Sundays and Moonnights

This is a complete repost of an assignment I did for NUS PC1322, Understanding the Universe.

PC1322 Astronomy Photo Assignment

Photograph of Sunrise over Bukit Tabur

Date and time taken: 22 Feb 2016, around 0730hrs

Taken at Bukit Tabur, Kuala Lumpur, with an iPhone 6S

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Proof I was there (sorry this was the clearest photo I had, I’m the guy on the left).

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Even though I went stargazing and attended the solar eclipse viewing and got photos from those as well, I feel this photo means the most to me as it got me thinking about the crazy coincidental balancing of physical conditions that allowed life to exist, and to develop a consciousness to consider it’s own existence.

This photo was taken during recess week, when we made an impromptu decision to get away for just one day and take a bus up to KL to climb a hill right in the capital city itself. We took a midnight bus up, and started the climb at 6AM before sunrise, groping around in the dark for the first part. As the sun rose, things became clearer; we could see the rocks and the trees, and this part of the world waking up. The birds started singing, the butterflies began their diurnal activity, while nocturnal creatures like owls and scorpions went into hiding – two worlds, two ecosystems inhabiting the same space, divided temporally and by the light and heat of the sun.

 

Our own human schedules and activities, and of course, our existence and survival, due to the presence of a relatively small (in relation to the universe) burning ball of gas. A ball of gas that drives the water cycle, and nutrient cycle via the light that plants use to photosynthesize and maintain the delicate balance required for life on Earth.

 

Therefore, even though (especially because) there are many other amazing and interesting celestial bodies out there, it’s pretty easy to take the Sun for granted – But to me it’s the one thing out there in space that I can relate too the most (aside from Earth), because of how close (relative) it is to us and how much it affects our lives.

 

 

Should the line be crossed?

Just dumping this here for record’s sake.

