A juvenile macaque checks out my team as the adult looks out towards the beach on Sisters’ Island (photo courtesy of Patrick Kramer)
The legend of Sisters’ Island (also known as Pulau Subar Laut – Big Sister’s and Pulau Subar Darat – Little Sister’s) is quite poignant. It tells of two pretty sisters, Minah and Linah. Upon the deaths of their parents the sisters moved to their uncle’s village. One day Linah was accosted by a group of pirates and the pirate chief decided he would take Linah as his wife. As Linah was taken away from her sister on the pirate ship a violent storm whipped up – in which Minah drowned as she swam after her beloved sister. Linah, distraught at the loss of her sister, jumped into the sea in search of Minah. The following morning, there was no sign of the drowned girls, but two islands had emerged from the sea in the very spots they had drowned, forming what we know today as Sisters’ Island.
It’s fitting that islands steeped in such a tumultuous legend are inhabited by some of Singapore’s rowdiest macaques. I call this ‘Survivor: Return to Sisters’ Island’ because last year my team and I were unceremoniously voted off the island by a tribunal of monkeys. There were no immunity challenges – if there were, we certainly were not privy to them – or perhaps we simply lost. Moreover, given the small size of both islands, this particular edition of Survivor could be likened to the clock-island-arena out of the second Hunger Games novel – where, as the hours ticked by, we were relegated to different slivers of the island. In last year’s sampling expedition the ladies and I came prepared (or so we thought) to camp for 3 days – we lasted 3 hours.
We made several mistakes the first time around, not the least of which was underestimating the tempers of wild monkeys and overestimating the effectiveness of our snake-decorated shoehorn (my previous means of keeping cranky macaques at bay). Within 30 minutes the clever monkeys had unzipped both layers of the tent along with every zippered pocket in all the bags we foolishly imagined we had stored securely inside our tents. This also mean the vast majority of our potable water had now been unceremoniously spilled after the macaques punctured the bottles in the hopes of getting at some tasty juice or cola. It was about when I saw a monkey running around with my wallet that I called the trip and decided we needed to get out of dodge.
The scientist in me always tries to learn from my past mistakes so this year I came ready for the monkeys to be disagreeable. Instead of my less than formidable shoehorn, I had trekking poles and bamboo (to be honest, I think we brought the shoehorn for good measure). I also did not even consider camping again, the excitement of setting up a tent was way too much for these monkeys to handle – this time the orders were that everything must be carried on your back and those backpacks were not to be set down.
My team and I set out planning to stop briefly on Little Sister’s Island to verify that no more macaques lived there. To my great surprise, there were two adults males who had very adeptly hid during the previous years survey. You can literally walk around the entire island in 5 minutes or less. There is a very tiny patch of forest that those two must have hunkered down in during our previous visit. In the excitement of finding the two monkeys (and again in the gross error of underestimating the resourcefulness of ‘just two monkeys’) I deemed it okay to set down my bag. After sampling the first male and trying to coax the second out of the tree we returned to our bumboat to cross the channel to Big Sister’s Island. When we came back to the dock, I found my entire bags contents displayed out on the pier. I’m ashamed to admit, I found myself confused for a solid 15 seconds before realizing that the first monkey had run over to check out our stash while our attention was on the second. These guys are pros! Counting myself incredibly lucky to have my wallet on the pier rather than the ocean we headed on to the bigger show, starring a 20 strong contingency of macaques.
The sampling protocol changes paid off this time around. We even had the chance to enjoy the beach for a bit before the monkeys emerged from the forest. Ultimately we came away with samples from approximately half the group – though some males were more generous donors (aka they were pretty aggressively interested in hoarding the swabs). The more dominant males gave chase to us a few times, though I was pleased to realize that by holding the bag of swabs I had been relegated some monkey entrancing super power I had not held previously. I was the member of my team best tolerated by the group, she who holds to syrup soaked cotton holds the power. With sampling completed, our team headed out, leaving the Sisters’ Island macaques to forage in the forest and await the next group of adventurous, yet potentially poorly prepared campers.
Until next time,