Our Singapore Reefs - Tai Chong, Lynette, Sam & Yvonne
“Eh look, there’s a crab! Release the crab!”
Oh, the wonders of our seas. If you dive recreationally, you’d know that spotting marine life like tiny crabs and strange fishes is usually the highlight of each trip underwater. But when these creatures are found within discarded snack packaging and other marine trash on the seabed, it can be quite a sad sight. This is why the core team of four that form Our Singapore Reefs—Sam, Tai Chong, Lynette, and Yvonne—dedicate their spare time and effort to protecting and promoting an awareness of Singapore’s marine biodiversity.
Bright and early on a Sunday morning, the team gathers at Marina South Pier, armed with bags of diving gear and tanks, and boards a small chartered ferry and sets off for St. John’s Island, where they will conduct a private dive clean-up session at Bendera Bay.
Inaccessible to the public, the waters at Bendera Bay are calm and seemingly clean, but the shores around the bay paint a different picture. Rusty metal containers and slivers of old snack packagings lie in crevices between the rocks, a rogue slipper lies abandoned on the sand, plastic bottles are scattered haphazardly across the shore, and an aged Laughing Buddha carving stands watch over the bay.
“Yeah, no one really dares to throw that away. I mean, how can you?”
These bits of trash, likely washed ashore during high tide, hint at what lies in the waters of Bendera Bay, which the team suits up to collect. But apart from dive clean-ups, Our Singapore Reefs (OSR) also co-hosts regular beach clean-up sessions with Georges every last Sunday of the month, which are far more accessible for younger kids and non-divers. Most of the time, these beach clean-up sessions also include educational sharing sessions by the team or external collaborators on a variety of topics, from the types of marine life that can be found in our waters, to the importance of protecting our mangroves.
Since its establishment in 2017, OSR has grown to become quite a big name in the local marine conservation scene, with many collaborations under their belt, and a series of exciting plans and programmes coming up ahead. Slots for their monthly clean-up sessions also get snapped up in a flash, which is a testament to how infectious the team’s passion and enthusiasm for what they do is. Likewise, this rallying of the community is what keeps the team going in this passion project of theirs.
“There are a lot of people out there who actually really care, and that’s something that’s very comforting.”
What first sparked your passion for sustainability? How did this lead you to start up OSR?
Tai Chong (TC): Actually, we started out not thinking about the broader topic of sustainability, but rather conservation, and I think one thing that really sparked this passion was the sheer amount of trash in our reefs. Sam, Lynette, and I are marine biologists, while Yvonne works in her family’s sustainable wood business. The four of us dive in Singapore so much, both recreationally and for work (for Sam, Lynette, and I), and as marine biologists, we’ve been working really hard to try to keep the reef as clean as possible, but the amount of trash is really crazy, and we don’t have the capacity to pick them all up on our own.
At the same time, there were a lot of people asking us if we had spaces for scientific dive volunteers, which wasn’t as viable because of all the qualifications that you’d need to have to volunteer in this way. Then, we thought that since there’s such big interest in the fields of diving and marine conservation, we can actually tap on something that’s existing, like the Dive Against Debris programme. So we just piggybacked on that and got volunteers to help, which is what made OSR possible.
What do you enjoy most about diving?
Sam (S): It’s really exploring the unknown. Every dive is a surprise, especially in Singapore. Everybody thinks our waters are very murky with not much life in it, and this is also why we want to bring more divers on reef cleanups, because they’ll get to explore the rich biodiversity that we have. And by removing trash at the same time, it gives these creatures a chance to live. Also, it’s so quiet. When you’re in the sea, you’re away from all the hassle of life. It’s very chill—no emails under the sea (laughs).
Lynette (L): I really enjoy leisure diving, because you just don’t have to think about anything. It’s a bit like meditation I feel, even though I’m not very good at it, but it’s a lot easier to do it underwater than on the surface.
Yvonne (Y): The others go more in depth when they dive, because they’re scientists and researchers, so they’ll notice very small things. But for me, I like diving because it’s nice, and there’s just another kind of landscape underwater—very colourful and different.
