Last March, I found myself trekking through West Coast Park late on a Saturday afternoon, armed with nothing but a cap, plastic gloves and a water bottle. Gradually, the sandlots and jungle gyms began to disappear, followed even by the tough green grass underfoot. Eventually I found myself standing on a bare concrete path overlooking an expanse of jagged rocks tumbling down into a placid stretch of pale blue sea. Up to that point, I hadn’t known that there were stretches of the Singaporean coast still untouched by the island’s trademark flurry of maritime commerce.
Somewhere off to the distance, there still loomed the hulks of tankers and cruise vessels. But closer to the shore, separated by a patch of ocean, bobbed the sleepy outlines of various small fishing vessels. Many of them lay quietly under large drapes of green tarp, as if napping from a day’s catch. For a moment my mind travelled back to memories of history books on early fishermen who used to roam ancient Temasek’s coasts, surprised to find their echoes in these fishing vessels even today.
A woman approached, and I was reminded of what I had come here to do: help the Singapore Nature Society in its island-wide census of horseshoe crabs. Volunteers spread out across the island were combing various marshy areas at the moment for specimens to be measured and released for documentation of the local population. An English couple were already crouched over a small crevasse near where the rocks met the path, their young son traipsing boldly across their jagged edges. I was assigned to search the stretch of coast much further down the path, where I would have to go into the water.
I slowly lowered myself over the edge of the path and onto the rocks. Making my way down to the shore by picking my way from rock to rock had already started to seem difficult, but the closer I came to the ocean, the harder it was to gain a grip on the rocks’ mossy hides. After what felt like hours of balancing on safe perches with other volunteers looking for smooth paths before progressing step by careful step, the rocks beneath our feet gave way to thick mudflats, and the ocean, now a pale grey, began to lap beckoningly at our ankles.
Now that we were close enough, I could see figures in and around the boats. A sinewy man stood in the water carrying what appeared to be a box of crabs, while others lay asleep in their boats in an unusually picture of simple idyll. Metal frames and bits of flotsam poked up from where the mud churned beneath the water’s surface, wreathed in rust and algae from years of Nature’s embrace. I was not so much searching for horseshoe crabs now as I was taking in a sense of the quiet, self-assured wildness I now felt.
There was another fisherman on the coast, walking much more sure-footedly than we were. His name was Manuel, and as I talked to him I learnt that he had been fishing all thirty-five years of his life, first at offshore islands and now here, as a form of “exercise” and “to relax”. He pointed out, with a down-to-earth geniality, the level the tide came up to when it would roll into the beach and described the different types of crabs – horseshoe, flower and mud crabs – to be found in the area.
A light rain began to fall, and we came back up on shore having found no crabs at all. Yet I was struck from my brief experience of having felt like I’d stepped into an older, more tranquil world. That concrete path seemed to be the only thing separating the last vestiges of an old fishing-village spirit from the seething bustle of contemporary modernity. And as I walked away and wondered about the affinity these fishermen had to their environment – and about how we, too, lived as island-dwellers in proximity to the ocean – that path also reminded me of the severing of our connection to the sea.