Sisters’ Island Marine Park – A Rich Marine Trove South Of Urban Singapore

Singapore is a highly urbanised city-state with no natural resources. Yes, that was what we had been taught since young in school. However, while this tiny island-country in Southeast Asia near the equator is mostly a concrete jungle, her waters are home to over 250 species of hard corals & 100 species of reef fish, about 200 species of sponges as well as 12 seagrass species. In fact, Singapore may occupy less than 1% of the world’s surface, but 32% of the world’s hard corals can be found in our territory!

Therefore, that was how Singapore’s first marine park – Sisters’ Island Marine Park came about in July 2014. Spanning about 40 hectares to the south of the mainland, the location around Sisters’ Islands, along the western reefs of St John’s Island & Pulau Tekukor was chosen because of the variety of habitats including coral reefs, sandy shores & seagrass meadows. There are no regular ferries to the island, so you can only get there if you charter a boat or join the free National Parks’ guided tour held about twice a month, during low tides of 0.4 metres or less. I had been wanting to join the free guided tour to explore the amazing marine life since then, but the tour timings usually clashed with my schedule, or I didn’t succeed in getting a seat for myself. 😦

Finally, on 14 November 2016, I was able to join this long-awaited intertidal guided walk! I managed to be one of the 45 lucky ones to register successfully for the tour about 1.5 months before the official day. As if I hadn’t waited long enough to get on the guided tour, it had to rain cats & dogs throughout the fateful day… 😦 I kept my fingers crossed so hard that the event wouldn’t be cancelled last minute due to inclement weather! Thankfully, as there was no danger of thunderstorm forecast (although it continued to drizzle), we could proceed as planned. Phew! Glad that I am able to share more insights about this small but astounding marine park that Singapore owns!

To go to Big Sister’s Island (Pulau Subar Laut), we took the 30-minute boat ride from Marina South Pier. As its name implies, this is the bigger island of Sisters’ Island, about 39,000 m2 (9.6 acres) in area. Just across from its jetty, separated by a narrow but deep channel, is Little Sister’s Island (Pulau Subar Darat), which is only about 17,000 m2 (4.2 acres) in area. Little Sister’s Island is dedicated to marine conservation research & hence not open to the public.

Big Sister’s Island (floating) jetty

After a short briefing on what to expect, as well as the dos & don’ts on the island, we were divided into 4 groups to start our insightful tour. My guides were Collin, a NParks employee, & a female volunteer guide (oops, forgot her name). We gathered around the point we disembarked & examined the waters beneath the jetty. There were many beautiful small fishes & living reef in the emerald green water! I could feel myself “bouncing” as we stood there listening to Collin share valuable information. Soon, I realised this was because the platform will respond & adjust automatically to tidal changes, so that boats will be able to dock here smoothly. No wonder I felt myself “floating” around! 😛 As it was low tide, we were able to also observe the otherwise submerged marine life sticking onto the legs of the pontoon.

beneath-jetty

After that, it was time to head to the lagoon to check out the treasure trove quickly before the high tides return. Along the short walk to the lagoon, there were many tall shady trees which provided protection against the strong winds on the island. We were also introduced to the Sea Poison Tree (Putat Laut), a tree with large waxy leaves. While its flowers are beautiful like a pinkish pom-pom, the fruit is poisonous, so don’t try to touch/ bring it back (see image below of the green fruit). Wild monkeys can also be found on the island. Be careful & not get into any contact with them.

island-life

From left in clockwise direction: giant Sargassum seaweed, Collin showing us the seaweed with little organisms hidden in them, & seaweed in the water

Above image shows a giant Sargassum seaweed that I almost had problem taking a full picture of. 😛 The Sargassum seaweed is commonly found in the southern islands & we really saw a lot of them in the water. Our guide, Collin also held up 1 with little organisms hidden in them to show us.

See the little hole with pebbles around? That's a burrow dug by fish & shrimps

See the little burrow with pebbles surrounding it? That’s the place shrimps & tiny fish call home. We saw some burrows that were “decorated” elaborately with pebbles all around, wonder how deep the homes can be. 😉

Spot the small hairy crab in the pail

Spot the only small hairy crab in the pail, well camouflaged because of its colour 😛

These were really flat! I like their unique colours & patterns, too bad my photography skills didn't do justice...

These were really flat! I like their unique colours & patterns, too bad my photography skills didn’t do justice…

coralsAs we ventured further away from the shore, we found a cluster of varied hard corals, with some looking like mushrooms. There was also the giant living clam!

Also spotted several types of sea cucumbers, with the black long sea cucumber the most striking

Also spotted several types of sea cucumbers, with the black long sea cucumber the most recognizable

Haddon's carpet anemone - these green oral disks swallow various animals like fish & crabs

Haddon’s carpet anemone – these harmless looking green oral disks swallow various animals like fish & crabs :O

Do you see "Nemo"? This clownfish was the highlight of the trip for many little participants :)

Do you see “Nemo”? This clownfish was the highlight of the trip for many little participants 🙂

The Moon Snail has a crystal-like pretty exterior, but it actually preys on other snails & clams. Look out for their trails in the sand

The Moon Snail has a crystal-like pretty exterior, but it actually preys on other snails & clams. Look out for their trails in the sand

They may be a common sight even on mainland, but still a lovely sight to look at :)

They may be a common sight even on mainland, but still a lovely sight to look at 🙂

I know you will likely call the above as Star Fish (because that’s what I thought they were too haha), but NO! They aren’t fish, these animals are known as the Common Sea Stars. They are very fragile & will drop off an arm when frightened. So we were advised not to touch or pick them up just for the “triumphant” photo-taking,

Good times always fly, & this applies to the time we spent exploring the rich marine life too. While we were still excitedly trying to discover more amazing marine species, the tides started gushing in. Indeed, time & tide waits for no man. The water level was fast rising, so we had to move back to the shore.

land-hermit-crabThankfully, there was still other interesting nature to discover. Collin found the little Land Hermit Crab on the sandy shore. Unlike the crab we all know that lives in water, Land Hermit Crab will drown if kept under water. Every empty shell on the shore is a potential home for them, & they will crawl out of the shells when they detect it’s safe outside.

The sun was also setting as we prepare to board the boat back to mainland Singapore. Before I end this post with a photo of the rising tides on Big Sister’s Island, here are some tips should you be keen on visiting the interesting marine park.

1. You may check out the dates of free guided walks organised by National Parks Board via this website: https://www.nparks.gov.sg/gardens-parks-and-nature/parks-and-nature-reserves/sisters-islands-marine-park/intertidal-guided-walk. Make sure you send in your email at the stipulated time on the dot, because it’s a hugely popular tour!

2. It is highly likely you will be soaked, at least up to calf area for me. In fact we were warned that water may get as high up to the knee level (depending on your height of course). So it’ll be better if you wear bermudas or 3/4 pants, not full-length jeans or pants. Unless you don’t mind getting your bottoms wet too haha.

3. Since you won’t know what you will be stepping on in the water, it’s important you wear covered shoes on this tour. Commonly found in the waters of the southern islands, the stonefish looking really like stones/rocks, can sting badly. Moreover, you never know when you may step on some glass bits (litter) that may hurt you too. If you can, prepare another set of footwear to change into after the tour, for comfort.

4. Bring raincoat instead of umbrella, for rainy weather like what I experienced. It’s easier to take photos when your hands are free!

5. There is no potable water on the island, just a tap for washing your dirty footwear. So do bring your own drinks as you will be there for about 2 hours.

Hope my post has aroused your interest to visit Sister’s Island Marine Park soon! 🙂

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This article was first published on 26 November 2016.