See S'pore's latest nature parks - under the sea

For the first time, nature appreciation in Singapore is plumbing new depths.

Two dive trails at Sisters' Islands Marine Park, complete with 20 underwater signboards that provide information on marine biodiversity, are being piloted by the National Parks Board (NParks) in September.

Navigating the dive trails will bring scuba divers up close with Singapore's underwater gems, such as feather stars that sway in the currents, or shy butterfly fish that zoom away when approached.

The trails, part of a broader Marine Conservation Action Plan, were announced by Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee at the Festival of Biodiversity yesterday.

The plan is the latest blueprint, and Singapore's first official one, that lays out efforts to protect and enhance the country's marine heritage and biodiversity.

It follows the Singapore Blue Plan 2009, a masterplan for the marine environment proposed by academics and civil society groups. Although some recommendations have been adopted - such as a recently completed comprehensive marine biodiversity survey - a cohesive marine conservation plan has never been clearly spelt out, until now.

The latest effort will also include species recovery efforts to increase the populations of critically endangered native species such as giant clams and the Neptune's Cup Sponge - thought to be globally extinct since the early 1900s until it was re-discovered off St John's Island in 2011.

The dive trails were developed to "encourage a deeper appreciation for Singapore's marine biodiversity", NParks said.

The two circular trails are at different depths, to allow divers to enjoy different types of marine life.

The Shallow Dive Trail circles around coral reef and sandy habitats 4m to 6m underwater, while the Deep Dive Trail will guide them through coral rubble and rocky and silty habitats 10m to 16m deep.

Divers will also be encouraged to participate in NParks' Citizen Science programme that the Board is trying out at the trails. Each diver will be loaned a dive trail guide, which is waterproof and can be used with the activity station signboards along the trail.

They can note down their observations at each station, by counting the number of fish between two markers, for example, filling in water visibility estimates, or simply jotting down general observations.

Dr Karenne Tun, deputy director of the coastal and marine division of the NParks National Biodiversity Centre, said the data collected will be freely accessible on the marine park's website and updated regularly.

"Citizen science can supplement other scientific surveys and help us collect a variety of long-term data, such as patterns in underwater visibility, for example," she added.

Dr Huang Danwei, a marine biologist from the National University of Singapore's (NUS) biological sciences department, said that while researchers have received plenty of help from volunteers who report marine life sightings, the challenge was in standardising the data.

"This programme could see scientists, NParks and recreational divers working together to enhance marine science research in Singapore," he said.

Only dive operators approved by NParks can conduct the dives, and they must adhere to a code of conduct.

For example, they must ensure that their divers do not take, intentionally disturb or touch marine life, and that they practise good buoyancy control - an important skill so as to avoid kicking, damaging and potentially killing marine life.

For now, NParks said the plan is to limit the dive trail to a maximum of 20 divers, or two standard boat-loads, at any one time to ensure minimal damage and avoid overcrowding. But it is also doing a feasibility study to firm up the numbers.

Ms Debby Ng, founder of marine conservation group Hantu Bloggers, applauded NParks' safeguards, saying that such guidelines could be a role model for industry practices.

"I think the dive trails are a great idea, it is a good way to educate scuba divers on Singapore's marine biodiversity, especially since many of them were certified after diving abroad."

This article was first published on June 28, 2015.
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