I woke up at 3:30am to see dugongs in S'pore waters. I didn't, but it was still great.

Feels like you're not in Singapore.

Ilyda Chua | September 16, 2023, 08:29 AM

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The picture that veteran naturalist Ria Tan paints is of an endless stretch of sand, rich with rare fauna and pitted with lagoons.

At sunrise, otters frolic along the gleaming shoreline, thick with colourful sea-snails and shimmering anemones.

And during low tide, the waters recede to reveal patches of seagrass. Their lushness is interrupted only by shallow, meandering grooves: feeding trails, left by dugongs chomping on the vegetation.

Photo from Marcus Ng/Facebook

This is the Lost Coast, a vast sandy shore in Changi East. Once a dead piece of reclaimed land, it has since regenerated — but its quiet magic aside, the coast doesn't have much going for it.

Remote, inaccessible, and strictly off-limits without a permit, its only inhabitants are the marine wildlife that revel in the untouched sand.

Still, it's full of life. This life will likely be wiped out once the planned reclamation — for purposes yet unknown — begins. It was planned for Q3 2022, but works appear to have been delayed.

The Lost Coast isn't unique in this. With rising sea levels and climate change, all of Singapore's shores will one day be reclaimed in the name of coastal protection.

But it doesn't mean the marine life has to disappear too.

When nature perseveres

Along the shores of East Coast Park, a coral garden rises from the ground. Behind it, a patch of branching coral, its delicate limbs outstretched.

Photo from kelvin_yong/Instagram

This shore was reclaimed in the 60s to 80s, and has been slowly regenerating over the past decades.

As Tan explains it, it isn't unique. "Usually the artificial shores are much nicer," quips the nature blogger, who posts about her trips to the shore on her WildSingapore page.

Part of it is sheer perseverance. In East Coast Park, for example, there is a 2.5km stretch of seawall, built in the 70s to keep the waves from washing away the reclaimed shoreline.

But it inadvertently created a perfect place for corals to grow. Today, the seawall is lush with corals and coastal vegetation. A natural lagoon has formed behind it, where seagrasses grow in abundance.

"All natural. Nobody plants, nobody pays money to do this," Tan says.

Photo from Loh Kok Sheng

On another occasion, Tan went to visit a site after an oil spill. "The oil literally covered the shores and the corals," she recalls.

"And within a year, [the corals] were back."

All of this gives Tan hope. When she first saw the plans for reclamation, she was shocked at its scale. "I almost wanted to give up," she admits.

"But then I thought, well, a lot of our artificial shores actually have nice marine life. And some of them have even nicer marine life than on the regular shores."

"So this is how aggressive marine life is," she explains. "They will grow even if you don’t want them to grow."

"So if we build a seawall in such a way that marine life can come back...it will."

"Gangster" marine life

As Tan talks, she casually mentions that next year, there'll be a mass coral bleaching.

I balk, and she notices. "Oh, it's normal," she tells me. "Because of El Nino."

Every five to six years, El Nino — a natural phenomenon associated with hot and dry weather — descends upon Singapore.

The heat stress causes corals to expel their algae and turn bone-white in the process. Kind of unfortunate, considering the algae is what provides them with food.

Bleached corals in Kusu Island, 2016. Photo from Ria Tan

As such, during this period, the corals are left weak and vulnerable to disease and starvation.

But they don't die outright. Once temperatures return to normal, the surviving corals will let the algae back in. "And mostly, our corals are tough, because our conditions are poor," Tan says.

"You're the first person I've ever heard say corals are tough," I comment.

"Our corals are like gangster one lah," she replies. "They can put up with shit. I’ve seen mass coral bleaching three times already.”

So if our native marine life is resilient enough to thrive even unprompted, what if we actually try to make them grow?

Tan now paints a second picture: naturalised canals leading to the sea, floodplains where otters flock and fish dart. Seawalls threaded with mangroves and studded with coral. Spaces, in nature, for people to live, play, fish, kayak.

