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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.

 

 

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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)”

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)

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(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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The problem with blanket blaming of single groups and/or organisations

Random thought of the day

Very often we hear people complaining about.. well, everything. For example, within the nature circle, be it issues about trash, animal welfare etc, it is clear that nobody likes AVA. Some of the comments get pretty harsh – and to a large extent the distress is understandable.

I guess what I’m trying to say with this post is – not everyone in that organisation is a complete jerkwad. By blanket blaming (e.g. “AVA is totally hopeless and full of shit”), we include, in our insults, individuals within that organisation who genuinely are trying to help. In fact I commend this individuals – it must not be easy working for the “bad guy” and trying to change processes from within. They try hard, but their views aren’t always taken into account ultimately in the final decision, so the resulting course of action may not be the one they desire, yet they get blamed for it as well. There are unrecognised heroes behind the scenes most of the time, and I think it would be great to acknowledge their efforts too, encourage and support them.

“Nature lover” has a whole spectrum of meanings.

Nature has been getting a lot more exposure in Singapore lately – be it through the rise in popularity of nature photography, or the increased awareness of natural spaces, more Singaporeans are getting out there into the wild.

“I love nature” could mean a whole variety of things to different people – for trekkers it could be a peaceful place for walking and reflection, for mountain bikers it could be a challenging terrain, to artists and photographers could be a beautiful subject, to fishermen could be a form of leisure, a source of income or even a way of life, to biologists it holds a sense of wonder and intrinsic value and worth. Just because people love different aspects of nature doesn’t mean anyone loves nature any less or more than anyone else, but it saddens me when individuals enjoy nature without caring for it’s well-being. It is understandable if it happens due to lack of awareness (which just means we need to look at and step up PR efforts), but in some cases it is the blatant intentional ignoring of certain codes of ethics that bugs me. Be it littering, cutting vegetation and clearing of paths that could result in habitat destruction or fragmentation, unethical or environmentally harmful methods in any kind of leisure activity, over-collecting or illegal collection (outright poaching) etc.

I can’t say much for the other activities, but as an amateur photographer of sorts I just feel I should pen down what I feel about nature photography.
What makes nature photography special is the amount of chance involved. Encountering the organism in the right place at the right time, under the right lighting in the right position and if you’re really luck, in the right action. It is a form of documentation, and as far as possible if the animal doesn’t sense you, a documentation of natural behaviour in a natural environment. Most importantly, it is the documentation of a personal encounter between two lives in a vast and infinite universe. And that is why I feel that by staging photos either by baiting, augmentation of the environment or outright controlling the position of the animal directly, the shot is completely cheapened. Even worse, if the photographer subsequently lies about the circumstances under which the photo was taken, it shows a blatant lack of integrity, and acknowledgement of the fact that he/she is aware that the methods involved are wrong. It irks me when photographers treat organisms with total lack of respect, as a prize that exists solely for the purpose of glorifying themselves by helping produce a “wonderful” image.

In any case, nature photography is special because of the chance involved, and by taking away that factor of chance at the expense of the welfare of the organism/environment completely cheapens the shot and what it stands for. Photography, I feel, should embody one’s appreciation of the subject and it’s existence, as well as the memory of the encounter. And even if you don’t get that perfect shot, it shouldn’t take any value away from the encounter – if anything a great shot is just a bonus result of a wonderful experience.

/incoherent rant over

You’ve come to the Jong place

Visited the Balik Pulau exhibition at the National Museum some weeks back, and learnt that the country of Singapore consists of 40 islands (used to be 77). Not all are inhabited however – some, like Pulau Jong, are simply too small. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing there, though.

If you thought there wasn't marine life in SG, you thought Jong.

Yep, this is Singapore.

“Wait, Pulau Jong? Where the heck is that?” (Actual response when I told someone where I was.)

There it is!

There it is! (When you’re a tiny red dot on the map of a country that is a tiny red dot, you know you’re TINY.)

 

Ubin, Semakau, Kusu and St. Johns are some of the more well known islands barring the mainland (P. Ujong) and Sentosa (P. Belakang Mati). But they are, after all, just some of the 40 islands that make up our island nation. To me, Pulau Jong was always that small “charsiew pau” island that we would cruise past on the way to P. Semakau. I had heard many things about the marine life there, and last Wednesday, I finally got a chance to set foot on the shore of Jong.

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If you thought there wasn’t marine life in SG, you thought Jong. Jong has a surprising diversity of corals and other reef life – and one doesn’t have to dive to see it – just come at a low tide!

So what is Jong? Wiki attack!
Pulau Jong or Junk Island is a 6,000 m² conical island about 6 kilometres off the southern coast of Singapore.”
“According to a local legend behind the island’s name, a Chinese junk was attacked by Malay pirates one night where the island now is. Just as the pirates were about to board the junk, the captain (the Nakhodah) awoke. When the captain saw the pirates, he uttered such a frightful yell that the sea spirit turned the whole junk into an island.”