This was written not as a scientifically backed up argument to win anyone over, but a letter to a leader to inform him that “Hi I am a resident of your constituency, there is this thing I care about, please consider the fact that I (and many others) care about it.” Also I needed to get it off my chest, so pardon the ramble.
“Dear DPM Teo,
I am Sean Yap, a resident of Pasir Ris Heights, now 23 years of age and a student at NUS. You may remember me from our previous engagement over the Pasir Ris greenbelt. I am writing again to you today with concerns over the possible impact the planned Cross Island Line may have on our Central Catchment Nature Reserve, and I hope you will hear me out.
Much has already been said and discussed with regard to practical aspects of this issue, about risks and mitigation, whether or not the line should happen at all, etc. In this email, I hope you will allow me to just share some personal experiences I’ve had over the past few years.
I have learned much since the greenbelt issue, and have worked hard to better understand the environment and issues surrounding it, stakeholders, and issues such as balancing the needs of the economy. Since I ORDed about 3 years ago, I have done an internship with NParks, and I’ve gotten into my desired course of study in NUS, focusing on environmental biology. I’ve volunteered with many groups, conducting guided walks in the forests, on our coastlines, and in the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum for curious members of the public. I’ve even had the privilege of being invited to deliver talks at schools and other events about nature in Singapore.
I’ve learned a lot from all the experiences I’ve gained, but the school talks always strike me the most. These talks are usually about wildlife in Singapore, with slides to answer the title question “Singapore got wildlife meh?” (a question my friends and I get pretty often), showcasing the encounters we’ve with plants and animals such as pangolins, wild dolphins, sharks, the atlas moth (largest moth in the world), and many other examples of local wildlife that many kids nowadays may be unaware of.
I’ve sat through countless assembly talks in my schooling days and I speak from experience when I say that it is not easy to keep a bunch of energetic kids or disinterested teens engaged for more than twenty minutes. When I give my talks however, almost the entire audience is awake and attentive through the entire hour – Kids are scrambling to answer the questions, scrambling to ask questions. Teachers are listening as intently as their students. It’s almost freaky. But I am not bragging – my presentation skills are honestly substandard. In these talks, it is not me that’s engaging the kids – It’s the plants and animals in the slides, engaging the audience through me. The students are shown a side of Singapore they’ve never seen, and that they’ve never thought about. Every plant and animal is interesting – appearance, behaviour, role in the ecosystem – and all these cool, documentary-worthy things can still be found in Singapore. The kids were just never told. The sense of wonder i see in the audience is something special. That Singapore is actually pretty cool. That our natural heritage is pretty cool. And in some of the people I talk to, it gives them a greater sense of appreciation for Singapore, one more special thing they know about their country. A side of their country they’ve newly discovered. This sense of wonder is even more evident in participants of our guided walks, especially when they see with their own eyes the wildlife that can only be found in our nature reserves.
Seeing wonder and discovery in the younger generation has gotten me thinking about nature in the future, but also the past, from which many lessons can be learnt. Much as it is appreciated, the EcoLink was built as an afterthought when the impacts of fragmenting the forest of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the CCNR were made evident. The impacts and the subsequent cost in trying to correct our mistakes could have been avoided if we had considered more during the planning and construction of the BKE. In the case of the CRL, do we really want to act quickly on a decision, only to possibly regret it again later? Especially now that we have more knowledge on environmental impact, I feel we should be careful not to repeat our mistakes.
On the other hand, my peers and I have the privilege of enjoying Chek Jawa on Pulau Ubin thanks to the voices and actions of some of my teachers, seniors, friends, and also a government that actively engaged and listened to them. For this I am very grateful. It is my hope that in my current capacity, I can do my best to be heard and hopefully allow my juniors and perhaps, future students enjoy nature in Singapore in the future as well.
Our local biodiversity has always been there, lurking in the background in the wake of Singapore’s rapid development, almost forgotten. In recent years, as Singaporeans are reaching a relatively more comfortable quality of life, they are rediscovering nature, and being continually amazed. But apart from just aesthetic appreciation, nature has a way of bringing people together. Just as the greenbelt brought residents together and revived a kampong spirit (we are still in contact and great friends with the neighbours we got to know), for many people I have gotten to know, local nature spaces keep us grounded, and give us a sense of place and identity in Singapore. I’ve been interested in wildlife since I was young, and in all honesty I have always considered moving overseas when was older as I’d always assumed Singapore had none of that. But thanks to passionate teachers and opportunities I am thankful for, I see that Singapore is home to a rich biodiversity that is unique and definitely makes it worth staying. Working in the natural spaces here has endeared this place to me, and even though I may also want to experience ecosystems in other parts of the world, I don’t think it will ever quite be the same, and I’ll always come back.
With regard to alignment of the cross island line, I hope that the chosen path will not cut through the core forests of our nature reserves. Objectively, there are advantages to cutting through – some cost savings and less consideration about possible reacquisition of homes. However, this forest is not a young, secondary patch like Pasir Ris, but sections of old, mature forest that may have existed from even before Raffles arrived on the island – truly a natural and national heritage. When I am guiding in the LKCNHM, we talk about the Changi tree, that had lived a long life and grown so tall, only to be felled during WWII over concerns about the enemy using it as a marker to target our forces with their artillery. In that instance, the choice was hard to make but non-negotiable, as lives and survival were at stake. In this case, cutting through our mature forest only serves to cut a fraction of the cost of building the CRL (that can be more easily earned back than the health of a good forest), and in the long run the alternate route may be able to serve residents living on the outskirts of the forest. For a mature forest, even the smallest of impacts can snowball into unthinkable repercussions, and the difference between “some impact” and “no impact” may be hugely significant. In my opinion, the possibility of any kind of impact, no matter how small, to our nature reserves should not even be considered – the risk is far too great. We now have the opportunity to make a more responsible decision and it is my hope that we make good on it.
In the talks I give, I find it necessary to also bring up the threats to our local wildlife, but it is also important to me that I also cover the solutions and the efforts to save it. To me, it’s important that the audience knows that not all hope is lost, and that they too can make a difference. I hope to be able to continue giving such talks, and I hope that like in the case of Chek Jawa, I’ll be able to include the voice of the citizens and an understanding government in the list of solutions.
This is just me talking about my hopes for the future in Singapore, but I do hope views like mine are heard and taken into consideration when making the final decision on the alignment. Thank you.
Sincere regards,
(Insert relevant pleasantries)”

Lots of Life at “Ghost Island”!

Pulau Hantu, literally translated, means “Ghost Island”. In spite of it’s name however, the island certainly isn’t dead (nor undead, for that matter)!

Seahorses don't move much, but they're very much alive!

Seahorses don’t move much, but they’re very much alive!

More on that later, but first – why the ominous name “Ghost Island”?

