Article & photos by Chew Ming Yee
A magical first-hand experience of a seagrass meadow.
The outing to a seagrass meadow between Malaysia and Singapore was so welcomed by members that it was quickly fully booked. Yoke Mui and I only managed to join because two members pulled out at the very last minute. We all received, in PDF format, the “SOS Volunteers Handbook” written by Mr. Choo, seahorse rights activist, just before the trip. As I browsed through the brief yet informative pages, I was surprised by the seagrass diversity recorded. That kick-started my curiosity and soon, emails were flying between Hui Min, our dear organiser, Mr. Choo, and myself, an ignorant member.
If you do not already know, seagrass is a flowering plant. No, you won’t see big red flowers if you go snorkelling in a seagrass meadow; seagrass is not trying to attract any fish to pollinate its flowers. Instead, the tide does the job for it.
What about fruit dispersal, you may ask. Would any fish or squid gobble up the seeds then excrete them somewhere else? Please take a look at the prickly fruit of the most common seagrass here − Enhalus acoroides.
It won’t be getting any help from any passing pelagic fishes for long distance delivery to a new underwater lawn somewhere else in the world. I read that when the seagrass’ capsule finally releases the seeds, the seeds will just float around and let chance decide where they are going to settle for a new life. Generally, no seagrass species can colonise new turf like ‘lalang’.
When I came to know that this patch of meadow is under threat from intensive coastal development, I felt pretty blue.
“You must see it before it is gone.” That’s what was told to me by a friend, who had visited the place and did a cover story for a local Chinese environmental magazine. But that didn’t prepare me for the sheer beauty of this unique habitat.
We had the most uncooperative weather. It rained on our marine biologist, Zimi’s, Kancil almost all the way. When the tide was finally low enough for us to survey the area without having to worry about drowning, the sun had already begun to set. Although the rain had stopped, the water had been churned into a rather milky ‘horlicks tarik’. Anyway, upon arrival, everyone stepped out of the boat enthusiastically and listened to the briefing conducted by the SOS programme coordinator.
We were taught how to scan for seahorses that were hiding near the base of seagrass plants, how to lift them up gently, how to place them in the plastic bag filled with seawater and how to plunge the pipe where the bag is attached into the seabed at exactly where each seahorse is found. Yes, he meant that literally. Seahorses are a very homely fish. It is unethical if we forced them to move house carelessly. I read that it affects their territorial behaviour and therefore their livelihood.
Standing in ankle- to knee-deep water, we saw Malaysia on our right, Singapore to our left and the Second Link Causeway behind us. A 2km long seagrass bed stretched beneath our dive booties in the Straits of Tebrau. And the sky above slowly lost its warm colours and faded into night. A million lights shone from the shores of both countries.
No seahorse for the day, the SOS team apologised. We rode home in the cool night air with heavy hearts. Not because we didn’t see the cute yellow seahorse called Hippocampus kuda. But rather, it was because none of us knew if the next generation of Malaysians would be able to walk on the seagrass meadow as we did, looking for the seahorse in its natural home, rather than in the traditional medicine shop or an aquarium.