It’s a shame that fallen leaves, fruit and other natural debris are regarded as litter by those charged with cleansing local coastlines. The flotsam of high tides – loose wracks that harbour minute rafters, waterborne seeds and propagules that have drifted from afar – also receive a welcome no warmer than that given to the inorganic waste of modern life. Besides defending the shores from natural invaders, the broom brigade has effectively turned most beaches, particularly those favoured by apes who hate to share the sea with other beings, into scenes of Spartan austerity, deserts of foreign quartz that house castles of sand and sallow dreams.
There are thus few coves where indigenous clean-up crews still thrive, for their bed, breakfast and board are swept away each morn by minds who brook no mess, while those who survive the predations of terrestrial pets offer the temptation of a comical companion that costs little more than a laugh. Beyond the high water mark, there is scant hinterland for land hermit crabs to hide in, for the faint sensibilities of weekend warriors demand a landscape of party pits and paved paths before a park is deemed fit for human nature.
Only on offshore isles do coenobitids still prevail to amble with impunity as they once did on mainland strands. They are possibly the dominant land fauna on islets by maritime fairways, and still occur in good numbers on slightly larger refuges that few in this age of cheap flights resort to for a measure of paradise. Come twilight, the crabs emerge from invisible shelters to prowl the lawns for leftovers and lesser treats. Some pack their soft abdomens in the robust shells of deceased turbans, moons and melongenas, while others appear content to sport the lighter whorls of alien snails. They appear ungainly, but have enough strength and sureness of feet to ascend the lower reaches of coconut trees and scale the tall buttresses of sea almonds.
When threatened, most land hermit crabs retreat into their portable fortresses, using their enlarged and reinforced left chelae to plug the aperture and protect their vulnerable parts. One coenibitid, however, has outgrown the need to flee by attaining the size of a monster in miniature. Called the robber crab for its reputed penchant for raiding palm groves, Birgus latro is a lumbering beast that infests the cliff-lined beaches and moist terrace forests of oceanic islands across the Indo-Pacific, though it is strangely absent from much of the Sunda shelf. Hunting has reduced their numbers in most traditional habitats, save in refugia such as Christmas Island, which harbours the world’s largest population.
Youngsters who survive their planktonic stage hoist shells that match their mass, but at some point, the crabs shed all pretence of fragility and wander in brazen nakedness, using their claws as ambulatory appendages as well as accessories for tearing open carcasses and coconuts. Curiously, the robber crabs we encountered by the trails prefer to ward off our interest by lashing out with their walking legs, welding their fearsome chelae not as arms but as armour for their faces. This puerile defence is also why drivers there are warned to skirt rather than straddle jaywalking robbers to avoid the risk of damage to both crab and car. Despite their bulk, the giant anomurans are excellent climbers; we found many perched on the limestone pinnacles that scar the island’s rainforests, though only one was spotted clinging to a sapling near the Dales. The crabs gather in unnerving numbers at certain patches of forest, lured perhaps by the pith of a favoured endemic palm. Unguarded picnic baskets, according to one source, also attract gangs that emerge from the undergrowth like a plague of zombie roaches.
At least three other coenobitids, including a tawny species common to Singapore, share the island, but we encountered none of these amid the distracting tide of red that forages on nearly every square metre of forest. With few mammals and reptiles to rule the roost, Christmas Island’s land crustaceans have formed a pecking order of their own, with nippers and blue crabs providing ineffectual population control of their scarlet kin and Birgus riding roughshed over all. Having escaped the infinite hazards of life in the littoral zone, hermits and their fellow wanderers have claimed a stake on tropical woods only to fall victim to an appetite for land that has little room to spare for the daily rituals of this awkward tribe.
