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Explore these offshore islands & their creepy past

The unseen on Singapore's offshore islands: unique wildlife and legends galore.

Swim away and explore the other islands.
Swim away and explore the other islands.© Amazing Dive

Singapore is an island surrounded by islands and islets. While travelling abroad to seek adventure and excitement is an exercise in planning and anticipation itself, opportunities exist right here in Singapore on tiny fragments of land that remain untainted by development and offer adventures provided in combination by Mother Nature, historical legends and your own imagination. Leave your footprints on Singapore’s offshore islands as a wilderness explorer as you scour the coastlines on the hunt for marine life, peer inside caves and dive to the depths of the ocean to see thriving coral reefs in Singapore’s first marine park. Indiana Jones would approve.

1. Tanjong Rimau at Sentosa

Access to caves at Tanjong Rimau varies.
Access to caves at Tanjong Rimau varies. © WonderCreation.Blogspot

Creepy Past: Previously called Pulau Blakang Mati, and tied to contested histories of warrior spirits, pirates, disease and mass deaths, this island now has a far more innocent name of Sentosa. Sentosa has a reputation for being a family-friendly destination for a beach getaway, but venture a little further from Shangri-La's Rasa Sentosa in five minutes and you will hit an unassuming natural coastline. It seems quiet and tranquil, with towering natural cliff formations and gentle waves on the shore, until you catch a glimpse of a monitor lizard scurrying past you into the cave in the distance which seems to have been vandalised with graffiti in Chinese characters... one of which says 'ghost'. We're not certain of its origins, but we suspect that it has something to do with Sentosa's colourful history.

What to Do There: Besides caves, Tanjong Rimau is home to Sentosa's last natural reef after extensive land reclamation led to coral losses in 2007 and sandy deposits on the rocky shore. Thankfully, some of the wildlife seems to be on track to recovery according to wildlife experts at WildSingapore – today, you can spot the sturdier species of boulder shaped corals in the slightly murky waters if you're sharp-eyed enough during low tides. Rare native plant species can also be spotted in the dense coastal forest nearby, including carnivorous Raffles pitcher plants that drown insects.

A short boat ride away from the mainland.
A short boat ride away from the mainland.© Judy Goh

2. St John’s Island

Creepy Past: Once a quarantine centre for cholera victims (and many of whom died in a mass outbreak), and a holding facility for illegal immigrants, St John’s island is a rustic bum boat ride away from Marina South Pier. Despite this spooky history, you can now book overnight stays at the chalet and explore the undisturbed parts of the forests and trekking trails up the hill – maybe even after nightfall with a powerful torch. Some will take you to the Tropical Marine Science Institute research facilities, or workers‘ dormitories, or maybe something still undiscovered. Whichever road you choose to take, you’ll be reminded at every stage that this island is ruled by cats as they haughtily stalk their territory and meow for goodies.

What to Do There: Walk along the land bridge to Lazarus Island, past impeccable terrestrial forest vegetation, and uncover a little beach paradise that will ensure that you will never have to rub shoulders with the hordes of photogenic masses off Sentosa’s commercialised beaches. Here, the well-hidden swimming lagoons are crystal clear and dotted with private yacht boats – and that’s how you know that this is a well-kept secret. The more rugged adventurers are clambouring onto the rocky shore and rooting around for remnants of marine life: a moon crab scurrying away into the sand, a sand dollar in the sand... Even though you might be tempted to dive into the waters from the rock outcrops, remember that there are no lifeguards on duty.

Lazarus Island's sand is so white, it’s unreal.
Lazarus Island's sand is so white, it’s unreal.©
A crab moult found on Pulau Hantu.
A crab moult found on Pulau Hantu. © Judy Goh

3. Pulau Hantu

Creepy Past: A creepy adventure is incomplete without the mention of Pulau Hantu – since its name literally translates to “Ghost Island” in Malay based off the folklore about a bloodthirsty battle between two warriors that was intervened by a Jinn, or spirit, of the ocean. These two warriors were transformed into islets: Pulau Hantu Kecil and Pulau Hantu Besar, divided by a small mangrove patch as sea water meets freshwater.

What to Do There: Today, these two islands are known especially for their rich coral reefs, and is one of the few locations for divers to snorkel and scuba dive locally. Clownfish, damselfish and seahorses have been spotted on dives, along with sightings of the rare giant clam. If you’re not a diver, you can still spot incredible wildlife in the waters. Put on some scuba booties, grab a pal and come at low tide to see sea stars littering the shore, the way stars do at night in the sky if only the city weren’t afflicted with light pollution. But we wouldn’t recommend staying out here late, just saying...

Iridescent corals on Pulau Hantu during low tide.
Iridescent corals on Pulau Hantu during low tide. © Judy Goh

4. Sisters' Island

Dive trails are challenging but entirely worth it.
Dive trails are challenging but entirely worth it.© NEA by TodayOnline

Creepy Past: Sisters' Island refers to two islands – Little and Big Sisters' Island. Instead of a warrior battle that formed Pulau Hantu, this is a legend of the tragic drowning of two sisters, Lina and Minah, whose kinship, while admirable, led them to their deaths. In a botched kidnapping rescue attempt, Lina and Minah were engulfed by the waves of the ocean.

What to Do There: The story of Sisters' Island serves as a cautionary tale for those attempting to swim in the currents surrounding Sisters' Island, which are very strong. Divers hoping to go on National Parks Board-approved dive trails must be strong swimmers and divers with at least an Advanced certificate and a recent dive in local waters (see Pulau Hantu for the only other location in Singapore to dive). The same currents that lead to difficult dives and danger have seeded a thriving coral community that is now protected as Sisters' Island Marine Park, Singapore’s first marine park and a refuge for marine life constantly under threat in our busy shipping waters. While Sisters' Island is now accessible only by privately chartered boats, or if you’re lucky enough to get a spot on one of Nparks‘ coveted guided trails, which is even more difficult to get on than the guest list to the hottest clubs, the visit is worth it to see jewel after jewel of live seagrasses, seastars and different species of coral right up close in their natural state and not in an aquarium.

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Written by Judy Goh