this day, because I was so tired. After two days of work, I was ready to hit the hay. Rick does this for 7 days in a row. I really want to salute him. Anyway, I took the holiday to get my last few school assignments done. So, by the end of the day, I was a free man, with nothing to look forward to but my National Service.

I don't want this post to be too long. I'll post about Days 4 and 5 tomorrow. I'll try to be less intermittent with the posting. (The last post was July 10. Yeah, I was busy.) Anyway, I'm still a regularly posting administrator for the Evolution Facebook group. Do like the page and check out our content!

Also, Rick is a really hard-working person. He's currently taking a well-earned week of holiday. I regret that I can't help him until November, due to prior commitments. Nevertheless, he is in need of volunteers. Check out his blog and do find out what you can do to help out!

See you tomorrow!

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Scariest Boat Ride Evar!

Well, I slacked off for two days... We actually went to Terumbu Raya on Sunday. Better get down to this!

The day started off with the SCARIEST BOAT RIDE OF MY LIFE. The morning was showered by Sumatras, so the waves were really choppy. Soon, however, the storm cleared and  all was well again.

Pictured above: The face of nonchalance
On the way, we saw some people walking along the long and winding road at Pulau Semakau. Incidentally, those people were Year 3s from my school doing the Marine Biology module. But more on that later.
We finally reached Terumbu Raya, a submerged reef that's very close to Pulau Semakau, separated by an incredibly narrow strip of water.

The group of Year 3s from my school

"SEA TURTLE!" shouted Ria, as we approached the reef. Rushed and excited, we ran to the top of the boat. According to her, it was probably alarmed when the ship weighed anchor, causing it to surface. But we couldn't see anything. Just some Sargassum. Disappointed but excited, we took the dinghy to Terumbu Raya.

Terumbu Raya

So we finally reached the reef. The wind was strong. Our life jackets were almost blown over! With all the hullabaloo over, we set off exploring. The first thing Pei Yan and I found was a bunch of Bivalves clustered together.

Courtesy of Peiyan.Photography.
Soon after, Pei Yan pointed out that there was an octopus right in front of me. Excited, I squatted to get a shot. But the shy octopus retreated. Darn. Nevermind, it was the first of many octopuses that we got to see.

Octopus #1

Plenty of Hairy Crabs there.

So, I decided to plod around looking for squelchy things. My wish was soon granted. While turning over a rock, I noticed something tiny and translucent scuttling across it. It was a Baby Octopus! We tried to take a photo, but failed. It was simply too small and too fast. Oh well. We returned the rock to its original place and moved on.

I saw a few Swimming Crabs staring at me with outspread arms, as though saying "COME AT ME, BRO!"

Then, I saw Octopuses #3 and #4 in quick succession. Both of them were rapidly changing colours, which was very exciting for me. I've never seen that happen in daylight. An octopus can change the colour of its skin to camouflage, intimidate or to communicate. Very intelligent and fantastic hunters. Hard to believe they're actually related to snails and clams...

This one kept alternating between purple and black/white

Otherwise, I saw plenty of corals, upon which I shall not expound. Take heart, you can read about them at WildSingapore or on Pei Yan's blog (links at the bottom) There's such a huge variety on that reef. It was a brilliant symphony of colour.

Finally, I saw a Funeral Nudibranch. Despite the depressing name, it's very pretty!

Cue sombre music

I also got to see a GIANT DENDRODORIS NUDIBRANCH! IT'S HUGE! Like the size of my foot! I didn't take photos, so here's one from WildSingapore.

How can something be so incredibly cool?!
With that, we sailed back to the mainland.
I loved Terumbu Raya. It's evidence of just how much there is to see in Singaporean waters. It's a bit short-sighted to say we've got no wildlife.

Other blogs that related this trip:
Chay Hoon's Facebook Album:

Sunday, 24 June 2012


How would you react if I told you that there is an entire reef, filled with a cornucopia of living things, smack in the middle of the industrial triangle, near a huge and busy shipping lane.

I know... That's what I thought. And yet, it exists! Cyrene Reef is an offshore reef that is only exposed at low tides. So, just like yesterday, we got up early in the morning and set off by boat.

What started off as a small sand bar slowly got bigger as the tides receded. Cyrene Reef at low tide is a huge expanse of seagrass and coral reef. No doubt, there's plenty to see!

As you can see, Cyrene Reef is incredibly close to the CBD (on the right) and Keppel (on the left). Sunrise was simply beautiful. Behind me were petrochemical plants, which frequently conduct flaring. It's rare to see such diversity amidst such disturbance.

Anyway, we got to work, removing the remnants of Siti's experimental set-ups. Unfortunately, there was no therapeutic smashing this time. That was already accomplished by the previous trip, which went on Friday. So, we worked quickly and finished early. In classic civil servant fashion, as Ria said, we explored the Reef, trying to look like we were still working hard.

Sean, Pei Yan and I set off for the edge of the Reef, where we were instantly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Knobbly Sea Stars AKA Chocolate Chip Sea Stars AKA Darth Maul Sea Stars (Sean's idea)

Notice the resemblance?

Anyway, after walking around for a bit, we found a 6-sided Knobbly Sea Star...

That's like the Four-leaved Clover of the Sea...

Anyway, while having a heated discussion about Sea Star anatomy, Sean and I met Sijie, who found a Pentaceraster!

And another one!

And two more after that!

Notice that he/she's missing an arm...

Here was an Frilly Sea Anemone that I found.

A Black Long Sea Cucumber. I saw three or four of them. These zoologists are certainly creative when it comes to naming a species...

Sean and I also came across a Reef Spider. Unfortunately, it was moving around too much, so I couldn't get a decent photo. So, here's a picture from WildSingapore. Thanks a lot!

Be afraid. Spiders can walk on water now.

This spider lives underwater and lives in crevices with air pockets at high tide. At low tide, it comes out to hunt. It is able to stand on the water surface because of its hairy legs and can skitter quickly across relatively still water.

Above is a Garlic Bread Sea Cucumber. "A study found that this sea cucumber plays an important role in the health of eating sediments and burrowing in the ground, the sea cucumber makes more nutrients available to the seagrasses." (Source: WildSingapore)

As we soldiered on, the water got cloudier, the sun got brighter and the quality of my photos got worse. My bad...

Here's an Arrowhead Crab that I saw while looking for some seasonally abundant Melibe nudibranchs (which I did not find).

Finally, here's a Blue Dragon Nudibranch that Chay Hoon found. Sadly, my picture does no justice to the brilliant colours that you can see in this species. There are some better photos at WildSingapore.

That concludes my post about my trip to Cyrene Reef. It is literally one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. I'd hardly say this post does it justice. It's one of those things that you've got to see to believe.

Alas, the holidays are at an end and I shall have fewer opportunities to go for these trips. I shall try to keep this blog alive in the meantime with feature articles etc. etc. etc. Till next time, adios!

Blog posts about this trip: