Malapascua and thresher sharks

You know you are slowly but surely reconnecting with a love from a decade back when you smile even behind a breathing regulator and mask almost ALL the time you are underwater for a dive.

A recent getaway saw me Malapascua island bound with old CCF friends, Honwai and Yenn as well as Yenn’s sister, Gwen. Just off the coast of Philippines Cebu city, the 4 days worth of 10 dives proved the best dives I have had in life thus far (I guess that speaks volumes about my dive experience and dive locations traversed thus far but yes I am not ceasing the dive log count at 41 dives only anytime soon!)

We did a total of 10 dives of which most were memorable but particularly the Light House, Gato Island and Monad Shoal dives were exhilarating. Light House was a dusk dive we did on the first day we arrived, after an afternoon dive at Chocolate Island. The beauty of the dive came to light almost immediately upon descend when we found ourselves kneeling on the sandy bottom just to wait for the playful mandarin fishes to twirl around and mate before our very eyes. Save for the endless flashing of cameras and fear for the sight of the mandarins, Light House is a very popular daily dusk dive and I guess we did feel rather sorry for the lack of privacy of such an intimate affair.p1030134-mandarin-fish-mating-300x291

The most eventful dives for me were the dawn dives at 5am to Monad Shoal cleaning station where the beautiful threshers prance and circle around at daily. Catching sight of the thresher sharks is almost always a guarantee, I believe, for we beheld them up close and personal for the 2 dawn dives at Monad we scheduled ourselves for. On first encounter with the graceful creatures, I was so enthralled I was just smiling away behind my mask while trying to take in as little breaths as possible in order to conserve air and stay down longer to watch them. Their signature long tail fins swishing away, it was as if they were putting up a performance for us, their captive audience kneeling on the sandy bottom behind the shark sanctuary boundaries. It was at those moments of being in the blue with them did it make a lot of sense to me why humans innovated and tried ways and means to put ourselves in the underwater realm , that which I commend the human race for. I am grateful for underwater diving and truly believe the best way for an education is out there in the wild, not keeping the wild creatures captive for our safe entertainment behind glass walls or metal cages. Your swishy tales and alluring big eyes took my breath away and we loved it best when you come really close and “violated” the rope boundaries to say hi. :) During shark conservation talks and presentations, people sometimes ask me if it is dangerous to dive or swim with sharks. There are about 500 species of sharks in the oceans and only a handful are known to be aggressive (bull sharks, Great White sharks, great hammerhead sharks, to name a few) but even these species are known to be safe to dive with if you are mindful of your dive techniques and breathing.

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The Gato Island dives were beautiful for the fact that we got to see the white tip sharks hiding within the caves as we crouched low to catch glimpses of them resting and circling within the safe confines of their cave.

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We had such wonderful time and wonderful dives with the local dive masters on land and within the oceans and we saw how much love for the water and the oceanic life around Malapascua they had, as they shared their experiences and stories. It is amazing how such a love translates into a daily affair for them and no matter how many divers they encounter each day from different countries, their care and concern for divers they lead and their excitement in showing us the wonders of the deep, remains an endearing constant. Thank you for having inspired us with your charming ways and protection of the marine ecosystems.20130716_071209-300x225 img-20130716-wa0000-225x300

Seeing and hearing about how Malapascua island has been converted from a small fishing island to a dive haven and shark sanctuary over the last 13 years, I am hopeful that Indonesia and Lombok could go in the same direction as this pristine island as well, where once illegal and legal fishing fishermen are now converted boat crew with their extreme care for the divers they take out on the boats each day and the close bond they forge among one another in their playful ways.

JFF – See You Tomorrow, Everyone

So it was time for my annual ritual of catching the Japanese Film Festival since returning to Singapore from the JET program despite the fact that this year’s selects seemed a little lackluster and fell short on appeal to me with the many retrospective and 80s pieces.

I think I made a wise choice for the one movie to catch, with “minasan, sayonara” which left me gutted out and intoxicated by the rich tapestry that weaved the plot together. Set in the 80s of Japan when many self contained housing projects were modeled after the European style buildings and were erected, I thought Yoshihiro Nakamura did splendid dated piece that was meticulously crafted and had no anachronisms peeking through the cracks despite being produced in 2013. I loved the 80s calendar, the ladies bags and the progression along the timeline to the 90s as the time-sensitive objects presented themselves with smooth transition.

