Sometimes it only takes one person to prove that you haven’t really explored a place, or actually looked at your surroundings, the way you’re meant to. And that’s a shame, because there’s so much to see and do, so much to appreciate and be thankful for, and so much knowledge to dig up.
In my case, that person is Heng Pei Yan, who I feel fulfils so many roles and accomplishes a lot through them. Whether you’re a tourist or a resident, she can change your views of life (both human and animal) in Singapore, its landscape, islands and marine environment.
You only need to hear Pei Yan’s experiences:
As a Maths and Science teacher
“My students are always amazed by the amount of activities I’m involved in outside of my role as a teacher, as seen through my Instagram posts. They tend to ask me where my next adventure will be, what exciting things I saw during my recent nature-related trips in Singapore, and whether or not I’m going out for an adventure from school.
“I’ve also had students tell me stories about the animals they encounter, or that they participated in certain activities before.
“When you have interesting conversations with your students, they feel more connected to you even though nature may not be one of their interests. Of course, I was covering the required syllabus for the respective subjects that I teach.”
As a volunteer nature guide with Naked Hermit Crabs
“People bring stories to share. Parents and grandparents, especially, have lots of information about mangroves, anything kampung-related, the olden days. I really appreciate their willingness to share these things with the other participants during a guided walk.
“I’ve had grandparents share how they played in the mangroves when they were young, or that the giant mudskipper can be eaten and they saw it being sold at wet markets before. Their stories add value to the experience of guided walks, and increase my knowledge as a nature guide.
“Kids play an important role during guided walks as well. I make them my extra pairs of eyes to keep them active and observant. They really enjoy spotting critters in the mangroves.
“I once gave a crab-counting task to a kid. Initially, it was difficult for him to spot crabs as they blend in well in the mangroves; but halfway through the mangrove boardwalk, the child was spotting almost every single crab he could find until he lost count. I had him count a different animal then.” :)
As a guide for intertidal walks at Sisters’ Islands Marine Park
“There’s never a disappointing moment when you visit a place of nature. While visitors may bring with them high expectations of what they’re going to see at the marine park, there are days when there are just very little critters to be spotted in the intertidal zone.
“As an intertidal guide, we may feel down for a while, but there are still critters that can be spotted most of the time, or many other interesting stories in the intertidal zone to share – like snail trails, seagrass, birds, and the busy waterway surrounding the marine park.
“Regardless of how many things they see during the trip, visitors will always enjoy getting their shoes wet and walking in the shallow waters carefully. I hope this will inspire them to want to explore our shores more to see the amazing marine life.”
As a diver
“People tend to ask me these questions: ‘Singapore can dive meh?’ or ‘Singapore waters so murky, got things to see?’ Many divers tend to think of crystal-clear waters or beautiful coral reefs when it comes to diving, and hardly enjoy Singapore’s waters’ condition. However, I find that Singapore’s waters bring lots of surprises if you pause and look around.
“My favourite moments as a diver include spotting dolphins during one of the survey dives at the marine park, being able to witness coral spawning, and spotting live cone snails (yes, I get excited when I find a live cone snail).”
As a nature photographer
“I enjoy doing macro photography and actually started out doing terrestrial macro photography. When I went into the marine environment, I had to learn how to adapt to the saltwater environment and work with flash angles and torches, especially when doing pre-dawn or dusk intertidal surveys.
“In a marine environment, water is the greatest enemy when you need to use flash to light up your subject. So it’s very important to take note of the angle of your camera and that it’s pointing at the subject. I love to take interesting behaviours or animals.”
As the “drone commander” for the intertidal team
“I really enjoy aerial photography and am constantly improving on my aerial photography skills. Aerial photography provides a very different perspective of our reefs and southern islands, which many people haven't seen before. Aerial photography allows us to have a view of the island or submerged reef profile.
“The initial plan was to use the drone to try to capture dugongs, dolphins or sea turtles when we are out doing our intertidal surveys. At the moment, I’ve yet to capture any of them, but I’ve recorded reef sharks and stingrays swimming in our reefs. I hope to be able to meet dolphins and sea turtles with the drone someday.”
As someone with Type 2 Diabetes, who serves as an ambassador and supports others with diabetes as well
“There are still so many things to learn about diabetes and healthcare. Being an ambassador doesn’t mean I have all the answers to questions about diabetes. The opportunities for me to be present at conferences, forum or panel discussions, and to also interact with others living with diabetes around the world, have provided me with a different perspective on diabetes management and healthcare. It’s inspiring to hear stories about others who live well with diabetes.”
And as part of a team of marine biodiversity lovers who monitor Singapore’s marine environment and ecosystems
“There are some stories (one regarding stonefish and another on cone snails) that will stay forever in our book of scary encounters and what not to do. You never know what you’ll encounter until you explore the intertidal zone or go diving. There will always be something to surprise you.
“I still remember how my friends were talking about looking for a galloping sea star (Stellaster equestris) at the location we were headed for. I had to use Google to know what a galloping sea star looked like. When we landed at the survey location, I spotted an unusual sea star, and it turned out to be the galloping sea star my friend was hoping to see. Looks like I had beginner’s luck that day.” :)
More nature, more feelings of peace
“I guess my love for nature started when I was young,” she recalls. “My parents liked to bring the family out to the Lim Chu Kang area to visit farms, or somewhere else in Singapore to look at abandoned fish farm ponds. I tried catching fish from longkangs before and that was fun.
“As I grew older, I realised that I pause while walking along pavements to look at trees and plants, feel the wind, or listen to the rustling of the leaves. I think I was rather on the odd side,” she confesses, adding that “While I enjoy walking through the forest, I am drawn more towards the marine environment.”
That’s okay, because it’s a habit that creates a positive effect. (And I think she’s not alone in doing that.) :)
“There’s that calming feeling that natures gives you, as though it’s speaking to you but using a different mode of communication,” she observes. “Being able to do outdoor activities helps to recharge my mind.”
Give it a second chance
So before you travel to faraway places, why not consider a staycation of sorts first? :) With her experiences as inspiration, Pei Yan encourages us to revisit familiar areas, discover new locations, and participate in activities that bring us closer to nature and can help save the animals and the environment.
“If you’re just starting out to appreciate nature, just go with an ‘exploring’ mind. Keep your camera equipment first until you’re comfortable with the place you’re visiting. Many times, I find that just enjoying nature without the use of technology provides moments for myself to use my senses more frequently and self-reflect,” she says.
“Many people tend to rush through places and then feel that nature has nothing interesting to offer them. Appreciating nature requires patience and an effort to slow down as you enter the area. Slowing down helps us to focus better and many interesting critters will start to appear.”
Just don’t forget: “As visitors to places of nature, we should be responsible for our actions, follow the rules and keep the place clean.”
“I feel happier after visiting a place of nature, no matter how tiring the trip may be,” Pei Yan reveals. After following her tips, we hope you’ll feel the same. :)