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Urbanisation has wiped out over 60 per cent of the reefs here, but the estimated 30 sq km that has survived is almost as rich as ever. The reefs fringing Singapore's more than 50 southern offshore islands are home to about 200 species of hard coral - a quarter of the global total - as well as 20 species of soft coral and more than 130 types of fish.
Sediment is the arsenic of coral, and because of the reclamation and dredging work here and heavy volume of marine traffic, it is present in large amounts in Singapore waters.
But species here seem to have miraculously developed some immunity to the milky waters, thriving in the shallows where sunlight can penetrate.
Research assistant Jani Thuaibah Isa Tanzil, who has been actively involved in the latest project, warned, however: 'We can't take this for granted. We don't know if they will still survive if the situation gets any worse.'
Much of the project comprises exhausting work. For instance, about 3,000 tiny bits of coral called nubbins, harvested from existing colonies here, were painstakingly cemented to plastic pins similar to large golf tees. These were placed in mesh nets in the waters around St John's Island, and will later be re-integrated into the reefs if they grow.
Care was taken to remove less than 10 per cent from each existing colony, so that they could regenerate, she said.
The project is part of a $2 million-euro ($4 million) programme, a four-year multi-country effort helmed by the European Commission. Singapore is one of six countries involved in the project, and the restoration aspect is to try and increase the success of natural coral recruitment occurring on the reef, where spawning has been documented.
Said Italian marine biologist Lucia Bongiorni, who was here to oversee the transplantation effort: 'Singapore is a very special site, because its waters have some of the highest sedimentation rates in the world. 'It will be tough, but if it works here, this is good news for similar efforts in other parts of the world.'
Meanwhile, Singapore's most ambitious undersea conservation effort has also taken off, with stretches of artificial reefs ringing the Southern Islands being put up for adoption. The idea is that coral will attach more easily to these artificial dome-shaped structures, and ultimately cover 20,000 sq m, or one-fifth of the shallows around a handful of Southern Islands developed and linked through reclamation.
But Prof Chou warned that while levelling the undersea habitat took just an instant, regenerating it is a slow process that would take years to bear fruit, if at all. 'This is not like planting instant trees,' said Prof Chou of the National University of Singapore's biological sciences department. 'Corals are slow growing, and very delicate.'
Unlike the endless clear blue of famous dive spots such as the Maldives, divers here are lucky if they can see beyond their outstretched hands in the jade green waters. Life is thriving nonetheless.
A dive in the waters fringing Kusu Island, for example, yields rich rewards for those who care to take the plunge. Various species of hard coral are abundant, including the knobbly brown Pocillopora and the Favites, with its fluorescent green hearts. There are also the beautiful orange sea fans, spread out like so many leafless trees, and tiny grey yellow-spotted nudibranchs - a sea slug. Sea anemone grow lushly, like carpets of glowing purple chendol, and in each creature nestles a pair of orange and white striped false clown fish.
And for people who prefer not to get their hair wet, a volunteer group organises reef walks there during low tide, so they can see the sea's wonders up close.
Said Prof Chou: 'All is not lost, and the restoration efforts are an opportunity to showcase how we can bring back the reefs that have been degraded.'
More about the Southern Islands and Blue Water Volunteers Reefwalks
Related articles on Singapore's biodiversity and Wild shores of Singapore
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