Following an accidental death at the closed Underwater World Singapore (UWS) aquarium in Sentosa on Tuesday, operations to relocate the facility’s animals have been suspended.
Phillip Chan, 62, the head diver of the defunct facility, was moving stingrays in preparation for transfer to another aquarium when one of them stung him in the chest. Singapore newspaper The New Paper reported no prior such stingray incident was known to have occurred in Singapore. Australian conservationist Steve Irwin died in a similar manner in 2006.
Following a call to the Singapore Civil Defense Force at 2:20 pm, Chan was found near the entrance of UWS, where attempts were made to resuscitate him via CPR. He was taken to Singapore General Hospital, where he died from his injuries. While Chan’s colleagues declined to comment to The New Paper, a staff member at Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa, who witnessed Chan being taken away by ambulance, stated, “It all happened very quickly. The ambulance came and quickly left the premises. I’ve never seen such an incident happening here before.”
UWS operator Haw Par Corporation described Chan as a “veteran diver, aquarist and animal caregiver who had been caring for the aquatic animals at UWS since its opening in 1991”. Ten staff, including Chan, remained at UWS after its closure on June 27 to facilitate care for its animals until they could be suitably relocated. In addition to assisting the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) Occupational Safety and Health Inspectorate with their investigations, Haw Par has pledged Chan’s family “all possible support and assistance”. Due to Chan’s death, MOM has ordered the cessation of animal transfers from UWS while investigations are pending.
In an interview with The New Paper, Dr. Tan Heok Hui, an ichthyologist and Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum operations officer, stated, “Stingrays attack when they feel threatened, cornered or alarmed. Sometimes, a stingray might feel threatened when someone accidentally steps on it. Stingrays have backward pointing barbs on the spine that have serrated edges. They don’t just cause physical pain, the toxins in the spine can also cause extreme discomfort. When a spine pierces human flesh, it breaks and releases toxins into the flesh.”
Stingray venom contains serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can induce severe muscle contractions. According to Dr Tan, “If a victim is hit in vital organs like the chest area, it may trigger a cardiac arrest, which could subsequently be fatal”. “Stingrays are not usually aggressive, and choose defensive methods to protect themselves. However, stingrays are still wild animals, and when provoked and left with no choice, they will defend themselves using their sting.”
In an interview with The New Paper at the time of UWS’ closure in June, Chan said of the animals he worked with, whom he described as his “band of friends”, “They are so quietly tame. […] We intend to find them the best homes and environment. The next time I see them, I might not recognise them any more but if I dive, they might recognise me.”
Chan’s work at UWS entailed diving into the tanks and feeding the animals whilst visitors took photos. In an interview at the time with The Straits Times, Chan stated, “I treat [the animals] like my babies.” Chan also related anecdotes where he was bitten by sharks who mistook him for fish, releasing him when they recognised their mistake, describing the animals as “gentle”. “Whenever I get in danger,” said Chan, “I just keep calm. I can overcome any danger by just being calm”.
MOM stated of Chan’s death, “The Ministry of Manpower was informed about an incident that took place at Underwater World Singapore Pte Ltd’s premises at Siloso Road on 4 October 2016. Officers from MOM’s Occupational Safety and Health Inspectorate responded to the scene immediately and commenced investigations. Preliminary findings indicate that a worker was pierced in his chest by the barb of a stingray while he was in the midst of transferring the stingray from its tank. He was conveyed to hospital where he subsequently succumbed to this injuries. MOM has instructed the occupier to stop all activities associated with the transferring of sea animals. Investigations are ongoing.”