It was interesting how the protagonist was presented as a nondescript young men without any striking hunkish features nor stylish hairdo as would any other main lead in movies. I thus found it difficult to feel for Satoru as a character not delve emotionally into his presentation up until the point when the context of how his weird behaviour and hikkokomori tendencies came to be, showed up as a flashback of a disturbed childhood where he witnessed a stabbing of his best friend in his classroom. Once the engagement with his character was locked in for me, I was a sucker for sympathy towards Satoru over every bad thing that ensued upon his character’s fate thereafter.

Naomi Ortega’s insertion into the movie also lent a nostalgic air with a slight tinge of bitterness, to me as I beheld her amazing ball skills with her feet and a reminder of how bad I was at playing football at Bishan Park as a child. Some people have it and some just don’t, alas.

I loved how the satoru’s mother as a character seemed to always be intentionally left in the background throughout the movie anf given little airtime, yet her presence resurfaced and took the wind out of me while leaving me in teary mess, towards the end of the movie after her death and Satoru flipped through the pages of her diary to reveal a very supportive and loving mother who never pushed him to leave the grounds of the project but asked that he scatter her ashes over the waters of Okinawa where they originated, upon her death. Her comforting words to him always ringing through, “you will be just fine wherever you find yourself”.

Truly a gem of a piece, I soaked in and allowed my emotions to ebb and flow at will freely throughout the span of the movie.


Idealism and action

I have always wondered about the cynics in life, the ones who probably once dreamt and allowed their intellect to get in the way of changing the world for good.

So I had a very fulfilling and soulful lunch meet up with a dear old friend who is currently an academic in the beloved field of History in NUS, Edgar, and I must say I always do enjoy the engaging discussions and discourse about life, the hand of politics on volunteerism and social ventures, doing good and everything else under the sun. That was when the issue of the feel good factor, or, as dear Edgar would like to put it, the masturbatory effect, kicks in when communities that propagate and celebrate the great works of one another in the field of volunteerism and social venture come together to congratulate one another once too often through expensive platforms and money making events, and lose focus of the issues at hand, than delving deeper into the passions they had in making a change (if they even ever really had in the first place). Then there are also those who intellectualize everything about doing good in the world that their brilliant brains get the better of them and they choose not to do anything at all as a result. I am glad that despite his brilliant mind and understanding of how certain good that people attempt to do does not really solve problems at the core, dear Edgar still does it anyway, relentless. One example being the distribution of groceries and daily food items to old folks’ homes as a one off event, a few times in a year. A drive he is very involved in planing and executing with youths. On deeper thought, just delivering food in a day does not really solve the core of the problem of need in the homes, but at least a balm is being applied to the sore, Yes, I do agree that there are arguments aplenty about why we should treat the cause than the symptoms when it comes to community work, but if everyone merely intellectualize things, all that talking and writing would get us nowhere in the world. When Chih Peng made a call to his friends on Facebook to join him in distributing less costly masks around the Jurong East neighbourhood, I had my reservations about whether the cheap (non N95) masks would do any good in the haze but I still chose to go down and support his efforts nonetheless and tried to value add by contributing some bottles of herbal tea to distribute alongside the masks as well. Yes, we had limited time and limited resources, but sometimes all one has to do is to take the step to do first, in spite of limitations, and can only be a hopeless romantic in believing that the action would ignite more towards action and call to arms. Good hearts must always be supported.

As Edgar and I went on to delve into the issue of how one person can or cannot change the world, it proved thought provoking that, though I believed in the need for many one leaders that others would follow in the good steps so that one can truly change the world, we cannot deny the history of the world of how strong leadership and charisma had led us to disaster several a moment in time before also. So one person can change the world, but does it mean the world has to be careful who they choose to follow in order to lead the world to damnation or redemption? Is it truly human nature sometimes that most would start with good intentions but when greed and money comes into the equation and charitable initiatives get corporatised into huge charitable organizations, the inevitable is that these initiatives will lose focus and monies will be pumped into excesses that do not contribute to making the world better but instead to fatter pockets of the super rich?

