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Member Spotlight: Dr Toh Tai Chong & Sam Shu Qin

Member Spotlight: Dr Toh Tai Chong & Sam Shu Qin

Sep 1, 2022

Meeting marine biologists Dr Toh Tai Chong and Sam Shu Qin is an experience in itself—more so for an aspirational diver like me. But their work extends beyond a shared passion for what lies underneath. In 2017, the duo founded Our Singapore Reefs, which is dedicated to rehabilitating the marine biodiversity in Singapore waters, educating the people on conserving them, while expanding their horizons to the splendours of what lies beneath. This is besides having full time careers—Dr Tai Chong is a Senior Lecturer & Associate Director of Studies at College of Alice & Peter Tan, National University of Singapore (NUS) and Shu Qin, a research associate at its Tropical Marine Science Institute—and busy family lives. They have been collaborating with ONE°15 Marina Sentosa Cove on building its coral garden after having developed a novel way to restore and rehabilitate coral reefs ravaged by unsuitable conditions. A father of two girls, aged 7 and 10, Dr Tai Chong aims to inculcate environmental awareness in his children from young. Here, they share about their work, and the marine biodiversity under our waters.

How did you both meet?
Dr Toh Tai Chong (TTC): It was around 2007—we were working part-time at Underwater World Singapore in Sentosa. She was just getting into university, and I was graduating—so we met very
briefly and didn’t really keep in touch. It was not until 2015, when I got a job and we were on the look out for like-minded people, that I got back in touch with her. I reached out to her through her Facebook profile, and she subsequently joined the team.
Sam Shu Qin (SSQ): At that time, there was really not much opportunity to study marine science in Singapore—my parents, like most of them from that era would rather I became a doctor, or a lawyer. But I didn’t give up. I got a degree in science from School of Biological Sciences in Nanyang Technological University and just went out exploring different kinds of jobs that allowed me to work in the marine environment, with marine animals or related to aquaculture. That’s when I met Tai Chong—he was my mentor and taught me all that I know about this field. When he reconnected with me, I had just gotten my diving license, so the timing was just right.

How did Our Singapore Reefs come about?
TTC: As marine biologists, we see a lot of things in the water that shouldn’t be there, but when we are out in the field, so to speak, we are working, which leaves us little time to pick up trash—although the marine scientists in Singapore have been organising cleanups periodically, we soon realised that we needed a larger community to get involved in the process. Coincidentally, at that time, a lot of people were calling our laboratory asking whether they could volunteer with us. So in 2017, we formed Our Singapore Reefs. Our vision is to clean up Singapore’s sea so that everyone can enjoy it. We’re trying to make it more visual, raise awareness on the debris underwater—just because it is not visible on the surface does not mean that it is free of trash.
SSQ: We also wanted to tackle the misconception that Singaporeans have about the water here—that just because it’s so green, there’s no life there. We want to showcase the rich marine biodiversity, and at the same time, expose them to what else is there, such as the trash. When we transplant corals, we have to periodically go back and record their progress, and when we see them suffocated by plastic bags, caught in fishing lines, or crushed by fishing cages—it is very heartbreaking. We have seen chairs and mattresses as well—a washing machine was perhaps the last straw. Our Singapore Reefs was conceived as a platform to raise awareness on these threats to our marine ecosystem, inculcate positive behaviours among divers, which they can in turn pass on to their friends and families.

Tell us about Singapore’s marine biodiversity, especially corals.
TTC: Southeast Asia in general, is a hotspot for coral reefs, compared to other parts of the world. Singapore’s proximity to the coral triangle of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia drives a lot of coral population in our waters, and they in turn contribute to those worldwide. About 800 coral species have been recorded worldwide, and one-third of those are actually found in Singapore waters— historically, Singapore has about 250 species. It may sound surprising because the water is murky, but in fact, a nice little habitat exists naturally here.
SSQ: They are so resilient and diverse, despite all the land development, reclamations and climate change. It’s quite interesting. Government intervention has helped as well—Sisters’ Islands, designed as Singapore’s first marine park is protected by law. It’s an offence to fish, collect corals or moor boats within the area without the approval of National Parks Board. This creates a nice haven for them to thrive.

What were some of the challenges when you started Our Singapore Reefs?
TTC: Finding volunteers in Singapore was never a challenge as there are people who are really passionate about the environment here. However, securing stable funding was a huge struggle for us. Boat rentals are very expensive in Singapore, and for the longest time, we were footing the bills for the equipment and transport costs ourselves. Having to focus on community development and securing partnerships on top of our day jobs was difficult as well—although we are grateful over time for the support we have been able to garner.
SSQ: Convincing people that we had our risk management measures in place took some time—as diving is still considered a dangerous sport by many. We are also constantly working towards extending our reach—we are working with partners that bring us to heartland hawker centres to talk to aunties and uncles about corals and diving. Working with the marina has exposed us to the boating community, whom we would not have met otherwise.

What are your favourite diving spots in the region?
SSQ: Raja Ampat in Indonesia—it’s a role model for what a protected marine park should be like. In Singapore, Pulau Semakau is very diverse with some big and vibrant coral covers, and even sharks.
TTC: I like this region in Indonesia called Bunaken, which is also a marine park. It’s known for its coral wall that extends all the way from the top to 60 to 70m depth in crystal clear water. Every inch of it is covered with marine animals—you can even see sharks moving in and out of it. It’s quite a sight to behold and you can see the effects of marine park protection. In Singapore as well, the sea walls, especially around the Southern islands nurture coral population. That is very encouraging for us, that despite land reclamation, the corals will come back when the environment is conducive. There are times when we’ve found corals that are fairly rare here even in an artificial environment. Recently, people spotted a mandarin fish at the marina—a rare and elusive fish that people travel to Indonesian waters to see.

Do you feel that there is a lot more awareness now than before about marine life?
TTC: I will say yes. When I first joined NUS as a graduate student, the awareness was significantly lesser. Marine biology is still very much seen as a niche field, something that only scientists do. But over the years, we have seen a lot of citizen scientists, who are equally passionate, stepping up to support conservation efforts. Divers and non-divers alike are a lot more vocal and proactive in trying to advocate for a cleaner ocean for the animals. Social media has also helped with a flood of impactful images, which has catapulted the awareness, as compared to a decade ago. In Singapore as well, with the increase of accessibility of marine activities, people have becoming more aware of marine conservation.
SSQ: Being able to bring more people to the sea through dives organised by Our Singapore Reefs has helped open their eyes a bit more. They are a lot more people interested in exploring Singapore waters and wanting to do their own part, however small, to protect the environment.