Satellite images show a broad creek and sand bar at the southern tip of Pulau Semakau where the island's old mangal meets a younger grove of trees planted to replace the victims of a landfill at sea. The walk to this tipping point brings us past the pillars of fallen piers and a coastal forest that has reclaimed what was once a village of half-forgotten souls. Solid earth soon slopes into soft mud and the bright hues of trees with their feet on the ground give way to a darker wood of brine and tannin. Instead of sinking in, this flooded forest thrusts up and reaches down with roots that breathe through fine pores and brace their branches against a bank of sediment.
In the stream by and around the mangroves are shoals of young fish that hover above beds of seagrass and amid the safety of loose skirts. The halophytes form dense colonies that recall scenes from fresher streams, but the water here is not fit to drink and springs not from distant highlands but the swelling of tropical tides. Some of the grasses bear ribbon-like blades with tridentate tips; others have broader leafs that emerge from a flattened sheath and terminate with minute serrations. The longest strands belong to isolated clumps of tape seagrass that grow in deeper ruts and present stiff resistance to the strains of a draining brook.
The water had fallen enough to reveal a coarse net wound around a broad red mangrove. This trap was, however, a ghost of its designed strength, for the mesh readily fell apart when gently tugged and appeared far too weak to trap prey or support post-planktonic settlers. Similar belts had been strung around trees elsewhere on the flat, the likely handiwork of fishermen who sailed in with the goal of snaring other hunters when the tide leaves the latter high and dry within a labyrinth of roots.
A far more pleasant discovery, which we found clinging with its tail to a frond of weed, was an estuarine seahorse that pecked at smaller organisms from its tender perch. Bright yellow against a backdrop of green and grey, the syngnathid occupied a textbook lesson on its species' preferred habitat and zone of salinity. As our shadows loomed, the fish allowed itself to drift downstream, floating with the aid of dorsal engines until it reached another nook where it could hunt from the anchor of a prehensile hook. There could well have been other horses in the surrounding meadow, but it was enough to see just one of a herd at home and awash with the colours of gold on a day of blue skies and brown, salty skins.