Chek Jawa – Discovering Singapore’s Biodiversity

“Chek Jawa is a show-case for the miracle of life and life is a gift from Heaven. “

Seen only at low tide, the sea grass lagoon and sandflats open a new vista in nature appreciation. Together with the coral and rock rubble, mangrove and coastal hill forest, Chek Jawa has held many spellbound with its biodiversity. Unknown to many, the site was more accessible to the public when settlements were demolished for the impending land reclamation. It was an almost futile attempt to save Chek Jawa but miracles do happen. Enjoy the many glories while you can, for CJ may still not last forever.

For years, a secret biological treasure lay hidden in the shallow tidal flats off the village of Chek Jawa. Protected by sandbars, Chek Jawa’s beach is home to a vibrant variety of marine life, visible only at the lowest of tides -and only for a few hours each time. The tide moves like a magic curtain, each turn revealing the latest show of nature’s wonders or closing to prepare for nature’s next performance.

The tiny village on Ubin island was itself unknown to most people in Singapore, but in 2001, it became the focal point of an urbanized nation about to lose almost all its natural heritage.

This book, lovingly put together by Chua Ee Kiam and his friends, chronicles the almost futile attempt and then sudden euphoria, of saving Chek Jawa and records for posterity, the miracle of life- and hope- to inspire future generations of Singaporeans.

Coffee-table book on Chek Jawa is expected to be in the book stores in Nov 2002.

Story & Photography by Dr Chua Ee Kiam

Other Photographers:- Billy Kon, Alan Yeo, David Tan, Chim Chee Kong, Ria Tan, Yap Kim Fatt, Jessica Chua, Sivasothi

Book Review 1

Ms Teh Jen Lee, Asian Geographic 2003

Wide-angle photographs capturing vistas of the coast has the effect of unfurling the canvas behind our eyes; after which detailed images of the sponges, seagrass, fishes, crabs, anemones, marine worms, molluscs, sea stars and sea cucumbers leave indelible strokes in our minds. After the pages burst with tangible vitality in “Fantastic Gems” Dr Chua reminds us that CJ is still fragile and much more needs to be done to protect it from over-exposure to visitors and over-exploitation by souvenir hunters and fishermen. He convincingly argues for CJ to be designated a Nature Park to promote its conservation in “What Next?” Dr Chua dedicates the book to “those who continue to uncover the treasure trove of biodiversity” at the tidal flats of CJ. By helping lay people and ecologists alike to appreciate this precious jewel from the sea, the book contributes significantly to the experience of Singapore’s biodiversity.

Book Review 2

N. Sivasothi, 2003. The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology Vol 50(2)

Pulau Ubin is a small island of about 10km by 2km off the northeast of Singapore¹s main island. It is a special place for Singaporeans and visitors alike, having escaped the bustling growth of the city-state, and provides an impression of a way of life, long lost on mainland Singapore. However, in 2001, the island awaited an impending fate of reclamation of its eastern and southern coastlines. Villagers living in the area had been gradually shifted out and few remains of the even the buildings they occupied could be seen. The now ghostly coastline however, provided complete access to curious nature enthusiasts who had previously stayed away from the private property of the villagers.

They stumbled onto a goldmine. This small coastal area boasted of several ecosystems in one site ¬coastal forest, mangrove, rocky shore, sandy shore, seagrass lagoon, mud flats and coral rubble. To a population more familiar with sterile beaches, it was an explosion of marine life – tunicates, sponges, sea cucumbers, sea stars, a variety of molluscs, seagrass, the list seemingly just went on. The visual splendour of the site, its uniqueness and impending extinction inspired an explosion of activity on its behalf by nature lovers, educators, researchers, the media, public and the government. In a landmark decision, the reclamation of scheduled for Pulau Ubin was deferred, and Chek Jawa was saved for the interim at least. Dr Chua Ee Kiam was amongst those inspired by the variety, space, stories and secrets of the area. Like many naturalists in Singapore, he was familiar with the pockets of terrestrial biodiversity on the mainland. He had in fact popularised such areas by authoring two photo-history titles, entitled Nature in Singapore – Ours to Protect (1993) and Pulau Ubin – Ours to Treasure (2001). A dentist by profession, he is a passionate nature photographer and nature conservationist, and communicates this through his images in books and by guiding and giving talks. This passion is obvious through the photographs and emotive writing of the book.

