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Head to the Southern Islands for hidden charm

Singapore's Southern Islands, a group of more than 10 small islands, is home to a vast array of marine life that is largely unseen by the public. Michelle Ng and Lim Yaohui find out what visitors can see and do there

Michelle Ng on 23 Jun 2019

The Straits Times


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A half-hour boat ride away from Marina South Pier lies a cluster of more than 10 small islands, known collectively as the Southern Islands.


The biggest among them is Sentosa, a major attraction which draws 19 million visitors a year.


But over at the lesser-known, smaller islands, unspoilt nature and wildlife have been attracting more day trippers - both locals and tourists - over the years.


On weekends, private party yachts - both owned and rented - anchor near Lazarus Island's 700m beach, one of Singapore's last pristine ones, while parents take their young children on educational trips to Kusu Island's Tortoise Sanctuary.


Located farther left on the map, the Raffles Lighthouse on Pulau Satumu would be on every photographer's must-shoot list. Alas, it is off limits to the public, except during a guided tour by the Maritime and Port Authority that takes place just once a year.


The Singapore Land Authority estimates that, based on visitor figures from January to April this year, 4,000 people go to Kusu Island and 7,500 people go to St John's Island each month - making them the two most visited islands after Sentosa.


To mark Singapore's bicentennial, Sentosa Development Corporation is organising free guided tours for the public on June 29, Aug 9 and 10 and Sept 7. Each tour can take up to 80 participants.


The programme includes a brief walking tour of Sentosa, followed by a ferry ride from One Degree 15 Marina Sentosa Cove to Kusu, St John's and Lazarus islands.


Registration for the June 29 tour will open from 10am tomorrow at bit.ly/2IWe5uS.


Some islands, however, are not open to the public.


Underneath the calm, idyllic surface of these islands lies a treasure trove of marine life that is largely unseen by the public.


But one person who has seen it all is marine enthusiast Ria Tan.


For the past 20 years, the 58-year-old has been going out to the islands during low tide to survey the shores and monitor the reefs and wildlife.


"People often say the waters around Singapore aren't clear, but that's not true. Clear water is typical of oceanic islands, but Singapore is not near the ocean, so it's normal for the waters to be slightly cloudy with sediment, but that doesn't mean it's dirty or polluted," says the retired civil servant, who documents her findings on her wildlife website WildSingapore.


"We may not have colourful branching corals like those found in the Great Barrier Reef, but the Southern Islands typically have hard coral reefs that are shaped like boulders and are often mistaken for rocks or dead corals, but they are actually alive," she adds.


There is also plenty of surprising marine life to be found in Singapore's waters.


For example, Ms Tan says there are dugongs, also known as sea cows, in the waters, based on observations of their feeding trails, although she has never spotted one.


Blacktip reef sharks are common too, along with stingrays, turtles and giant clams.


Dr Karenne Tun, director of the coastal and marine division at National Parks Board's (NParks) National Biodiversity Centre, says the presence of top predators such as sharks in Singapore's waters is a good indicator of a healthy reef.


Earlier this year, a marine survey done by NParks shows that there are more than 100 species of marine life in the Sisters' Islands Marine Park, a designated protected area of around 40ha that touches the western reef of St John's Island and Pulau Tekukor.


These species include the sea slug (Phestilla nudibranch), which was a new discovery for Singapore last year, and a very small snail less than 1cm long, the Cystiscus minutissimus.


"People don't realise we've got vast biodiversity in our waters, but our rich history goes back to our early fishing days," Dr Tun says.


"Singapore started with small fishing villages and the waters surrounding our island is what sustained the communities and provided food security.


"Although the villages are now gone, we can still go to the islands and imagine what it was like living there back in the day."





It once was home to cholera-infected immigrants and then opium addicts.


But today, St John's Island is a day-trip paradise for those looking for a rustic island getaway. It is connected to Lazarus Island by a man-made causeway.


For those looking to stay the night, there is a holiday bungalow, which can accommodate up to 10 people. Prices are $21.40 a day on weekdays and $42.80 a day on weekends.


There are three campsites that can accommodate 50 to 132 people. Prices start at $74.90 a day on weekdays.


A public gallery, which opens daily from 10am to 4pm, provides an overview of the Sisters' Islands Marine Park with a 3D dive experience, viewing pool and displays showcasing Singapore's efforts in preserving marine biodiversity.


It is housed in the Marine Park Outreach and Education Centre together with the St John's Island National Marine Laboratory, Singapore's only offshore marine research facility.  




Once a year, on the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the spotlight turns to Kusu Island (kusu means tortoise or turtle in Hokkien).


The 8.5ha reclaimed island is famed for its annual pilgrimage season, when thousands of devotees travel there to pay respects at the Tua Pek Kong Temple, which is the island’s most famous landmark, and the three Malay shrines on the top of a small hill with 152 steps.


This year, the pilgrimage season is from Sept 29 to Oct 27.