Sometimes I wish I knew the answers and that the world could collectively believe in community effort and the need for stewardship and sustainable practices for food sources but I guess before I get lost too deeply in such thought needlessly, I should not lose sight of the need to just try and do first, keep believing, keep doing. Thank you Edgar, for the exchanges over a good lunch.

World War Z

After a whirlwind week of organizing, packing and delivering The Dorsal Effect t-shirt orders and planning for the September trip to Lombok with a group, I figured I really needed a proper date night with the boy and thank goodness to GV for little perks like discounts on movie tickets with DBS cards.

In a nutshell, I really loved the show we caught, World War Z, and I was probably the only idiot in the theatre who broke down into tears by the end of the movie. It was a show about a possible zombie apocalyptic world where zombies would spread their pathogens like wildfire across the globe causing a great calamity. The movie left me feeling burdened and inspired all in the same breath by the end of it. What happened in the movie wasn’t impossible, in fact, I believe we are all well on a verge of a major calamity upon us now so the line “Most people don’t believe something can happen until it already has. That’s no stupidity or weakness, that’s just human nature. I don’t blame anyone for not believing” really rung through. I thought it all so prophetic that the movie was truly a sign of times before us now. Yet, no matter how hopeless or catastrophic a situation is, there is always hope when people help one another and believe and persist in finding the solution, and, keep moving forward.

With the whole haze situation getting so many people riled up on Facebook recently, I was glad for the SG Haze Rescue team and their ground up initiative. Truly, blaming get no one anywhere and it is usually times of crises when we should stop complaining or blaming the government but band together to think and work on how we can make things better as a community. Thank you Chih Peng for roping me in your initiative to give out masks and herbal tea to those in need at Jurong East MRT station today. It was the smile, the shock that what we were handing out were free from our own pockets, the old lady who gratefully put on the mask the moment we handed them out and those knowing nods that really made all the difference. People need people as we exist as a community and share one world, so we always do what we can. :)

Thank you Straits Times and The Online Citizen, test trip Sept 1-5

June has been quite the eventful month with lots of online and print press coverage. I am heartened indeed but the tons of emails, Facebook messages and text messages from friends, family and (once) strangers who wrote me to get me to fight on for The Dorsal Effect. It is really encouraging to see for myself how so many people really do love sharks and want them alive too.

Reality is always a bitter pill too, this month slapped a whole bunch of expenses on me too, in a bid to move a little faster than my usual slow and steady small steps. I am very heartened by the loads of t-shirt and tank top orders that have been coming in but they are still not enough to cover the cost of the designs ($600) and printing cost of the first batch ($3000). I have also recently just registered The Dorsal Effect as a Private Limited as well, with JSD’s help and the massive amount of $888 cut me back by quite a bit. Maybe it was bad timing for me too but I also  just got poorer by $830 in paying for flights and a dive package to Malapascua in July just so I could dive with the thresher and hammerhead sharks.

Yes, Glen Goei says money can always be made again but with expenses coming all at a go like this, it’s really trying times to press on without wondering if all this would eventually pay off. But I don’t want to disappoint supporters at this point. The Dorsal Effect must go on and I am preparing to be able to bring a team of at least 8 to 10 people to Lombok with me in the first week of September and convince one shark boat to take us out for a proposed snorkelling, whale watching and pink beach at Tanjung Ringgit visiting to see the immediate money to be made from tourists, while also trying to convince them to stop hunting sharks for the month of September. Ambitious but I gotta start the business officially somewhere somehow and hopefully this would help The Dorsal Effect gain traction to win the $10,000 seed funding for the Young Social Entrepreneurs final pitch in October. Let’s go! Pressing on!

So here’s a shout out, anyone keen and free and able to afford to come with me to Lombok 1-5th September? Let me know, let’s gets a great enthusiastic bunch going for this maiden trip! ?

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The past few days after coming back from Lombok saw me swathed in bouts of interviews from various sources. I don’t know how they came to know about The Dorsal Effect but I am thankful for the interest and shout out by them nonetheless. I can only hope all this is not too premature and would help me generate more customers by the time my boat trip excursions materialize.