What are some marine creatures that we have in our waters that most Singaporeans don’t know about?
S: We have pink dolphins, and you can actually see them at St John’s pier! Other than that, turtles, though in my seven years of diving, I’ve only seen them underwater three times. We also have sharks and pufferfish, and a sperm whale that got washed up on Jurong Island a few years back.
TC: We have dugongs, but nobody has seen them live in action. We’ve seen their carcasses, so we know that they’re there. There’s also this fish called the frogfish. Instead of swimming, it moves around the seabed by moving its fins like it’s walking, so it looks really cute to some, but ugly to others.
S: It’s very ugly (laughs).
What about trash? What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found during dive cleanups?
TC: For me, one of the most impactful things I’ve seen would be a pufferfish sleeping inside a plastic bucket. It’s so cute right, but at the same time, this shouldn’t be happening, because it should be sleeping inside a hole, a cave, or in between rocks. So at that point of time there’s a dilemma: should you remove the bucket, which is trash, or should you just leave it as it is? I think this conflict was a moment of awakening and realisation that things are very real, and that animals will just live—they won’t know whether it’s plastic or not.
Anyway, I picked it up in the end. I gently tipped it over, and shook the little pufferfish out. I realised that if I don’t pick it up, it will disintegrate and probably cause more harm. And I’m sure the pufferfish will find somewhere else to sleep.
S: A whole set of barbecue things, like mess tins, tongs, mesh grills, and even champagne bottles—it’s quite sad. I feel that they were dumped intentionally, and it’s quite scary to see all these things there, because you start to wonder: is it because people don’t know that there’s marine life in our waters, so they just think it’s a dumping ground?
Y: We’ve seen huge tyres, shoes, helmets, bicycles, and a washing machine, which is still there because there were already fishes and a family of clownfish living inside it. For these kinds of trash, we’ll choose to leave them there since they already encourage some kind of biodiversity.
L: The creepiest one—Sam picked up a doll. She saw a hand sticking out of the seabed, and I don’t know why she even went to pick it up! The thing is, in Singapore, we do have a practice of throwing things into the sea, depending on the religion or belief, so when we see certain things, we’re a bit more cautious, or we know not to pick them up. There were a couple of times where we saw a few urns. They were empty, but we still chose to leave them alone anyway.
Sustainability is a lot more talked about now than when OSR first started out in 2017, but it seems like the amount of trash in our waters and on our shores is still pretty crazy. Personally, do you ever feel a sense of activism fatigue? What keeps you going year after year?
L: Oh, for sure. After all, we’re only human, and there are days where we cannot be bothered to bring a container wherever we go. It can be hypocritical, but that’s why we never try to tell people to stop using plastic completely. Whatever we’re trying to do is just raise awareness about the issue, and through whatever education we’ve given, it’s up to them to see their own link and engage in their own ways.
Y: One thing that I think we can 100% advocate for, though, would be to dispose of trash properly. That said, there has actually been an improvement in the amount of trash we find during clean-ups. The first few times, it was really so dirty, and we even found a whole graveyard of bottles, but when we returned to the same spot months later, it was cleaner than before.
TC: For me at least, the work has never really gotten demoralising, because I always think of it as a greater purpose. We might not be able to remove every single piece of trash in the ocean, but on the other hand, there are a lot of people who are very interested in this topic, and the fact that we can get them involved, engaged, and to speak up about it a bit more, is something that is very encouraging.
S: Likewise, for me, the blue community is very supportive, and seeing different people working together across domains and industries is very encouraging. The younger kids have also been very inspiring. Students in secondary school or primary school who start their own green club will write in saying,“Hi, can you share more with us about trash? We want to share with our friends.” There are university students who reach out to us, looking to turn our trash into art pieces or some form of energy.
These days, many places in Singapore are phasing out plastic bags and straws. Considering the many benefits of plastic as a material, how useful do you think these measures are when it comes to sustainability?
TC: I would say it’s probably not the best measure, but it’s important nonetheless. If you look at the entire problem of trash, it all starts with our consumption habits. We can look at ways to change it, and reduce the amount of usage. The moment you start charging 20c for plastic bags, you’ll probably see the impact in supermarkets.
