The sun sets over Cyrene still. And will do so for at least another eight years. On this Atlantean field of flooded meadows, the seagrass flourishes with uncommon abundance and diversity, vexing surveyors who must dig in to discern quite different genera of strappy leaves.
For this rare round on the reef, we took a special charter from the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club. Here, there are privileges that money can't buy, and the dingy little West Coast Pier just a mooring away will never seem good enough again. For somewhat more than a song, NParks had managed to book a vessel that looks like one more often used by weekend anglers. Compared to our usual bumboats, this was luxury. There was a pantry and kitchen on the lower level, a toilet, a bicycle (for bored boaters?) plus a washing machine on the upper deck. What was missing was a bevy of bikinied bodies to complete the fantasy. Unfortunately, the bronzed babes were probably lounging in water beds in larger pleasure craft such as a slick ship for pale bunnies and an even more lavish looking cruiser named the Sea Shaw.
Cyrene Reef is a transient island. Ringed by protective buoys, the reef is invisible to landlubbers save on such days when the tide swirls away with enough extraterrestrial gravitational force to reveal a patch reef perhaps a kilometre long and half as wide. Lying between Jurong Island and Pulau Bukom, Cyrene is fenced by intense marine traffic and an expanding circle of refineries and cracker plants whose minders
are likely to see the reef as an impediment to shipping as well as a ready-made protoisland for reclamation.
Approaching Cyrene, we could see an emerging sandbar with an outer fringe of rocks and coral rubble marking the edge of the reef plateau. In the surrounding deeper waters, there are signs of rich coral life, and up to 40 genera of hard corals have been recorded here. As the flat rose in inviting height, the captain got as close as his hull would permit and found a current-free nook. From the green boat, we took jiggly turns of four on a motorised launch that had come along as a ferry between the mother ship and the shore.
On the rippled sand bank that snaked a broken path to the farthest marker, nothing but overheated bodies stood between the scorching sun and our lengthening shadows. Soldier crabs, welcoming the opportunity to march and make-out, ran aground and raced from our footsteps, pincers ajar from squat carapaces. The sand dollars had mostly caked themselves in a layer of quartz to fend off these hours of solar bake.
We descended into the seagrass bed. On the sand and mud that had accumulated in the sunken lagoon formed by the fringing reefs, at least seven species of vascular vegetation can be found. The green was deep and the shallow pools bubbled with disturbed creatures. The minute ovals of Halophila form an understorey through which jointed legs and fleshy feet plough with inveterate ease. Larger, curved blades extend from a network of rhizomes with distinguishing habits. A sheath of bold 'V' as well as tiny apical serrations mark Cymodocea serrulata from its rotund cousin. Lines of tannin streak the hooked blades of turtle grass (Thalassia) that strike out from scarred stems.
Like air-tight noodles are the slim cylinders of Syringodium isoetifolium, which occurs locally only here and at Pulau Semakau. On the latter island, the batwing tips of Halodule uninervis reach robust sizes but here the tridents are miniscule. Overlaying all the rest are the limp ribbons of Enhalus, whose one-and-a-half-metre leaves would rise like a floating curtain of reeds when the waters return.
There were signs of rampant sex. Bright white bits of reproductive emissions were floating on the water or marooned in shiny streaks on the sand. But unlike the nastier stuff produced by spring action ducks, these don't stain. At close range they look like fluffy bitlets of styrofoam that defy wetness. I used to think they were pollen, but now realise these are in fact the male flowers of Enhalus, which are released from a submerged inflorescence and drift on the surface until a lucky few find
love, happiness and emotional fulfilment a happy ending within the petals of a lady blossom.
Walking through the seagrasses towards our transect sites feels like a stroll through playing fields after a torrent that floods the grasses and sedges under a foot of clear, cool water. On the waterlogged land, worms and wriggling things creep up to escape drowning. Here, the beasts are at home in their liquid lawn of forage. We saw not a few stars of knobbly fame, juveniles of a generation that are establishing themselves anew on shores both north and south.
In the quadrats we placed on the substrate, the seagrasses lay prostrate. Within these four square feet, we could find up to five seagrass species in confusing proximity. Sharing the grids were distractions such as a bristle worm, a small flathead, an acorn worm, juicy little zooanthids, green ascidians, a batch of nudibranch eggs as well as countless hermit crabs and snails.
When the work was done, we fanned out across the flat in search of charismatic microfauna. Schools of silvery fish and legion of gobies scatter from our shade, while small swimming crabs cling to seagrass leaves thick with epiphytes. Alarmed, they dart about sidewards, sometimes skimming over a dry patch in their haste. There were sea cucumbers, both short like stones and slender like snakes, along with common sea stars and urchins white and black. Even out here, marine spiders are able to make a living, biding the high seas under bubbles of saline air trapped beneath caves of coral. Ria found anemones and tube worms and probably everyone caught sight of the knobbly sea stars both whole and with chewed-off parts.
My lazier duck came across a couple of large hermit crabs, one in a conch shell and the other in a huge top shell nearly 20 cm long. Slipper snails line the inner walls of the well camouflaged spirals and the anomurans were socially inapt, forcing my duck to squat on perilous thighs for minutes before they deigned to poke out their black and yellow eyes. Less shy but much angrier was a brown egg crab that frothed in fury at the opprobrium of getting fingered by a fowl. But I was only helping it up after it ran and fell on its back! Blooms of Bryopsis on the rubble sheltered yellowish slugs that crept amidst a thick powder of amphipods. Going down and dirty, my duck could discern at least two types: one brown with a white dorsal streak and others that were clearly skeleton shrimp (Caprella sp.), mantid analogues half a centimetre long that dangle from the fronds with subchelate claws poised to spear even tinier animals.
The blazing heat rewarded us with an aquamarine sky sundered by ultraviolent rays of sundust. With the day dimming and sea rising, the stir-fried crew gathered on the sand bank and performed feats of damp indignity to clamber onto the sampan. In the dusk, Cyrene faded once more into the blue and beneath currents that forebode the fate that befell her nameless sisters in these dire straits.