Toh Tai Chong once spotted a puffer fish sleeping in a two-litre plastic container on one of his clean-up dives. It might have been an endearing sight but for one fact: the plastic container had no business being at the bottom of the sea.
“It was a moment of paradox. On one hand, the fish looked so adorable where it was. On the other, I wished it was resting in its natural habitat and not in our debris,” recounted the marine biologist.
The master diver set up Our Singapore Reefs in June 2017 with a friend, Sam Shu Qin, to pool their resources to clean up polluted reefs, as well as communicate the science of environmentalism to the public. Since then, they’ve collected a whopping 700kg of rubbish from our waters.
What have been the most horrific things you’ve seen while cleaning up the Singapore waters?
I’ve seen some unusually large items such as a washing machine and even a tractor tyre. To this day, I still have no idea how they ended up in our oceans. It’s crazy.
What first got you interested in doing these clean-up dives?
I started diving in Singapore in 2010 as part of my work as a marine biologist. Since then, I have had the privilege to access different corals reefs in Singapore that most recreational divers may not even know about. During our dives, my colleagues and I have noticed the trash in the water. We’ve seen fishing lines entangled in the corals and had to cut through the tissue to free up them up. We’ve also seen discarded or lost anchors that have crushed and killed otherwise thriving mature coral columns.
Sights like these are extremely sad for anyone who has spent years rehabilitating Singapore’s reefs. It takes so much time to nurse the reefs back to health, but debris can injure and kill them in an instant. We couldn’t help but start removing the trash, but we soon realised that our efforts were too limited. We cannot do this on our own.
So my friend Sam and I started Our Singapore Reefs (OSR). Since our first clean-up in June 2017, we’ve managed to grow our team and have organised over seven clean-ups supported by over 120 volunteers. Together, we’ve collected 3,400 items totalling about 700 kilograms.
How much does one clean-up expedition in the Singapore waters cost for OSR?
The rental of the vessel costs about $2,500 on its own per expedition. Equipment rental brings that up to $3,000. We don’t get any form of stable funding so much of the expenses come directly out of our own pockets. We are lucky to have worked with different organisations that share our vision and have supported some of our clean-up expeditions.
I hope that in time to come, we can find some form of long-term sponsorship so we can focus on engaging a wider community and developing more innovative programmes.
Would you say the situation is improving?
Definitely. We cleaned up one site around Lazarus Island in October 2017, collecting more than 430 items. When we revisited the site three months later, we had expected to find the same amount of trash but we were pleasantly surprised to find that there was less than half the amount we had previously hauled in.
I am certain we can achieve more as a conscious community, thus I want to reach out to non-divers to encourage adjustments to our lifestyle. Marine pollution is everyone’s problem.
What do you wish the public knew about Singapore waters and its aquatic denizens?
Singapore’s marine life is resilient. In the last eight years, I’ve witnessed two major coral bleaching events on our reefs. While some of the corals died, a significant number managed to survive. I thought this was a perfect lesson taught by the natural world. If we don’t give up hope, we can surmount all challenges in life.
I really wish for a day that clean-up efforts like ours would no longer be necessary. Until then, we will continue to battle marine trash.