An early rush to bed at 7 pm aided my duck greatly on this morning's cool and misty outing to Marina South. Under a clouded moon, the currents between the two sassy sisters churned and troubled the boat as we attempted to bridge a shifting gap to the jetty. The air had a soft bite and threatened to blow away a heart heavy with want. The monkeys were silent. A swirl of harmless wasps accompanied our dark walk to the lagoon. We secured our gear against the long-tailed thieves and stranded our box of eatables on a sand bar. As it reached my shins, the water pierced with unusual coolness.
The catches of the day were a number of sea anemones that would be dissected and hopefully described by Dr. Fautin in her lab. Achingly little is known about the identity and ecology of many actinarians on our shores. Even a relatively common one known as the 'strawberry anemone' is thought by the good doctor to be undescribed after she ploughed through volumes of hexacorallian taxonomy. Another anemone with parsimonious tentacles that wave with snake-like sinuosity was unwisely christened as Condylactis thanks to a poorly-research book, but we are assured this shy creature is something else altogether. In every microhabitat, from coral rubble to mudflat to sandy banks and the highwater mark, actinarians have established themselves, although we often overlook them in our haste for less sessile wonders. Some even swim about with synchronised grace.
In the sandy shallows broken by small clusters of coral heads, we found an unceremonious toadfish. It was lying belly-up on a coral head pretending to be a carcass, but responded to my ducky poke with a lazy quiver. Its flank was really soft, squishy and slimey, so we had some difficulty getting the fish into a more dignified position before YC arrived with a handy tool and plastic container to ferry the silent croaker (yes, Liana, they do croak) into a small pool, where it might brave piscine peers such as scorpionfish and spotted rays.
Clownfish aka anemonefish aka Nemos are found throughout the Indo-Pacific region from the Red Sea to Melanesia and Southern Japan. Unfortunately, whereas these colourful little damselfish are almost always present whenever there are suitable host anemones in their range, Dr. Fautin regretful notes that the fishes are conspicious in Singapore's near-shore habitats by their absence. Dr. Chua Ee Kiam has recorded in his books that in earlier decades, dozens of clownfish could be found in a single sweep of local reefs. On our forays, however, not a single Stichodactyla haddoni, though a fairly common anemone on the northern shores, has been seen to harbour an anemonefish, and sightings of Amphiprion ocellaris and A. frenatus by the southern islands are irregular, despite the relative abundance of suitable host species. Whether this is due to natural attrition or the intelligence of those who collect the fish for personal profit or private pleasure is unclear.
This night was happily a fruitful one; A. ocellaris was present in all specimens of the carpet anemone Stichodactyla mertensii that we encountered. In one host, a large (8-10 cm) female braved the edges of the tentacles, as if she were sure that the protective nematocysts that caress her flanks would readily defend her against hungry mouths and itchy hands. Frolicking with abandon in the waves of the anemone's disc were at least two tiny males a mere centimetre long. They were much shyer, hiding their heads from sight and carving streams of motion through the tentacles as they cut their way in playful chase. For now they are safe, until they face those who perversely think individual harvests are but an excusable drop that matters not in the light of larger encroaches. It is certain though that few if any of the anemonefish that end up in a fish tank, however advanced, get to achieve their natural life-span of nearly 40 years, much less spawn new generations of Nemos. Their continual absence from otherwise suitable habitats such as Chek Jawa suggest that past collectors have completely wiped up the animals, leaving none left to replenish the anemones, who will probably spend their next century fishless and still.
Brittlestars were abundant in the crevices, but none dared to venture out by torchlight. Bolder were numerous swimming crabs, long-armed shrimp and octopi, as well as countless small silversides that darted with the careless ease of shellshockedness, their silver-blue scales glistening neon-like like mobile beacons. A shrimp of unknown type appeared and quickly retreated into the shadows before I could capture its squat powder-blue body decorated with red trimming. Large penaeid prawns with red and blue highlights on their tail fins patrol the sandy strips, resorting to a haphazard burial that seems barely sufficient to elude featherless fowl, much less fishing shellfish.