Singapore Reef Rescue

Aug 1991

By David Broadhead

Earlier this year Singapore went 'green'. Anyone who has ever passed this way will know that literally this has always been true, but by government decree, figuratively, this is now the case as well. The old policies of tearing everything down and replacing it with concrete are giving way to a more enlightened stance on the environment.

Space on this tropical island, positioned 1 degree north of the equator and measuring just 26 miles across and 14 miles from north to south, is at a premium. It will therefore come as no surprise to learn that reclaiming land from the sea is a growth industry.

Work on reclamation and landfill of the channel between Sentosa Island and Buran Darat Island just south of Singapore, is due to start in late September 1991, and when complete will join the two islands together. The landfill and reclamation will then continue north and east eventually increasing the size of Sentosa Island by nearly a quarter. The area to be filled is extensive and the work will take many, many months to complete. In the process of this landfill, large areas of coral reef will be smothered and destroyed.

Conservationists were dismayed to learn of this latest reclamation project and approached the government with a bold proposal, which in its new 'green' livery, the authorities accepted with only a few conditions, mainly related to the nearby naval base.

Helen Newman, a marine biologist and chairperson of the Singapore Branch of the Marine Conservation Group (MCG), proposed to relocate as much of the movable marine life as possible from around Buran Darat to a new location on the south side of the resort island of Sentosa. This new location, if successfully colonised, will, in a bid to encourage greater understanding and conservation of marine life, be promoted as an area of interest for snorkellers and divers.

Diving close to the world's busiest port and in conditions of very poor visibility, the divers place the corals collected from the reef into baskets which are then taken close to the surface where the corals are then transferred into specially constructed semi-submerged sleds or skips by snorkellers.

It has been emphasised that the divers should only collect corals and sponges that are easy to dislodge intact. There are plenty of organisms to be relocated, and as the task is so enormous, the team can never hope to move them all. The divers therefore concentrate on those species that can be moved quickly and easily.

Wearing overalls and gloves to protect themselves from coral cuts and stings, the divers collect the corals using several techniques. The simplest and most effective method is to gently dislodge the corals and sponges using gloved hands. The corals are held at the base and not by the branches or polyps and, as far as practicable, complete corals are brought up. A more heavy handed and infrequently used approach is to use tools such as hammers and chisels, or crowbars, to dislodge the coral. More delicate sea whips, sea fans, and sponge encrusted rocks are gently collected, in all cases with as much base or attached rock as possible.

The semi-submerged sleds when loaded with coral are towed very slowly by boat from Buran Darat to the Sentosa site where the corals are unloaded by the divers and lodged carefully in their new home. Often the divers want to 'replant' a particularly attractive piece of coral that they recovered from the Buran Darat site, and ensure the kindest possible treatment as the organism is gently secured amongst the rocks of its new habitat.

The relocated corals are marked by selected line transits at the new site and in future these will be monitored for the survival of the transplanted marine organisms. This will be done by regular photographic surveys and it is hoped to continue the survey for several years.

The MCG team has secured sponsorship from the Hongkong Bank who are supplying the divers' air in addition to paying for the semi-submersible sleds and the hire of the support boats.

Moving an estimated 300 cubic meters of coral is a massive task and many of Singapore's divers are contributing time and effort to this exciting project. Any success will be an achievement as without this rescue operation, the coral is doomed and will be lost forever.

As far as MCG can ascertain, a transplant operation on this scale has never been attempted before, and they have every reason to believe, due to the considerable similarities between the two locations, that this operation will be successful. It is hoped that the knowledge gained during this reef rescue can be used as a precursor to future reef rescue projects.

Singapore - August 1991

This page was last updated on : 06 Sep 2011