In the meantime I have been having very vivid nightmares and dreams about the actual execution of The Dorsal Effect’s business plan for I always feel stuck at the point where I have to talk to boat owners in Tanjung Luar about the possibility of refurbishing their boats and taking tourists out. I don’t know how to come across as non threatening and sometimes the massiveness of the Tanjung Luar fish market just overwhelms me to feelings of helplessness.

Nevertheless, I think it’s time to register as a business and as I move on to this step to brave me on to other bigger ones to take, I must remember to take stock and be thankful for the journey thus far that has been filled with countless doubts and frustrations.

I remember the first person I have to thank is Jonn, for a year ago he took the time to sit down with me at Truly Harmony to talk me through possibilities and how I could start an ecotourism business on the supply side. Along the path of last year too, I met up with several dear friends who gave me valuable input from the perspective of technopreneurs, divers, social enterprise lecturers and financial advisors to shape my value proposition. Thank you Elwin, Maode, Julian, Wenxiang, Lionel, Jiawei, Rae, Matthew, Vik, Ivan, Robert, Jamie, Willy and Sharon for making time to sit me through my ideas and help them to take shape or deepen in ideology.

The past year has truly been amazing in putting myself out there and having met so many new people in the process, through networking sessions, entrepreneur groups, social enterprise sessions and the likes. I appreciate the many entrepreneurs who have been there and done that and shared their stories with me and extended the arm of help ot mentor me and guide me through the fruition of The Dorsal Effect. Thank you Ai Lin, Matt (Rigbye), Carlos, Nathan (Curry), Mike (Anderson), Fergie (Miller), Zenos, Cameron (Hunt), Elvin (Ang), Elim (Chew), Nawal (Roy), Keith, Tung Han, Jonathan, Isu, Henry, Stephanus, Eka, Adam, Linawaty, Mz, Peter (Bassett) and Chang Ming for crossing paths in life with me in the recent months and for believing in me and the cause and for giving such great support and leverage to advance forwards at times when I felt most stuck.

Thank you Eugene, Evan, Barbs and Henrik, Victor, Catherine, Delphine, Fiona, Sarah, Debbie, Elaine, Sean, Aditya for re-sharing and/or contributing to my Indiegogo campaign ( and of course the dear dear ex-students, Jason, Hafiz and Jacob who gave so much of their time and effort to create the beautifully edited business pitch video.

Thank you, all my dear dear ex students and followers who have liked The Dorsal Effect’s Facebook page and shown so much support and love through your likes and re-shares. You have helped so much in gaining reach for The Dorsal Effect.

What would I do without the dearest closest ones who help me with all the technicalities and actual work to hoist me forward while still putting up with my bouts of ugly and negative moments of frustration aplenty to bring themselves to continue encouraging me. Thank you, dearest Kern, Mae, Sin, Joyce, Irene, Pam (Soh), Junquan, Phil (Kendall) Wei Yuet, Agus, Ly, sweet Wilson and my dearest brother Winston (despite being so far away from me physically).

I know a shout out of gratitude at this stage may seem a little premature given the huge hurdles before me right now, but I just really felt I should give due credit to all who have given so much of themselves in so many ways just to help me as much as I can and I feel truly truly blessed enough to know I cannot back down and let you down at this point.

Thank you, The Online Citizen and Howard, for giving me air time on your great space despite being in the midst of protest preparation against the MDA licencing. All of you mentioned in this blog post are the ones I am thankful to be blessed with as mentioned in this article:

May I make the September trip to Lombok a reality with even more doors opened thereafter and may I drive away all the demons within me, namely laziness, fear, feelings of being too small and inadequate, doubt and feelings of financial insecurity. Let’s move forward!

“Always be in gratitude. Gratitude keeps your heart open, When you give with an open heart, you receive the profound gift of humility” – 29 Gifts, Cami Walker

“Two things define you, your patience when you have nothing, and your attitude when you have everything.”

Tanjung Luar day 2 on 23rd May 2013

We made our way back to Tanjung Luar fish market again the following morning with Peter this time and we were in for some shocking finds this time.