The name of the island could be a reference to how the middle of the island appears and disappears depending on the tide, or attributed to the folk legend behind it’s creation. The legend states that the islands were formed from – SURPRISE – two dead warriors, who died fighting each other, with some godly intervention. Seriously, go check out the legend in it’s entirety here. This is spookily similar to the lore behind the formation of Pulau Ubin (formed from an elephant, a boar and a frog who all drowned while trying to race across the straits) and Sister’s islands (formed from a pair of sisters who drowned while escaping from pirates), which all involved animals or people dying. Man, people in the past were pretty morbid (and not very creative it seems). Seriously, it’s like they just looked at islands and thought: “Huh, I wonder why there are these little bits of land sticking out from the sea. THEY MUST’VE BEEN FORMED FROM DEAD BODIES”. (Sometimes, though, they’re right!)

Moving on, the Lee Kong Chian Natural Museum held its first SG50 Intertidal Walk to Pulau Hantu on Saturday, and I got to tag along as a trainee guide (read their blogpost here)!

In order to catch the tide, we met our 39 participants at Marina South Pier (which thankfully now has an MRT) at *gasp* 6AM in the morning! Which means I had to wake up at 4.30AM D:


Cheng Puay (left) and me (right). I am not a morning person.

After an hour’s boat ride, we arrived at P. Hantu Besar!

Good morning from "Big Ghost" Island!

Good morning from “Big Ghost” Island!

Even before we hit the shore, visitors were fascinated by the flowers that littered the ground around the island.

These pink fireworks explosions are flowers of the Sea Poison Tree (Barringtonia asiatica), whose seeds were crushed and used by people in the past to stun and capture fish in freshwater streams. The poison was later broken down during the cooking process, and the fish could be consumed safely.

Ironically, the very first intertidal organism most visitors are introduced to are socially awkward ones – the creeper snails, and the adorably anti-social hermit crabs.

"Hey! Don't invade my personal bubble!" (Photo by Ian Siah)

“Hey! Don’t invade my personal bubble!” (Photo by Ian Siah)

As we moved across the mud towards some patches of seagrass, more organisms, such as this fan worm began to appear.

The Tape seagrass (Enhalus acoroides) were also flowering!

Common sea stars were everywhere

And as we headed past the muddy mangrove towards the coral rubble, well uh, coral started showing up!

Many more creatures live among the coral rubble, such as the cute little heart cockle

And the gigantic relative of the heart cockle, the Fluted Giant Clam

The uncommon Spider Conch (Lambis lambis) was also found. They have a large spike foot thing they can use to flip themselves over, but this one wasn’t really up to performing so we quickly returned him back to face-down position.

Sometimes amidst the uniform brown sediment, we get blinded by sudden flashes of colour

Participants today were SUPER LUCKY. We hit lots of rarely seen critters, such as this pair of seahorses, spotted by one of the younger participants.

Ian managed to get a clearer photograph of the sneaky seahorsies

Our hunter-seeker Jiayi found us a cute (but not really comfy) cushion star

She also found some beautifully striking feather stars

Other strange invertebrates include nudibranchs, commonly known as Sea Slugs. This particular one is the Polka-dot nudibranch (Jorunna funebris).

Covering almost every taxa, we also came across representatives from the vertebrate groups “fish” and “reptiles”

With so many awesome sightings, we were all feeling pretty great.. till we encountered this. A ghost net on ghost island.

Participants and guides worked to help save critters stuck in the net.

Entangled fish included this blue-spotted stingray, who unfortunately didn’t make it😦

Even a large stonefish was entangled!

Mr. Stonefish after being liberated. My foot size is US 7.5, for scale.

We then cut out as much length of the net as we could manage, and disposed of it. As you can see, abandoned drift nets are very harmful to marine organisms as they trap fishes and crabs. The trapped animals get tangled up and die. Project Driftnet is made up of a group of volunteers have organised themselves to collect data on where abandoned drift nets fish traps are found and dispose of them.

We will keep a lookout for the drift net in our next Hantu trip.

Though abandoned driftnets are bad news, it was heartening to see our participants jumping in to rescue the trapped crabs and fishes.

Till the next SG50 walk! For more information on upcoming walks, do check out the LKCNHM page HERE (http://lkcnhm.net/2015/05/08/sg50-intertidal-walks/)!

For all the photos taken by Ian and I, you can check out our albums on facebook:

Thoughts on Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the City in a Garden

To be honest, it’s hard to see him as a person rather than a character, since I’ve never personally met him. That said, I acknowledge both his contributions as well as his actions that I don’t really agree with, and while I can’t love him personally like many seem to be able to, I do respect the man quite a bit. He made a lot of hard decisions that may not have been popular, but what he felt was best for the country, and to some extent it worked. From here on out we should learn from both his mistakes and his many contributions, and move on as a nation to greater heights.

Many things have already been said about him, so I’ll mention what I’m grateful for. As a (relatively) young nature-loving person who has had the privilege of growing up in a city while surrounded by greenery, I feel it wouldn’t be right for me not to express appreciation for the man and his incredible foresight, that made Singapore the City in a Garden that it is today. There would not be nature to enjoy, nor a cause for me to champion if not for our Chief Gardener – my life would’ve been quite different I imagine.

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Mr Lee planting a Mempat tree back in June 1963

I won’t go into detail about the many things he did, like cleaning up the Singapore river, starting a tree-planting campaign – much has been said about all that. In fact, this article here is a great read (High 5 for LKY; Singapore’s Chief Gardener. Lee Siew Hua). Just know that the amount of importance he placed on the environment in the face of economic development was unsusual (a good thing), and ultimately what set Singapore apart from other developing nations at the time.

It was clear Mr Lee loved greenery, and though “sceptics today complain that the garden city is a high-maintenance artifice that is lacking in biodiversity”, we know that’s not completely true. Personally, while I’ve had my fair share of grievances and disagreements over things like the loss of green spaces, I have to appreciate the amount of effort put into conservation by such a small nation that is largely economically driven – it’s not the best job, but given our circumstances, it sure is a pretty darn good one. Now, greening measures are much more sensitive – attention is given to the kinds of species being planted, with native species being favoured, and development relatively more sensitive.

“Still, green activists give some credence to the notion that ‘top-down green is better than no green’”. While it is true that a large part of our natural heritage is gone, it is without a doubt that the whole city in a garden image that we aimed for has (intentionally or unintentionally) saved whatever native biodiversity we still have left – and that much we have to be thankful for.

And indeed, it is increasingly important for urban biodiversity to exist, for nature and natural spaces to be easily accessible to city folk. Esteemed conservation biologist Rob Dunn argued in a 2006 paper (thanks Zestin) that “Paradoxically, conservation may increasingly depend on the ability of people in cities to maintain a connection with nature. We term this concept the “pigeon paradox” because, if we are right, under the status quo a great deal of future conservation will rely in part on our interactions with urban ecosystems and the organisms, including non-natives such as feral pigeons (e.g., Columba livia), that call them home.”

“Although most ecosystems and species will not be saved in cities, their conservation may depend on the votes, donations, and future environmental leadership of people in cities; so, in the end, a great deal depends on urban nature. The urban jungle, with its many non-native species, may well be the breeding ground for future environmental action. What that urban jungle looks like, and how people interact with it, deserves more attention.”

It looks like Singapore is quite ideal as a case study in this aspect. Mr Lee may have valued the City in a Garden image in a more aesthetic sense, but as we have more recently come to realise, that decision he made back then has done way more than making the city a prettier place to live in. City folk can enjoy nature literally a stone’s throw from their offices and homes, and small refuges remain for our resilient biodiversity – that will continue to stay around as long as we are willing to safeguard them.

Unfortunately, the first Mempat tree planted by Mr Lee is no more, having been removed but not replanted when Farrer Circus made way for roadworks.

“The ‘pioneering Mempat’ was felled by progress, but the greening it heralded is alive”

Similarly, the pioneering father of our nation may be gone, but we should take it upon ourselves and do well to keep his green dream alive. Thank you for our beautiful City in a Garden, Mr Lee, and may you rest in peace.

Mass Marine Mortality at Pasir Ris

For the past few years around this time of the year there have been occurrences of mass fish deaths on our northern shores. This year is no exception. Ria was here earlier as well, and has done a comprehensive blogpost about the situation. I’m just posting photos of cool dead things. I know I don’t sound sad but I am, kay😦

So CNY is over, and the food guilt finally set in so I decided to try and run to work some of the sin off. As soon as I hit the path however, my nose was immediately assaulted by a foul stench. I had seen some of my friends posting about fish deaths on facebook, so I decided to go see for myself what the situation was like (totally not an excuse).

The first stop was a breakwater, and LO AND BEHOLD, I was greeted with a friggin mass grave.

This is

This is NOT what we asked for when we shouted “年年有鱼 (year year got fish)” during all those lou heis.

Because of how the water flows, a large number of fish carcasses were gathered at the breakwater, and it was quite a sight (and quite a smell too). Elsewhere on the shore, individual bodies were strewn along the strandline along the entire length of the beach, as far as I could tell.

So like, screw running right? THIS is important. Walked along the shore instead and took some photos, so here they are. As sad as it was to see all this, I can’t say it wasn’t interesting seeing a new fish every few metres.

There were many other fishes like rabbitfish and whatnot that aren’t shown here, but show up in significant numbers.

So what’s with all the dying? Clearly something fishy is going on?

For now we know that dissolved oxygen levels are high, so it can’t be due to low oxygen. Seems the deaths are a result of Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB).

Again, for better clarification of the situation, I’d like to direct you to Ria’s blog (Wild Shores of Singapore), where she does a great job of explaining what’s going on.

Given how this happens every year, hopefully something will be done soon to address this:/

UPDATE!
Sankar and I went down this morning to check out the site again. The mass grave was cleared, and there were cleaners on site to clear up the carcasses, but there were also new bodies. Notably, there were numerous HUGE pufferfish on the western side of Pasir Ris beach. Seriously, check it out.

UPDATE 2

Went down again with Sankar and Ingsind (and Nam and Sara) at night to take a look, and the high tide brought in a fresh batch of bodies. At least 7 puffers along the 100m stretch we walked. They also found a large reef stonefish, which I have not seen in the flesh before. Yikes.

Check out the whole album here:

https://www.facebook.com/balloonspider/media_set?set=a.10152890221393551&type=1

Valentine’s Day is for Roving

Sankar and I hung out with the NUS Rovers (not a engrish spelling of lovers) at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR) on Valentine’s day! Lot’s of cool things and giant spiders were seen (not that giant spiders aren’t cool), but here are a select few highlights from the walk.

RANDOM DOGE!

Wild dogs do sometimes wander into the reserve, and this is a concern as they may attack native wildlife. This dog, in comparison to the others, looks rather well-groomed though.

Wild dogs do sometimes wander into the reserve, and this is a concern as they may attack native wildlife. This dog, in comparison to the others, looks rather well-groomed though.

CROC ISLAND!

Is that a dead log on that mangrove island? I think not. (what a crock!)

Is that a dead log on that mangrove island? I think not. (what a crock!)

ANT MIMICS!

This "red ant" is actually a Myrmarachne jumping spider. This female makes a pretty convincing ant from afar, but males have gigantic jaws that make them more attractive to females, but also look less like ants. Survival/food, or sex? Can't have both hehe.

This “red ant” is actually a Myrmarachne jumping spider. This female makes a pretty convincing ant from afar, but males have gigantic jaws that make them more attractive to females, but also look less like ants. Survival/food, or sex? Can’t have both hehe. More on those spiders here

This "black ant" is actually a mantis nymph! Young mantids and leaf insects typically mimic a variety of ant species, which apparently serves to improve their survivability. They turn green/brown as they mature.

This “black ant” is actually a mantis nymph! Young mantids and leaf insects typically mimic a variety of ant species, which apparently serves to improve their survivability. They turn green/brown as they mature.

And last but not least… a PIZZA MIMIC!

The resemblance to a slice of cheese pizza is really uncanny - scientists are still investigating the possible benefits of pizza mimicry in spiders. Jokes aside, the red tent spider (Cyrtophora unicolor) is not often seen as it usually hides in a dead leaf suspended in the middle of its tent-shaped web. (Not pictured - the incredibly beautiful and neat web this species builds.)

The resemblance to a slice of cheese pizza is really uncanny – scientists are still investigating the possible benefits of pizza mimicry in spiders.
Jokes aside, the red tent spider (Cyrtophora unicolor) is not often seen as it usually hides in a dead leaf suspended in the middle of its tent-shaped web.
(Not pictured – the incredibly beautiful and neat web this species builds.)

This blog is almost dead, but I’ll try to cough things up now and then D:

Humane Beehive Removal in Singapore

Just a shoutout here. If you have a beehive problem, instead of calling pest control, who will probably wipe out the entire hive, contact Edible Gardens at http://ediblegardencity.com/ ! (If you’re too lazy to navigate to the Contact page, you can e-mail them at sales@ediblegardencity.com heh)

stomphive

(Image of beehive from STOMP)
From their blog: “Beekeeping – We are bringing urban beekeeping to Singapore! We partner with the native honeybees and have hives around Singapore. Let us know if you spot bees around the island. Instead of calling pest control to kill them, we can put them in a nice and cosy hive.”

Apart from that, the main goal of Edible Gardens is to promote the awesomeness that is urban farming! Do visit their site and check it out.
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