The clouds threatened to pour cold water on the year's final offshore survey, though the monsoon did little to discourage a hasty horde of shopoholics from descending upon the city that never slips. The land around the pier, once a morass of she-oaks and vernal pools, is now a forest of cranes and concrete in preformed perfection. Adding a touch of glam to this scene of steel were frocks and friends who strutted down to the pontoon, where they boarded a one-eunuch flotilla for a meal with a view of a town obsessed with boom and busts. Seamen in festive smiles and faded overalls also arrived, unloading from vans and pick-ups white goods in shrinkwrapped cartons destined for onboard cubicles.
A visible shower blew southwest as the boat drifted over the still swells of the channel that separate the sisters. More worn dame than otherworldly damsel, the older sibling unleashed a damp squib as we trotted to her gentle shores. Stale sand gave way to slippery rubble and live rock in a lagoon of sheltered mysteries. A friendly breeze accompanied our wade through swarthes of brown sargassum and dirty green fronds so fine they hide an army of arthropods that cling, climb and couple amid filaments that come and go with the fancy of a season. The draft kept our bodies cool but like a puppy who has not learnt to curb his enthusiasm insisted on toying with our senses with soft whispers that reduced the reef into a flicker of ripples.
Beyond the seawall, stronger waves crashed onto the edge of the flat in frustration as the lunar cycle drew the sea away from this cove to reveal the majesty of the world beneath the wind. Shod in cold rubber, we trod for the most part on coarse sand, taking care to sidestep colonies of hermatypes and clumps of potential hazard. It was not possible leave an invisible footprint, for nearly every surface bore signs of life in encrustation and even the naked grains nursed an assembly of small, see-through creatures that scattered before our shadows.
Stubby tentacles emerged from convex forms that glowed a faint brown or green like composite fruit in a state of mild inebriation. Living corallites covered the entire surface of younger colonies, while larger clusters bore scars of damage and dehydration. Most polyps bloom with stiff modesty from the safety of their shell, but a few exuberant poritids produce long, flexible columns that must grip their anchors with minute tenacity and pulse with pale lavender to the sweep of the tide. Parasols constructed from calcite littered parts of the lagoon, begetting wonder if the fungiids had gathered by chance or employed mysterious means to move in close proximity. A few were overturned and expired, but many celebrated the fading day with discs of blue, green and purple from which worm-like tentacles swayed and surrounded a striped, slit-like mouth.
Electric-blue silversides and chrome-plated biddies darted about awkward patches of open water broken by dense weed and defensive boulders. Below the pelagics hopped gangs of gobies that shared their space with blue-eyed shrimp and young portunids still too small to tackle their fellow crustaceans or make a grab for careless fish. The incessant clicks of snapping shrimp accompanied the dance of the benthics, as the alpheids shovelled debris from their burrows, which double as hideouts for imperilled bodies, and blew clouds of sediment onto parlours of solitude.
Larger nooks provided retreats for xanthids that trust not in the poison of their flesh, preferring to lumber into the crevices of faviids. The ovum-like carapaces of egg crabs probably make it difficult for teeth or thumbs to get a grip on these clumsy beasts, which are nonetheless shunned by octopi who seem to recognise the crabs as unsuitable prey. In contrast, sharp marginal teeth and spines line the body and chelae of swimming crabs, which crop algae on exposed heads and paddle away with the grace of secondhand greek gods. Though predators themselves, the remains of portunids in entirety or part often lie on all levels of the shoal, forming middens of sort of other decapods or molluscs with suckers of a punch.
A pair of octopi was caught making love at arm's length. The larger of the two, with an armspan of nearly two feet, sauntered over the rubble with false composure, while her slightly smaller companion kept a noodly appendage within his mate's mantle. With little choice but to dog the female in order to maintain coitus, the male turned two-face; one half of his body assumed a pallid hue with two dark streaks leading to one eye, whilst the other retained shades of normalcy. Vivid displays of skin are known to serve as signals to indicate one's desirability to nubile members of the cephalopod tribe and it would appear the male was seeking to maximise his impact with minimal effort by showing the ardour of only his better side.