After hopping off the ferry, visitors are greeted by the temple’s green pagoda roofs and can pose for photos with stone turtle statues and a turtle pond on the temple grounds, in a nod to the island’s name.


• Getting to St John’s and Kusu islands: From Marina South Pier, board a scheduled ferry – $18 and $15 an adult on weekdays and weekends respectively and $12 a child – for a round trip to the islands. Book at www.islandcruise.com.sg




The Lazarus Island, which spans 47ha, has one of Singapore’s last unspoilt beaches and a C-shaped lagoon with calm waters. It attracts a number of private yachts that dock around the area.


The island was originally known as Pulau Sakijang Pelepah, or Island Of One Barking Deer And Palms. It is unclear when and why it was renamed Lazarus Island.


Those who seek an even more remote experience can trek further up north from Lazarus to Seringat- Kias Island, a small reclaimed island that was once intended to be developed into a resort.


• There is no ferry service to Lazarus Island. Those who want to go to the island would have to take the ferry to St John’s Island and then walk 15 to 20 minutes across a causeway.




Made up of two islands, Sisters’ Islands used to be called Pulau Subar Darat (Little Sister’s Island) and Pulau Subar Laut (Big Sister’s Island).


Legend has it that the two isles were formed from two sisters who drowned in that spot.


The surrounding waters, spanning around 40ha, have been designated as a marine park since July 2014.


The park is home to Singapore’s largest artificial reef which, at 500 sq m, is slightly bigger than a basketball court. The protected area is also a no-fishing zone.


There is a turtle hatchery on the island where turtle hatchlings can incubate, hatch and make it to sea safely.


• To get to the island, charter your own boat or join one of National Parks Board’s intertidal guided walks. Book a slot at https://tinyurl.com/y3dlswl3





A little-known fact about the biggest and most bustling of the Southern Islands is that Sentosa is where you can reach the southernmost point of Asia.


It is the little islet – located just off Palawan Beach and connected via a swinging suspension bridge – that has been photographed endlessly.


To get a better view of the surroundings, climb up one of the two towers.


• Get to Sentosa by taking the monorail from HarbourFront MRT station. It is also accessible by car, cable car, public buses and walking.





Pulau Jong is touted as one of the last untouched islands of Singapore. Jong means junk in Malay and the island is likely named for its resemblance to a Chinese junk ship during low tide.


Much of this island is submerged underwater at high tide and only the cliffs covered in lush greenery can be seen.


The rocky shores and reefs surrounding the island, which support a rich marine biodiversity, are visible only at low tide.


Blue-spotted fantail rays (Taeniura lymma), blacktip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus) and a rare species of giant clams (Tridacna maxima) have been spotted here.




A small, thin island located just south of Sentosa, Pulau Tekukor’s name is believed to be derived from tekukur, the Malay word for spotted dove.


The island used to be an ammunition dump, which was closed in the 1980s.


Marine enthusiast Ria Tan, who has on occasion obtained permission to conduct intertidal surveys there, notes that colonial anemones in a variety of colours and patterns are in abundance.




Most may dismiss Pulau Semakau as just an offshore landfill where solid waste and incineration ash are dumped, but the island may well surprise many.


Created by enclosing 350ha of sea space between two islands, Semakau is lined with an impermeable barrier to ensure no toxins leak into the surrounding waters.


Original mangroves as well as man-made planted ones thrive on the island – these work as biological indicators to give early warning of any leakage.


Today, the surrounding waters teem with marine life such as sea anemones and barracudas, and the mangroves are popular visiting spots for endangered birds such as the great-billed heron.


Additionally, the island is fitted with 9,500 sq m of solar panels and a wind turbine which produce enough clean energy to power up to 350 four-room Housing Board flats for a year.


But time is running out as Semakau is estimated to reach its full capacity by around 2035.




A small islet with a land area of 0.4ha, Pulau Biola is largely untouched by developments and its rich marine life is said to make a good dive spot, albeit with strong currents.


Its name Biola has Portuguese origins and means violin, likely referring to the shape of the island as seen from a bird’s-eye view.


Contrary to its size and seeming insignificance, it is believed that it was an important navigational landmark in the past, as it was marked in a 1775 navigation map by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, a French royal cartographer.




Formerly known as Coney Island – with no relation to the existing one located north of Punggol – the most eye-catching landmark on this “one-tree island”, as its Malay name suggests, is the Raffles Lighthouse.


The lighthouse was built by Mr John Bennett, a civil and mechanical engineer who also designed St Andrew’s Cathedral. It began operation in 1855.


It is still in operation today, but is now powered by solar energy. There are 88 spiralling steps leading to the glass-panelled dome about six storeys high.


Only the lighthouse keepers are allowed access. It is open to the public once a year for a guided tour organised by the Maritime and Port Authority.


• Special permission was given to The Sunday Times to visit these islands.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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