What I learned after cleaning a mangrove with OBS instructors

Sikit-sikit jadi bukit.

Amanda Tan

Skills include buying the same jeans in different colours.

Published: 9 November 2021, 9:34 AM

When I first heard the word “swamp”, the only thing that came to mind was, obviously, Shrek.

Apart from the big screen, I had never seen one in person, let alone stepped into one. Luckily for me, I got the chance to do so on Sep 21.

In light of International Coastal Cleanup Month, I followed 14 Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) instructors to a mangrove swamp at Lim Chu Kang to help pick up marine debris and do some data collection. This was part of a session for the OBS instructors to reinforce their knowledge of coastal clean up.

The International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) is an annual event that is conducted in 70 to 100 other countries every September. It aims to educate the public on marine debris issues and to encourage positive change by data submissions to governmental and international organisations. This is done in a bit to reduce debris in waterways and enhance aquatic environments.


The ICC acts as immediate relief to help reduce the stunted growth of the mangrove. PHOTO CREDIT: OUTWARD BOUND SINGAPORE


The coastal cleanup was led by ‘Otterman’, Mr N. Sivasothi, a senior lecturer from National University of Singapore’s Department of Biological Sciences.

As you can tell by his moniker, Siva is extremely well-versed in all things marine biology. Before we went in, he gave us a short briefing on what to expect. He also listed some dos and don’ts, such as looking before you step and not touching any man-made trash that has been made into a home by the marine creatures.

By watching where our feet would land, it ensured that we would not snap any mangrove seedlings or smash any marine creatures like the horseshoe crabs. As for not clearing trash that has been made into a home, it was done so as to avoid disrupting the animals as well as the established ecosystem.

Upon dividing ourselves into groups of three — as part of social distancing measures as well as to minimise any impact on the mangrove — we slowly made our way into the mud.

For a moment, navigating through the mud made me feel like I was on American Ninja Warrior — one wrong move meant either killing a mangrove seedling or sacrificing my shoe to the mud. Not to mention the prickly branches that stuck out at awkward angles and the rotten egg-like stench which was strong enough to be smelled through my mask.

With the help of the OBS instructors, I managed to find a safe route by stepping on dead logs and hardened soil. Once we reached our assigned section, we distributed the gunny sacks and got to work.

At any one time, two people were collecting trash while one of us was logging the data. To illustrate, those cleaning up would shout out the item they had collected. For example, a plastic bottle cap. The recorder would then echo said item before noting it down on the data sheet.


The data sheet was categorized according to the different waste products. Styrofoam, plastic (wrappers, containers, bottles, straws) and plastic barrels were the most commonly found waste. PHOTO CREDIT: OUTWARD BOUND SINGAPORE


As the saying goes: “Seeing is believing.”

I was utterly shocked by the amount of debris that had washed up on the shores. According to Siva, most of these are contributed by international waters like the Johor Straits. From plastic containers to rubber tubes, and even a soccer ball, the mangrove was pretty much filled with all sorts of trash imaginable.

After an hour or so, we (or rather the OBS instructors in my team) managed to fill three gunny sacks of trash. As a heavy storm was coming our way, Siva urged us to make our way out and collate the data.

My team and I gathered a whopping 32kg worth of trash with plastic bottles topping our list as the most collected item.


Weighing the amount of trash helps us keep track of what we have collected. This data can then be used to see which areas need more attention. PHOTO CREDIT: OUTWARD BOUND SINGAPORE


Soon enough, it started pouring and we sought shelter at the nearby bus stop as we waited for the shuttle bus to bring us to our next stop — Outward Bound Singapore (Reception and Activity Centre).

Workshop With ICCS

After a hearty lunch, we sat around in groups of five and engaged in a discussion conducted by Siva. The main objective of the session was to share more about the environment with the OBS instructors so that they can impart more knowledge to their participants.

As the bulk of OBS programmes are targeted towards 15-year-olds, in order to educate them, information has to be shared through impactful means that either relate to them or are able to evoke an emotional response from them.

“What’s a story that’s short, sharp and memorable? What exactly appeals to 15-year-olds?” asked Siva. He suggested showing the students pictures or videos of marine animals to help instructors tell a better story that will stick with the students.

One such example is “Operation Free Aquarius” whereby in November 2017, over 20 people gathered together to help rescue an injured otter pup from a wire that had constricted its body for months.

He emphasised the importance of linking the marine animal to some sort of identity or name so that the kids will remember the story.

The discussion then progressed to addressing the issue of man-made waste.

The first group brought up the approach of “education first” by explaining to students the importance of caring for the environment.

However, Siva brought up the point that while education is integral, the delivery is the most critical. Explaining the rationale behind these cleanups might not work as the audience is young. He reiterated that it’s good to help the kids focus on just one individual and their story.

Instructors’ Takeaways

Towards the end of the workshop, the instructors were told to consolidate three learning outcomes, articulate one impact and elaborate on how they plan on incorporating their learnings into their coursework. They could also share one personal takeaway from the day’s activities.

In terms of how they are planning on conducting their courses, some said they intend to share their personal stories with the students. Others mentioned the use of extrinsic rewards as a way to have students question their motivations.

“I think our job is to make the kids confused so that (eventually), they’ll be able to see a clearer version of themselves,” said Instructor Joshua Wong.

Everyone collectively agreed that awareness was a key learning point. The instructors touched on the idea of “out of sight, out of mind”, and that the coastal cleanup served as a harsh reality check for them to do better not only as individuals but as educators as well.

This newfound awareness of needing to protect and conserve nature will definitely be translated into the OBS programmes so as to help the students understand and feel for the world around them.

As Siva said: “We need to learn more about nature before we begin to help nature.”

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