More than that, I think it goes back to our behaviour and etiquette in natural habitats. Instead of walking 20m to that trash bin, some people will just dump their trash on the seashore itself. I think that in itself is something that we need to be very conscious about.
S: It’s a step to get people to realise the importance of sustainability, but then again, you don’t want to have too many “sustainable” options. Like with tote bags, it’s about how many times you use it, not how many you have. If you’re going to use a tote bag just once before throwing it away, a plastic bag is better in a way, in terms of the energy required during its production. There are also a lot of incentives right now, like getting a small discount when you dabao food if you bring your own container. Or with makeup —you can just get a refill when you finish a product. Hopefully a shift will be made towards consumers.
L: I don’t think phasing plastics out completely is good, because people still rely on it a lot. I know a lot of handicapped people rely on straws, and you can’t completely disregard a group of people just to advocate for a certain cause. The same goes for using plastic bags as trash bags, something quite common in all our homes. But if plastic bags are banned completely and people start throwing rubbish directly into the chute, it becomes a sanitary problem as well. That said, I do think this partial phasing out of plastics works, and it helps reduce or streamline the production of plastic bags.
Y: I must say though, bringing your own bag when you go shopping feels really good (laughs). But I do think that switching to paper bags or tote bags in stores makes a difference. Paper bags are easier to recycle, and you’ll always find another use for a tote bag, because throwing it away feels very sayang.
What do you think is the best way to educate the general public on the proper etiquette we should have in our green or blue spaces?
L: I think self-learning is always a lot more effective than being told what to do. We can’t have people on the shore 24/7 trying to teach people, so I think what would really help would be to have more educational signboards that Singaporeans can easily recognise. Currently, the signboards we have are quite sparse, so instead, if we could have them be all of a certain theme, say, best practices on the beach, with the same aesthetics and placed closer together, people would naturally know what to look out for when they’re hoping to learn.
TC: I think a lot of it has to do with our relationship with nature. As marine biologists, we’re quite aware that if we’re in green or blue spaces, we’re there as observers or visitors, and these spaces are not ours per se. Platforms like OSR are important to spread this kind of awareness to the general public. With our dive clean-ups, we’re trying to get divers to see the reality for themselves. And after seeing, touching, and even smelling it, we want them to know that all of this marine trash is not natural, and that we should do something about it.
S: It’s really about showing the public that everything is connected. Whatever you do, it might impact our natural environment, which will impact us. Like plastic—research says that there’s plastic everywhere, in our blood, and in our food. We live in concrete buildings so it can be tough to spread the word if we don’t make it more relatable to the public. One good way to do so is by collaborating with other organisations and individuals to potentially reach out to a larger audience that might not know about the issues that we’re focusing on. We’ve even gone out to the heartlands before, to hawker centres to interact with a different crowd and understand the gaps in knowledge that they have.
What’s something more that you wish could be done for our environment?
S: More protection for blue spaces in Singapore, not just for green spaces. Right now, I think we only have the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park being designated for outreach, education, research, and conservation purposes. Boats cannot anchor there, and people cannot fish there, and the marine life is thriving—it’s so good! It’ll be nice to have more spaces like this.
Zoning of activities is also something I wish was done more, because you don’t want divers to dive where people are jet skiing, or fishing, because it’s a safety hazard. I had a friend who was diving and saw a fishing line with a sharp hook plunge into the water right in front of her face! So if we can have more zoning, like demarcating protected areas where the corals are pristine, and separate dive, fishing, and water sports zones, that would be nice to see.
TC: I would like to see more businesses and government agencies coming together hand in hand with citizens, to work on the issue of marine conservation. Each of these stakeholders have a lot to offer, so if we could work together, I think we can create a bigger impact. On the ASEAN level, I would love to see youths working together rather than running their own individual efforts for the environment. And of course, having scientists on board would be very useful. Regardless of who you are, and where you come from, this is an issue that we’re confronting together, so it’s about getting more people to work together on this.
Our Singapore Reefs