Inspiring People: Ria Tan – Saving Singapore’s shoreline
I have lived in Singapore for 17 years, however it was not until I bought my inflatable kayak 3 years back that I started exploring the coast. Many enjoyable kayaking trips later, I can say my eyes have been well and truly opened to the beauty of this tiny countries natural coastline! I have seen some amazing natural sights, including wild pigs on the beach in Pulau Ubin, snakes off Sungei Buloh, huge monitor lizards swimming between the Sisters Islands, a large turtle off Sentosa, a family of Otters swimming through a mangrove river and a Dugong or Dolphin which surfaced very close to our kayak in Chek Jawa. All these animals I saw in their natural environement, at zero cost to me other than some human powered effort to paddle my boat on my weekend micro adventures. While researching idea’s for area’s to paddle, I stumbled across a very interesting website called WILDSINGAPORE – run by Ms Ria Tan. Ria is extremely passionate about the shores of Singapore and we catch up with her here to learn more about she is up to.
[AXE] Hi Ria – thanks for taking the time out to talk to us – can you let us know about your website WILDSINGAPORE and what the purpose/aim of this website is?
[RIA] My hope is that wildsingapore can be a one-stop location for those who want to learn about our wild places; and do more for them. When I first got interested in nature in Singapore, I struggled to find out more. I felt I should compile what I had found in a simple website. Over the years, the wildsingapore resources got bigger and wilder. I added a news blog, a happenings blog, online photos for free download, fact sheets and more. It is now quite a jungle! I apologise to those who get lost in the website. I definitely didn’t expect it to turn out this way when I first started.
[AXE] How did you first get interested in the the marine conservation of Singapore’s shoreline?
[RIA] My first real taste of wild nature in Singapore was as volunteer guide at Sungei Buloh. I then heard about and visited Chek Jawa. It was gorgeous. This was my first photo of Chek Jawa I was distraught to learn that it would be reclaimed in about 6 months. I did what I could, bringing everyone I could to see Chek Jawa before it was gone forever and posting photos online (I had to learn html!). I was astonished when reclamation was deferred. We nearly lost Chek Jawa because we simply didn’t know it was there. Its marine wonders are only easily seen at low tide. Are there any other amazing shores in Singapore? I wondered. I vowed to visit a shore every low spring tide to find out. (The living rubble at Chek Jawa before the boardwalk was built) I thought I would cover all Singapore shoresin two years. I’ve been doing this for more than a decade and I still haven’t seen every Singapore shore! I now make about 100 field trips every year covering about 40 locations. And every Singapore shore is full of life! I blog all my field trips on the wild shores of Singapore blog (Pulau Satumu, the location of Raffles Lighthouse, has some of the best reefs in Singapore. My seashore travels also led me to meet amazing people who work tirelessly, quietly, every day, on a broad range of issues that impact our marine life. Besides our amazing marine life, it is these like-hearted friends that keep me going. (Here’s the enthusiastic volunteers of TeamSeagrasswho monitor 6 shores in Singapore) [AXE] You blog and post information about Singapore on a daily basis – this takes enormous energy and commitment on a long-term level – can you explain what gives you the energy to do this?
[RIA] I am very keen to learn and know the latest news about Singapore’s wild places and the issues that affect them. Since I’m already reading the news, it isn’t really much additional effort to share them on the wildsingapore news blog. I love to visit Singapore’s wild places and join activities for ordinary people to learn more about them. Many of them are offered by passionate volunteers for free. So I am very glad to share these on the wildsingapore happenings blog. It doesn’t take much time or effort. My day doesn’t seem right if I haven’t done the daily updates.
[AXE] Do you have another job or is WILDSINGAPORE your full time occupation?
[RIA] I have been doing wildsingapore for about 10 years while I had a full-time job. I retired about 3 years ago and am now doing wildsingapore and other wild stuff full time.
[AXE] You say on your site – your life is governed not like the vast majority of us by human related daily milestones – but the the cycles of the tide. What do you mean by this?
[RIA] My priority today remains keeping an eye on all of Singapore’s shores. Together with some wacky hard-core volunteers, we go out every low spring tide to check out one of our many beloved shores. (Landing at Pulau Jong, one of the last undeveloped islands in Singapore. The best low tides happen from about 2am to sunrise, so the team suffers greatly from self-inflicted jet lag and sleep deprivation for half of the year. (Predawn survey on Terumbu Semakau, a submerged reef opposite Pulau Bukom. During neap low tides, I also check out the mangroves. (Fun in the mud with the Mega Marine Survey of Singapore, a once-in-a-lifetime survey to document Singapore’s rich marine biodiversity. My life is planned around these tidal events because the field trips are getting harder on me as I get older. I can’t do much else after a low tide trip. More about our wacky tides here http://www.wildsingapore.com/wildfacts/concepts/tides.htm
[AXE] What is the current status of Singapore’s coastline, is it in good condition, bad condition, deteriorating or improving? [RIA] There are so many different shores. Each with different situations that is difficult to make a general statement. Despite having massive petrochemical and industrial facilities in our Southern Islands, and being one of the world’s busiest ports, Singapore’s waters are quite clean and wildlife teams in our wild Southern islands and reefs. Cyrene Reef for example, has some of Singapore’s best sea grass meadows in the South, and teems with large sea stars and other awesome marine life. This despite it being located in the middle of what I call the Industrial Triangle. I was very surprised to discover a vibrant coral reef growing on the artificial seawalls at Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal. Nearby, seagrasses have settled on the artificial reclaimed lagoons. And these reefs and seagrass meadows survived the massive oil spill in 2010. Mangrove trees have even settled naturally on the artificial seawalls at Pulau Hantu! This has given me the delirious idea that perhaps a ‘Singapore Great Barrier Reef’ is possible when we construct seawalls appropriately?
