“Every time you go into the sea, you see and learn something new. It’s a time when you just focus on what’s around you – there are no distractions. It’s really a space where you meditate, although it’s in the water!” As he speaks about the calming effect that diving can have on a person, you start to understand what it is about the sea that attracts Dr Toh Tai Chong so much.
The sea has been a fixture in Dr Toh’s life for more than 15 years now. What started off as a personal interest after he picked up diving at 19 has morphed into an area of research, volunteering, and teaching. After completing his PhD in marine biology with NUS Biological Sciences in 2014, Dr Toh joined the NUS Tropical Marine Science Institute as a researcher. He still works at the institute today, in addition to lecturing at the NUS College of Alice & Peter Tan on topics related to conservation and sustainability.
In recounting his relationship with the sea, Dr Toh shared both good and bad moments: the excitement of seeing the myriad sights and colours of the underwater world, as well as the agony of witnessing its beauty being ruined by climate change and human activity. One of his most sobering memories was of a diving trip in Phuket in 2010, where he saw an entire reef colony bleached white, a ghostly shell of its former self. “No matter how deep you go, every single thing that we saw was white. That really got me thinking: how does this impact people living around the ocean? How do our actions affect the reefs?” he recalled.
This episode made Dr Toh realise that research could only go so far in tackling environmental issues. As many of these problems are rooted in human activity, they can only be solved with human intervention. His desire to take action was further fuelled by offers of help from the public. People from all walks of life, from teenagers to retirees, were calling NUS to ask if they could help conserve Singapore waters. Motivated to find a public platform for marine conservation, Dr Toh founded Our Singapore Reefs (OSR) with his colleague, Sam Shu Qin, in 2017. OSR holds regular reef clean-ups where volunteer divers plumb the seas for trash, collecting them for proper disposal on land. It also holds talks, workshops and film screenings to raise awareness of the need for conservation.
OSR has removed over a staggering 500kg of marine debris to date. This figure underscores a reality that Dr Toh is painfully aware of. “Somewhere below the sea there is still a washing machine,” he mused wryly as he listed the heavy items that the OSR divers have not been able to move. Despite the scale of the problem of environmental degradation, Dr Toh feels that every small act counts, and that everyone can play a part in saving the earth. “No matter who you are, conservation and sustainability have to be an integral part of your life.”
This article was first published on Inside NUS.