There is more to this than just pretty plants and cute animals. There's also real opportunity, Tan explains.

An uncanalised river at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park.

Working with nature

"'Working with nature' — that's the new phrase," she tells me. "We're not the only country in the world facing rising seas. There is Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, even Japan. They all have huge coastlines, they're all going to be inundated."

"But," she continues, "if we can show them that we have the engineering and capabilities... if we can learn how to deal with our environmental limits... I tell you, Singapore can make money with the solutions we [develop]. And I trust that we are smart enough, and efficient enough, to figure it out."

She cites examples: the Tuas incineration plant, our ports, NEWater.

"We're the first country to drink our own piss and do it happily," she quips. "We figured it out."

It's evident that Tan believes, even in hyper-urban Singapore, that there is room — and, indeed, a market — for nature.

"This is the way forward," she says. "You're already beating the crap out of Mother Nature, you cannot beat her anymore. You have to work with her."

"And that's the only way we can do it lah. [That's why] I feel positive, despite the plans for reclamation."

Treading on nature

A third picture now. This one, a large, remote shore, with the sky all around you — "like a bowl", in Tan's words. A sense of vastness that makes you feel insignificantly tiny. Impossible to imagine in Singapore, incredible in its isolation; the Lost Coast today.

And yet, if she had her way, the shore would be different. Filled with people, like a public park or a mall.

That's how Tan goes about her conservation work — by calling for the members of the public to visit the coasts. She posts photos, writes how-tos for visitors hoping to make the trip down, shares event invites for intertidal walks and guided tours.

It's honestly kind of strange, considering how notoriously gatekeep-y the nature community tends to be, for fear of unwanted visitors.

"Aren't you worried?" I ask. That the more you publicise these places, the more people will discover them and disrupt their unspoilt beauty? That they'll trample on the coral reefs and pollute the shore with their trash?

The simple answer: No.

"They must love it first before they miss it," she says. It's only when people realise that they'll miss a place after it's gone, that it's deemed worth keeping around in the first place. Chek Jawa — one of the nature community's biggest successes — was initially slated for reclamation, but was allowed to remain after a hard-fought campaign by advocates.

Besides, Tan reiterates, nature will recover. Animals come back. Plants regrow.

"I rather the shore gets trampled to death," she tells me. Oil spills, coral bleaching, all of these won't do any permanent damage. Life goes on in more ways than one.

"But what it will not recover from is being buried under five metres of sand."

Chek Jawa. Photo from Loh Kok Sheng/Facebook.

Visiting the shores

Tan invites me down for a pre-dawn intertidal survey at East Coast Park. I've never been more thrilled about a 4am work assignment.

This last picture, I paint for myself. I see the moon hang oversized in the pre-dawn sky. I spot the tiny crabs, the cowries, the bone-white moon snails.

As I walk down the coast, I find endless signs of life. A fire anemone, gleaming and vicious in its sting (hence the name). Clownfish darting in the seagrass and glasslike windowpane clams. Starfish and sand dollars, half-obscured by the sand — treasures waiting to be found.

Photo from kelvin_yong/Instagram

At sunrise, I see the world transform twice: first into a blue-cast dreamscape, the second into a fiery dawn. In the very, very far distance, the rising sun lights the city pink and orange.

By the time I reach the sandbar and feel the rising water at my ankles, I hear Tan's invitation loud and clear.

Come and see, she says. Come and drink in the sunlit shores and abundant fauna. Admire the vibrant corals and discover the bizarrely beautiful sea anemone. Watch the otters swim and feel that thrill, that silence, that swell in your chest.

Come and fall in love with the shores. And once you're in love with them — once you feel that grief of prospective loss — let them break your heart. Do something about that loss, Tan says. Do not sit back and mourn, but stand up and go forth and adapt, just like nature does. Recover. Heal. Hold on.

And most of all, do not let go.

Top photo by Marcus Tan/Facebook