[AXE] What are your favorite area’s in Singapore’s coastline that you would recommend for readers to visit if they have the chance?
[RIA] Chek Jawa remains dear to me and now with a boardwalk, anyone can visit at any tide! This shore is found on Pulau Ubin, Singapore’s last unspoilt island, and a refuge from city-living. No need to swim, no need to dive! The Sisters Islands have some of Singapore’s best reefs that are easy for ordinary people to visit at low tide. These islands are now part of The Sisters Islands Marine Park and there will be programmes for ordinary people to join as visitors or volunteers. It will also be developed for divers and volunteer divers will eventually have a role too. (Amazing reefs at Big Sisters Island can be seen from the jetty. And yes, sometimes the viz in Singapore can be awesome! Pulau Hantu is a great place to dive in Singapore. Join the Hantu Bloggers, volunteers who conduct guided dives every month there. (The living reefs of Pulau Hantu at low spring tide) On the mainland, explore our magnificent mangroves at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, now with an extension at Kranji that allows kids to get muddy and close to nature. Or explore a mangrove boardwalk at night at Pasir Ris. There’s even a mangrove boardwalk right next to an MRT station!Berlayar Creek just steps from Labrador MRT station. (Sankar, a volunteer guide with the Naked Hermit Crabs, introduces kids to the mangroves at Pasir Ris. I guide with the Naked Hermit Crabs and we offer free monthly guided walks at Chek Jawa and Pasir Ris specially for families and kids. More about Singapore’s wild places.
[AXE] What are some of the surprising animals and natural life that you have discovered that many people would not know we have here?
[RIA] Most people are surprised to know wild dolphins frolick in Singapore’s waters and that sea turtles lay eggs and babies hatch out at East Coast Park. More here. We also have dugongs. Although I have yet to see a live one, I do often see dugong feeding trails on seagrass meadows such as at Changi and even in our Southern submerged reefs, such as these on Terumbu Pempang Laut, a submerged reef near the petrochemical plants on Pulau Bukom. One of the most amazing creatures I saw is a White-spotted eagle ray, which belongs to the family of Manta rays. I saw it at Tanah Merah’s artificial lagoon during one of my monthly checks on this shore after the massive oil spill there in 2010. I was alone, it was dark, and I was trying to photograph some squids in knee deep water. When this humungous thing swooped into my torchlight. I fled in one direction, the creature in the opposite direction. After sunrise, I went back to look for it and was astounded to see this beautiful creature! [AXE] What is the largest threat to Singapore’s coastline and how can we help protect against this?
[RIA] I think the largest threat is that most people do not know that Singapore has amazing marine life. But people do care deeply once they realise what we have. And most people will then do what they can to protect our natural heritage. Another threat is an attitude of helplessness or cynicism. We need to do what we can, every action matters, no matter how small we might think it is. We also should encourage those who act. Too often we are quick to complain but slow to praise and support those who are trying to do something right. I am constantly delighted to discover the many quiet souls working tirelessly on protecting Singapore’s shores. Many work in government, others in corporations and many more as volunteers. And the countless fathers and mothers raising aware children. Priscilla the tame Wild Boar, accompanied visitors on Chek Jawa. There are and will always be threats. The best protection is people. Who understand and care.
[AXE] On your site – you say we can all make a difference to conserving our environment – can you give us some practical idea’s how we can do this by making changes in the way we live and work?
[RIA] wildsingapore’s tagline is “You CAN make a difference”. And how shall we do this? Simply explore, express, ACT. Explore Singapore’s wild places. See, smell, feel them for yourself. Bring your friends and family. Express what you feel about our wild places. Share on social media. A photo or two is enough. Speak up politely but firmly when a wild place is threatened. And ACT where you can. There are a wide range of volunteer opportunities to suit various inclinations and time availability that allow ordinary people to learn and love and make a different for our wild places.
[AXE] When you go to sleep at night, what is the main thing that makes you happy and content that you may have achieved during your day?
[RIA] At my age, I’m grateful for every day that I can walk and do my bit. And during low tide, I’m so sleep deprived I have no trouble sleeping, though this usually happens in broad daylight! What makes me happy and content, is to see the wonder in the eyes of a child or a young-at-heart visitor when they first discover their very own shores. Like these delightful young ladies at the Sisters Islands Marine Park public walk. It is in their hands that the fate of our seashores and other natural wonders lie.
[AXE] Ria – thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us today – your amazing passion shows through in the work you are doing and the positive example you set, informing and educating us about the wonderfully abundant, diverse and unique natural world – and what we have to loose if we do not look after it.
This interview in in the Inspiring People section of my website. Not ‘inspiring’ in terms of making billions of dollars from raping the planet and the earth’s resources, but tales from people who get out and make positive impacts, who send positive messages through the way they live their lives. We all have a part to play in our future. I am very excited to share these stories with you and if at least one of them can touch and inspire you to make positive changes then I will be very happy!