UWS senior diver says goodbye to 'band of friends'

He's been hand-feeding the fish every day for the last 25 years and believes they recognise him by his bubbles.

"I think the fish recognise me by my breathing," senior diver Philip Chan told The New Paper yesterday.

In three months' time, the 62-year-old aquarist would have celebrated his 26th year working at the Underwater World Singapore (UWS).

"I was involved in the construction and setting up of UWS in 1990, bringing in different fishes and sea creatures. Some of them were caught and others, bought," he said.

That made Mr Chan, a former lifeguard, the longest-serving staff at UWS, which is wholly owned by Haw Par Corporation.

Mr Chan will bid farewell to his marine wards on June 26, when UWS closes its doors for the last time.

In its 2015 annual report, parent company Haw Par said that its leisure segment, which includes its two oceanariums in Singapore and in Pattaya, Thailand, was badly affected by changing visitor demographics and stiff competition from newer attractions in both places. It saw the number of visitors to the aquariums fall by 16 per cent.

Mr Chan leads a team of divers in checking and cleaning the aquarium, its systems and all the sea creatures. They also prepare more than 100kg of cut fish, squid and prawn as food for the animals every day.

During festive periods such as Christmas and Chinese New Year, he would don neoprene Santa and God of Fortune costumes, respectively, and dive with his tub of fish treats.

The eagle rays and golden trevallies were the most eager yesterday, nipping at his gloves while visitors gawked and snapped photos of the feeding.

Among Mr Chan's favourite are the nurse sharks.

"They are so quietly tame," he said, adding that he was sad to have to say goodbye to his "band of friends".

"We intend to find them the best homes and environment. The next time I see them, I might not recognise them anymore but if I dive, they might recognise me."

Since the announcement that the UWS is closing its doors for good on June 26, visitors thronged the place yesterday.

Housewife Dewi Mayang Sari, 39, took her daughters, aged four and six, to see the place where she used to work as part-time tour guide.

"I was 17 and wanted to make a bit of pocket money. I remember the visitors were mostly Japanese tourists. I had to learn Japanese on the fly," she said.

"I feel sad the place is closing. It held so many memories for me."

Coffee shop owner Diong Nguk King, 45, had always wanted to visit "but my business kept me busy".

"When I read that it was shutting for good at the end of the month, my husband and I closed shop for the day and took our daughter here," she said.

"We are too late for the dolphins and seals, which have left."

To mark its closing, UWS is giving free admissions to beneficiaries from charity partners it worked with in the past. Tickets for the public have also returned to 1991 prices - when the attraction first opened - at $9 per adult and $5 per child.