We got to the market at about 5.45am and saw the trucks unloading styrofoam ice boxes of catches from the day before, for sale. We stood at the harbour for a while waiting to see the catch for the day and it wasn’t before long that a handful of baby hammerhead sharks were brought it, much disturbing to see the local women holding them by their heads to be brought into the market though…

A boat with dolphin pictures painted on it caught my attention. It docked for a while but no crew was emerging from it, nor was anything being unloaded for the next half an hour or so. As I sat down with a fishermen to get information about his life as a boat crew for a shark boat, we started to see big black carcasses being removed from the hull of the dolphin boat but not being unloaded. Agus said it was dolphins that they had in their boat and I was horrified. I had heard about the stringent laws against catching of lumba-lumbas (dolphins) several times when I had come to Tanjung Luar before and had thought it was in place already yet today we saw the dead dolphins for ourselves, rising from a black market demand for them. The boat moved away from the harbour as they saw us nearing with our cameras and started unloading them unto a smaller boat discreetly from a distance. As the small boat docked behind the harbour and were being unloaded, we saw them trying to hide the 5 dolphin (Long Beaked Common Dolphin species) carcasses in between what looked like square furnaces extending from the ground. It was a grim moment for us all as we stood by to capture the images but with sinking hearts, no less.

More baby scalloped baby hammerhead sharks were also seen and looking at the increasingly smaller sizes of the sharks being caught at Tanjung Luar, it really feels like time is running out despite the CITES ruling against all species of hammerhead sharks being caught.

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Trip 3 to Lombok, back to Tanjung Luar Day 1, May 22nd 2013

Things fall into place when you meet the face behind Aquatic Alliance, the Rays research and educational outreach guys from Lembongan Island whom I had been following on Facebook very closely for their awesome rays underwater shots, for a while now!

So before we got to meeting Aquatic Alliance’s Peter with Gili Ecotrust’s Delphine Robbe in Senggigi today, it was back to Tanjung Luar fish market again for me this morning after a five month hiatus. Many things seemed to have changed since then though. There was a new jetty built with kelong style extension floating platforms, the abattoirs with wide open spaces where the sharks were usually laid out, examined by traders and butchered had repainted walls and new abattoirs in the process of being built, the sharks were brought in a lot earlier and were much MUCH younger. The officially sign which said there was to be no killing of thresher sharks and dolphins, which had been put up and half ripped out when I first came in September last year and ¾ ripped when I saw in December again now left not even a trance of its previous existence.

We saw a total of 4 piles of sharks, all no bigger than 1.5metres long maximum.

The first pile had 5 baby sharks, I am guessing only about 1-3 years old including ray sharks, reef sharks and black tip sharks.

The next pile we saw was in the shed were the sharks were usually laid out, a total of 12 sharks maybe slightly older than the first pile, about juveniles up to 2 metres long and which included white tip, black tip and hammerhead sharks.

Just as we were photographing the second pile, a stack of about 15 baby sharks (what looked like leopard sharks to us but we couldn’t be sure), still writhing about were brought in and as they gasped for breath and struggled in vain to get out from the cluster I found it extremely hard to hold back on emotions.

The subsequent pile we saw was out beside the trucks were they were usually loaded up after sale. It consisted of about 12 juvenile sharks, slightly smaller then the second pile ones in the shed, which included about 6 hammerhead sharks and 2 other shark species I was not able to identify.

Agus shared about how the government has plans to build a new shark market at Labuhan Lombok near the harbour for boats to Sumbawa and I found tat a most unsettling piece of news instead.

We found out that during a “good” season month where many sharks can be caught thanks to strong currents and colder waters, the monthly wage for shark fishermen was: Rp20million


for captain, Rp20million divided out among the rest of the crew of about 4-5 boatmen (who were usually badly treated with unfair wages and made to cough out amounts from their already lower wages to pay for maintenance of boat facilities and repairs. On bad season months, fishermen could be expected to take home nothing. So that’s the wages I have to match without exploiting the fishermen.