Uh yeah. That’s it.
There’s also a special rock type found here, but I don’t know enough about that to really say anything about it.

Anyway, since Jong is uninhabited, that means NO JETTY. So how do we land? Like friggin commandos that’s how.

Our boat tows a rubber dinghy, used for amphibious landing. (Sg skyline in the background)

Naw not parachutes. Our boat tows a rubber dinghy, used for amphibious landing. (Sg skyline in the background)

Currents around the island are significant - we get as close as we can, jump off and try not to stumble and fall.

Currents around the island are significant – we get as close as we can, jump off and try not to stumble and fall.

 

Also, see that awesome sunrise? Most of the lowest tides occur at ungodly hours – for this trip we left the marina at 7am, and that’s considered late. (Some of the trips are at 3am!)

The sunrise assures us that we made the right choice not sleeping in.

The sunrise assures us that we made the right choice not sleeping in.

 

Okay enough about the island – what wildlife is there?
Uh I spent an hour stalking marine spiders (Desis martensi), a species of spider that lives and hunts in the intertidal zone and can walk on surface of the sea.

I spent an hour observing them, but they're so skittish and fast that this is the most decent shot i got :(

I spent an hour observing them, but they’re so skittish and fast that this is the most decent shot I got of an adult 😦

Lots of cute little babehs though!

Lots of cute little babehs though!

Corals come in all shapes and sizes, like this cool blue Xenia sp.

Corals come in all shapes and sizes, like this cool blue Sansibia sp.

Fishies!

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Some kind of goby? I’m terrible with fishies (leave a comment if you know!)

 

Crusties!

Anemone shrimps can be super hard to spot, only their movement gives them away.

Anemone shrimps can be super hard to spot, only their movement gives them away.

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When looking through my photos the thumbnails make it look like I’ve accidentally been shooting random rocks

Oh look more of those spiders

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Whee

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Yay

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Hairy crab (Pilumnus sp.)! AKA the teddy bear crab. When submerged, the hairs get suspended and break the shape of the crab, assisting camouflage.

Apart from the stuff above, we also saw a ton of cool beasts including a small black-tipped reef shark, two giant reef worms, a spotted fantail ray and a free swimming octopus. Unfortunately no photos of any of those, cos I was focusing on reef spiders and saw those by chance heh.

So I didn’t manage to get photos of as much wildlife as I would’ve liked (time spent stalking spiders), but thankfully I wasn’t the only one on the trip! Check out some of these other blogposts and pages about Jong (also, just go google!)

Many thanks to Ria Tan who brought me along on this trip!
Her blogpost can be viewed here http://wildshores.blogspot.sg/2014/07/checking-up-on-pulau-jong.html#.U8x15o2Sw4Q

The awesome guys from Travelledpaths bravely brought along their trusty drone, capturing some stunning images of the place
http://www.travelledpaths.com/exploring-the-wildshores-of-singapore-pulau-jong/

Jerome also has beautiful photos of Jong
http://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/boarding-the-junk-at-sunrise/

More information about Jong and factsheets about marine life in Singapore can be found at Wildsingapore! Do explore 😀
http://www.wildsingapore.com/wildfacts/places/jong.htm

People love nature, they just don’t know we have it.

So at last year’s Festival of Biodiversity, I was directed to this 7-year old Yi Han who happened to be this crazy love for arachnids. A while into my conversation with him he pulled out his book on arachnids and was dropping cheem words like amblypygi, pedipalps and chelicera – that conversation went on for more than ten minutes till we had to reluctantly part. Before he left with his family, I told his mom how to reach me on FB and she messaged me later thanking me and the rest of the festival for making her boy’s day. 

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This year, I contacted his mom, and invited them down for the Festival of Biodiversity 2014. After some ambiguity, they did eventually attend FoB – except Yi Han was not as a visitor this time but a guide, sitting with me behind the specimens to share his love and knowledge of arachnids with other kids and visitors. He even brought specimens that he amassed through his loyal subscription to the BUGS magazine series, including a centipede and a whip scorpion which were both missing from our collection. While we were engaging members of the public, our mothers somehow managed to end up talking to each other and agreed on how they had both given up on trying to get their sons to pursue a more ‘normal’ passion.

Conclusion is – every festival, we reach out to thousands of people. Most will just glance over and leave unchanged, some may take home a few key messages. But sometimes (with a very low chance), I meet someone special like Tan Yi Han who goes home with a passion ignited and returns for more. And while every interaction is meaningful and worthwhile, this kid makes me feel SUPER DUPER grateful I chose to come share 

Remember his name – he’s bound for Arachnology superstardom.