Phymanthus anemones were once again in full and lusty bloom, a welcome sight after the mid-year months when the actinarians shared the bleached fate of their scleractinian kin. The macroalgae bloom, however, obscured the locations of stichodactylans and their clownish tenants; only one was spotted, languishing high on the flat and bearing a ménage à trois of two male commensal shrimp and a lone anemonefish.
Offering a brief respite from a minefield of marine life, the raised skirt of the seawall extended an invitation to fall and feed the creatures that scuttle and slide on the slippery rocks. Purple crabs with flattened carapaces and spidery legs hugged the crags and huddled in inaccessible reaches. Nerites and turban snails celebrated the moist air with visible movement and waving feelers, leaving trails of damp scrapes in their wake. Rather more circumspect were false limpets that barely broke the contours of their weathered home and rebuked all efforts to drive a wedge in their grip.
A far more active gastropod lurched through the flat with jerky elegance. Overgrown with aufwuchs, the shell of this spider conch presents a disguise that wavers between hide and seek. A gentle flip revealed the lustre of clean mother-of-pearl and stalked eyes with blank, blinkless stares that peered from an aperture that is always wide open. Developed for brace not battle, the spines provide leverage and a counterweight for a pendulous stab that swings the snail back to its preferred orientation. We left the conch to its devices and plodded ashore, relieved and yet reluctant to give way to the rising tide or give up hope that these reefs would remain insignificant in the eyes of avarice and magnificent to all who prize the grandeur of this view of life, of endless forms most beautiful and the gift of eternal wonder in a world where magic has faded and all that remains is the ghost of glories past.
There was a faint sense of bemused empathy when not a few of the herons and egrets that landed on the edge of the canal leading into Sungei Tampines continued to slide when their feet hit the grey flat. Most regained their dignity in a blink that turned a slip into a stride, but some found themselves running headlong towards the personal space of other fowl and were forced to take flight once more and take a number for the choicest spots.
The tiered waterway offered the birds a broad pavilion on which they could saunter, preen and pick petty fights with each other in between attempts at fishing and keeping half an eye at a levee that held the swollen canal at bay. For automated locks allow the monsoon to drain into the swamp at engineered will and the water would gush with little warning, turning the artificial terraces into a maelstrom of currents that bubbled and died down as swiftly as their surge. The waterfowl who favoured these upper reaches would flee to the banks and ruffle their feathers as they wait for the dyke to stem the tide and reveal fresh bounties in the silent spring.
North of the walkway that bridges the river, a remnant and rescued mangal provides safe harbour for creatures who can tolerate the ruckus of weekend muses and the roar of wild theme parks. A colony of grey herons have found refuge in a narrow strip of trees between the river and a resort. A flash of blue and orange betrayed the foray of a stork-billed kingfisher based on a Bruguiera within cast’s reach. Further downstream, a white-throated kingfisher evicted its wintering cousin from a perch above the water. Collared kingfishers cackled from higher masts, swooping down with alacrity to snatch from the sand small crabs on their last legs. On the muddy fringes lined by a loose fence of pneumatophores and plastic prowled water hens and water monitors, who exercised apt wariness for each other and those who watched their walk.
More permanent markers decorated many of the trees in this park of disregarded warnings. Invisible and intractable, strands of abandoned nylon and dead lead clung to twigs so tall they must have been flung there by anglers in a fit of frustration or tossed in a moment of casual exuberance. By this tangled bank was an unsightly aggregation of rocks that served as miniature territories for striated herons and black-crowned night herons who could not wait for the day to die before their turn to hunt.
One adult, however, appeared a little ungroomed, with its plumage in a state less sleek than the average bird. It stalked close enough to the walkway to reveal that its bill was so enmeshed in a fishing line that the heron appeared unable to properly open its mandibles. The bird had probably pecked at what it saw as a meal, only to find a trap of tender proportions or worse, a hook-tipped thread that wound its way around a far more effective fishing tool. Still, the victim of inferior fishermen stood its ground, its deep red eyes intent on prey in waters as murky, though far less merciful, as its fate.