The silver lining for the day, perhaps, was that it was good to hear the fishermen sharing about having heard rumours about Singapore already banning import of shark fin soup and how they felt the impact in Hong Kong that less restaurants are importing so they resort to exporting the dried fins to Surabaya instead, fetching lower prices than before

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On nostalgia, Tiong Bahru and getting older

I know hitting my thirties is hardly even considered getting older, but after traipsing through Tiong Bahru area with the boy today, it hit me now, what it meant then, when older folks lament of how things change, while we were younger and impatient and thought change necessary for greater things to happen in our bright future ahead of us. That a transformed Singapore was better able to handle our dreams and ideals then. I used to read Kim Cheng Boey’s Between Stations thinking him as one who was too reminiscent of the past, but suddenly now I shared in his thoughts too.

“You are an emigrant to those you left behind and immigrant to your new friends. But in between the tags fall of. You lose the certainty of the state you are in, as though you are on a train whose front half rests in one state and whose back carriages lag in another. In between, you pass the same stations again and again, stations whose names blur and become interchangeable and you forget if you have a destination…”

So a recent posting by Bridgette on Facebook about her visit to Tiong Bahru area and how some of the old provision shops, confectioneries and coffee shops are slowly making way for one too many indie pretentious cafes in the area inspired me to explore a little more of that region and share in some of the steps she took in her recent exploits as well.

In spite of the dizzyingly humid weather, we walked around the lanes of old Tiong Bahru through the SIT preserved colonial buildings rather extensively and the afternoon spent there left the heart a little heavier and emotionally burdened than when we first started out.

We popped into Hua Bee Coffee shop at Guan Moh Terrace after lunch at Tiong Bahru Market, just so we could sip a cup of Teh-C and take in the sights and sounds about. I don’t know if I was overthinking or romanticizing, but for some strange reason, everyone else sitting down and having a drink at the coffee shop seemed to have a deep connection to the place and it lent a comfortable and real atmosphere to the natural nostalgia of the humble coffee shop with its heavy marble tables and old-fashioned tiles. As we sipped away, I noticed an elderly man walking by with a plastic bag filled to the brim with empty cans and as he took each step laboriously, I felt as if the merciless harshness of time left no thought for human emotions. He dropped his bag and I was about to get up and help him but despite his labored movements, he managed to pick it up on his own quickly enough. He stopped as a bulky middle aged man who sat by the entrance to the coffee shop handed the can collector his empty drink can.

can collector: kam sia (thank you)

bulky customer: Man man lai, lu ka tia. (take it easy, your leg is hurting you)

Just the simple exchange left a poignant image in my head against the backdrop the sultry afternoon heat, and time just stood still there and there as tears welled up and fell from my eyes. Life gets harder as we age and though comfort and joy can be found in the everyday routines of work such as setting up shop and collecting empty drink cans, no romanticizing can deny the actual pain, aches and sores that come with age. As we left the coffee shop and asked the owner for directions to He Cheng Provision Shop, he told us that it had already been vacated and rented out to a brand new cafe owner. I said “but I thought it was only supposed to be in June?” The coffee shop owner said no, it has already moved out. As I turned dejectedly to walk out, a man sitting close by and who overheard our exchange, took a benign glance at us, and looked down at his coffee, nodding away to himself knowingly, as if filled with the same regret we were feeling at the loss.

We went to Books Actually after that and I kept wondering to myself, how does this little indie book store compare with the new cafes around that I am so determined to boycott now? I love the initiative of book stores as a dying culture, yet it being in the heart of old Tiong Bahru made it seem like yet another anachronism that I struggled to reconcile with.

Drips, 40 Hands, Orange Thimble, Tiong Bahru Bakery…all run by young ones with fresh ideals, how many would remain holding the fort for the business till old age, the way the folks of Tiong Bahru Market and the surviving coffee shops in the vicinity have been and still are?

It wasn’t a day that was easy on the heart and I don’t know why the sense of loss was felt heavily, but I know I should be back again soon enough…

“I felt chastened, that I should be wallowing in nostalgia for things I’ve barely experienced, and displaced – that these retirees should adapt so easily to the new Singapore while I count the losses each year. I am confronted with my own malaise; the problem is me, not the government or the people. I have never been able to be at home in the present; the only place I can feel at peace in is the past, and the only people I can be at peace with are the dead.”

– Change Alley, Kim Cheng Boey

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