The contents are arranged somewhat into chapters. Discovering Chek Jawa is a brief account of the events leading to the eventual deferment of reclamation. Little of the complex series of events has been shared with the public and this is good introduction to an important event in Singapore’s history. Heaven on Earth provides an overview of the habitats and brief contributions about most of the ecosystems, and marine life is explored through the main plant and animal groups in Fascinating Gems of Chek Jawa. The author’s suggestions about education and tourism are raised in What Next? and Voices from Within is a sheet of quotations by various people. The various affiliations and more so the lack of affiliation of the various people who are quoted reflect the diverse interest that Chek Jawa summoned to her eventual relief. The Plight and Fragility and The Last Horizon are reflective pieces on issues facing the urbanised Singaporean, and the significance of Chek Jawa.

This book does not pretend to be an authoritative marine guide but is instead, a reflection of the author¹s exploration of coastal ecosystems through the gift of Chek Jawa. However, even scientists will find the photos surprising and interesting. In a very short time, he has provided a glimpse into a significant event and place. Yet again he provides a refreshing story celebrating discovery and protection of a natural habitat in Singapore.

Proceeds of this book will be donated to the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research for ongoing research at Chek Jawa. The sale of the book at the museum is also helping to fund its workshop series to train new volunteer guides for Chek Jawa, at which the author volunteers as a principal field instructor.

Book Review 3

Reviewed by ME Choo, Sept 2005

“A showcase for the miracle of life!”  That’s exactly what Chek Jawa is! “Chek Jawa–Discovering Singapore ‘s Biodiversity” by Dr Chua is a testimony to this wondrous gift of nature.

The author was moved to document this “heaven on earth” after setting foot on CJ in 2000.  The discovery of CJ unravelled an unexpected treasure trove of  6 ecosystems which is not discovered till then. All who subsequently went to see it were indelibly touched by the beauty of the sandbar, the seagrass lagoon, the rocky shore, the coral rubble, the coastal hill forest and the mangroves.  But this paradise seemed only transient– reclamation plans at CJ were in order.  Nature lovers from all walks of life rallied to save CJ from imminent destruction.

In his usual engaging style, the author brings the reader along on his sojourn: discovering the different ecosystems; exploring the amazing marine life; educating readers on the importance of protecting the denizens at CJ and the urgency of preserving this little gem that is bestowed upon us by Mother Nature; whilst gently musing over the future of CJ and the possibility of conserving this “Eden” for our future generations.  The beautifully and painstakingly taken photos evoke a sense of pride that we do have such an exhibit of natural wonders in “our own backyard”.

The chapter on” Fascinating gems of CJ” has a special section to introduce the diverse organisms found in the littoral zone of CJ; namely, sponges, algae, fishes, crabs and shrimps,anemones, marine worms, molluscs, echinoderms and ascidians.  Readers who, like myself, are unfamiliar with these marine creatures may be overwhelmed;  however, together with a comprehensible text, lifelike photos and enlightening captions, the author elucidated the different types of marine life, leaving one in awe of the beauty of it all!

The author, too, has tapped the expert knowledge of 2 guest writers on the 6 different eco-systems found at CJ. Interestingly, too, excerpts of public feedback to the ST and write-ups by some young nature-lovers are included. Together with his nature-loving friends, Dr Chua brings one on an exhilarating discovery of what is naturally, uniquely Singapore !

Excerpt from Book on Chek Jawa

Fascinating Gems of Chek Jawa

The dynamic and exquisite relationships between the organisms are the result of years of evolutionary fine-tuning. Some relationships are not so apparent but each has its story to tell, but only if we are prepared to listen and learn of the unique and fascinating life at Chek Jawa.

The Last Horizon

Against an impending nightfall and rising tide, visitors will take their leave, reluctantly. Gushing tidal waters will stir up the denizens of the mud and sandflats. And soon the murky waters will protect the creatures of the sea, away from curious eyes and predators, until the next low spring tide. But the next low tide may be different. For the denizens of Chek Jawa may lay buried, smothered by land reclamation and perhaps eons later to surface as fossils of our time. For the many who have set foot on this extraordinary place, Chek Jawa is a paradise found; yet it could have been a paradise lost.