Snazzy bars dot its beaches. Luxurious hotels fan out across the island. An integrated resort boasting a casino and theme park sits at the entrance of Sentosa, welcoming people to the State of Fun.
This is how the resort island located south of mainland Singapore describes itself.
But Sentosa has a different kind of luxe as well – the kind that speaks of the richness of the natural world, which is more in line with its name. Sentosa, after all, means tranquillity in Malay.
Earlier this month, to mark World Wetlands Day on Feb 2, photojournalist Kua Chee Siong and this reporter visited Sentosa to experience the natural wonders thriving on the island – including its only mangrove patch, located in the middle of Serapong golf course.
The mangrove patch is just one of eight different types of habitats on the 500ha island.
Sentosa is also home to rarer habitat types, such as rocky seashores and coastal forests which are fast disappearing on the mainland.
Hidden within their folds are rare specimens of flora and fauna, including a tree that is the last of its kind in Singapore.
While preening peacocks and cheeky macaques are commonly sighted on Sentosa, the island has a lot more to offer visitors.
During our visit, Sentosa Development Corporation’s (SDC’s) senior executive for environmental management Tammy Lim, 32, told us a rare great billed heron native to Singapore, for one, had been spotted at the 1.5ha mangrove patch.
Number of heritage trees that can be found on Sentosa island.
Number of bird species recorded on the island.
ha Size of the protected nature areas on the island, which is less than 10 per cent of Sentosa’s total land bank.
To get there, we rode in a buggy across the golf course and tried not to disturb the golfers.
But wildlife is unpredictable.
The bird, which can grow up to 1.2m tall, did not show up that day.
We did see a flock of more than 10 grey herons which are commonly found in wetland habitats.
Even though the mangrove patch is in the middle of a golf course, one of the herons appeared to be building a nest there. It was holding a twig as it flew overhead.
Mangroves once used to cover Singapore’s coasts. But today, they are among the rarest habitats here, covering less than 1 per cent of the country’s total land area.
While muddy mangroves may not be as attractive as colourful coral reefs, they are as important.
They support a large diversity of life, serve as fish nurseries and help with coastal protection, as they reduce erosion from wave action.
In 1819, the total area of mangrove forests in Singapore was estimated to be 75 sq km. But a 2010 scientific study by Singapore researchers showed that this had been whittled down to 6.59 sq km – just 0.95 per cent of Singapore’s total land area – due to various factors, including urban development and land reclamation.
Most of the mangrove forests that remain are found along the northern coast, in places such as Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and offshore Pulau Ubin.
Naturalist Ria Tan, who runs the wildsingapore.com blog, said the “mangrove haven” on Sentosa is likely to be Singapore’s largest patch of the rare, native bakau pasir mangrove trees.
Free nature activities on Sentosa
HERITAGE TREE TOUR
Learn about some of the 26 carefully conserved heritage trees on the island from Sentosa Development Corporation’s officers.
WHEN: The last Saturday of every month, 10am to 11am.
WHERE: Sentosa Nature Discovery, Imbiah Lookout.
HOW TO SIGN UP: Register and find out more at firstname.lastname@example.org
What types of birds can be found on Sentosa? Learn more from the avian experts at the Nature Society (Singapore).
WHEN: Twice a year, 8am to 10am.
WHERE: Sentosa Nature Discovery, Imbiah Lookout; Imbiah Nature Area; Siloso Skywalk.
HOW TO SIGN UP: Get updates on the walks at www.sentosa.com.sg/ State-Specials/Events/ Sentosa-Nature-and-Bird-Walk
BIODIVERSITY WATCH CITIZEN SCIENCE PROGRAMME ON SENTOSA
Do your part for science by helping to spot and take notes on four types of animals – herons, garden birds, butterflies and dragonflies.
This is a programme organised by the National Parks Board (NParks).
Sentosa has collaborated with them to include nature spots on the island.
WHEN: Twice a year for each animal group.
•Serapong mangrove (Heron watch )
•Imbiah Nature Area or Skywalk (Garden bird watch)
•Siloso Eco Pond (Butterfly watch)
•Serapong/Ficus/Siloso/ Palawan Eco Ponds
•Siloso Spring (Dragonfly Watch)
HOW TO SIGN UP: Find out more on NParks’ website at www.nparks.gov.sg/ biodiversity/community-in-nature-initiative
SILOSO HEADLAND INTERTIDAL PROGRAMME
This year is being celebrated around the world as the International Year of the Reef.
Sentosa will be conducting free guided walks along the Tanjong Rimau rocky shores in the later half of the year.
Learn more about the critters that can be found in this habitat on these tours.
WHEN: May to August.
WHERE: Siloso headland.
HOW TO SIGN UP: Details will be announced later.
Check Sentosa’s website for more information.
WALKING, CYCLING TRAILS
Those who prefer to explore the island in their free time can do so along its multiple walking and cycling trails.
There are six walking trails in Sentosa that add up to a total of about 7.5km.
They are the Sentosa Boardwalk Trail, Resorts World Sentosa Trail, Merlion Trail, Imbiah Trail, Coastal Trail and Palawan Trail.
The Marang Trail and the Southern Ridges are now connected to the Sentosa Walking Trail via VivoCity and HarbourFront.
There are signboards to guide guests along the trails.
There are also three cycling routes stretching 12km.
For more information on Sentosa’s cycling tracks, visit www.sentosa.com.sg/ Plan-Your-Visit/ getting-around
The bakau pasir (Rhizophora stylosa) is native to Singapore, and is considered one of the most hardy mangrove tree species.
Singaporean mangrove expert Jean Yong, who is an eco-physiologist at the Australian Research Centre for Mine Site Restoration, said the Singapore Strait – the body of water south of Singapore – is characterised by sea and rocky substrate.
These are harsher conditions compared with the mud and stiller waters of the Strait of Johor up north, said Dr Yong.
“This is why only the resilient Rhizophora stylosa can establish and thrive in the south,” he told The Straits Times.
A few other bakau pasir trees can be found in places such as Pulau Ubin, the Western Catchment, Pulau Pawai and Berlayer Creek.
There are also some growing on Pulau Semakau.
But Dr Yong said these had been replanted using propagules from Indonesia, adding: “The patch growing in Sentosa’s golf course represents the last bastion of a sustainable and healthy population of the original bakau pasir for Singapore.”
Before it was developed into a resort island in the 1970s, Sentosa was known as Pulau Blakang Mati – which means “the island behind death” in Malay. It was a fishing village, a military base and even a prisoner-of-war camp during the Japanese Occupation.
Throughout its history, nature has had to battle with the forces of development.
The island was once covered with rainforests. Today, the protected nature areas make up about 40ha in total – less than 10 per cent of Sentosa’s total land bank.
ONE FOR THE GENERATIONS
Heritage trees on Sentosa can be found not just in nature areas. They are also scattered in the open areas on Sentosa. Our job is to protect them, so future generations get the chance to see them.
” MS GRACE LEE, who leads Sentosa Development Corporation’s conservation team as director for environment management.
Still, living relics of the past thrive.
Trees, some of them more than a century old, lie within the two designated nature areas on the island – Imbiah and Serapong.
These witnesses of the island’s evolution have guardians.
As director for environment management, Ms Grace Lee, 49, leads SDC’s conservation team of three.
She is fiercely passionate about nature, reeling off facts about the trees, shrubs and flowers we encountered during our visit.
Pointing to a heritage tree at the foot of Mount Serapong, she said the Bhesa robusta -usually found in primary rainforests – dates back more than a century. There are 26 heritage trees on Sentosa.
Said Ms Lee, whose background is in horticulture: “Heritage trees on Sentosa can be found not just in nature areas. They are also scattered in the open areas on Sentosa. Our job is to protect them, so future generations get the chance to see them.”
Plants are also a passion for another member of Sentosa’s conservation team, senior arborist Daniel Seah, 63. He has been inspecting the trees on the island for the past 40 years. He even did his National Service on Sentosa, serving as a combat engineer in the barracks on Mount Serapong in 1971.
He explained how he came to make the study of trees his life.
He said: “During my army days, the only comfortable place to lie down was under a tree.
“When the sun was hot, when I was building bridges, the only place to lie down was under the tree.”
We spotted other unique plants in Sentosa, like the dragon blood tree (Dracaena maingayi) which bleeds a crimson red sap used in traditional Chinese medicine for pain relief and to heal wounds.
A number of these trees can be found in Sentosa, including at the bustling Imbiah Walk.
There was also the Fagraea ridleyi. The tree on on the island is the last of its kind in Singapore, and is one of the plants that the SDC is targeting to restore through its species recovery programme.
The Straits Times is not revealing the exact location of the tree to help protect it.
WEIRD, WONDERFUL WILDLIFE
Sentosa has plenty of accommodation options for humans, but it is also home to many animals.
At low tide, sea creatures such as hairy crabs and snails can be seen emerging from their hideouts at their rocky shore habitat, next to the luxury Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort and Spa.
There is also a “condominium” of swiftlet nests on Sentosa.
In other parts of the world, these nests are harvested for the birds’ nest delicacy, which command extremely high prices.
But in Sentosa, the more than 200 birds are safe, as their nests are located in a part of the island inaccessible to the public.
Mr Alan Owyong of the Nature Society (Singapore) Bird Group said the flock on Sentosa is the largest nesting flock of swiftlets in Singapore.
Over the years, at least 110 species of birds have been recorded on the island, he said.
In comparison, there are 392 species of birds listed in last year’s bird checklist of Singapore.
Mr Owyong said: “This is quite a good number, although development has reduced the number of species we see in recent years.”
Geographically, Sentosa’s position south of the mainland has made it a good stopover point for migratory birds making their way down south to Indonesia to escape the winter chill in the north, said Mr Owyong.
Last December, a few species of migratory cuckoos, such as the chestnut-winged and Indian cuckoos, were spotted around a particular tree at Sentosa’s Fort Siloso.
Sentosa is a microcosm of Singapore, and faces the same challenge of balancing conservation and development.
And just like how nature areas on the mainland are nestled within the nooks and crannies of urban areas, the habitats on Sentosa are just a stone’s throw from the bustling attractions.
Many of them can be explored for free.
Yet, many people may not know they exist.
The next time you visit Sentosa, take the opportunity to soak up the essence of a natural world sitting right in the midst of modernity.
With the large variety of walking and cycling trails on the island, you could find yourself taking a closer look at all the nature areas the island has to offer.