On-Site St. Martin: Communing with the Bats of La Grotte de Puits de Terres Basse
On my last two visits to St. Martin, I spent a lot of time on the beach. Whether it was whiling away my birthday in my birthday suit, taking in the sheer scale of Long Bay, or drinking rum infusions at Friar’s Bay, it just seemed like the right thing to do. I mean the island is world renowned for it’s 37 magical beaches—one for each square mile of this dual-state paradise. And when I wasn’t taking it easy on the sand, I was eating my way through some of the Caribbean’s very best cuisine along Restaurant Row in Grand Case. These activities are a pleasure, to be sure, but I began hearing rumblings that my island-side endeavors weren’t “uncommon” enough.
Not uncommon enough?!
Always one to rise to any challenge, I decided to do something 99.9% of people who travel to St. Martin would not only not know about, but also something they probably wouldn’t do even if they did know about it!
Enter Mark Yokoyama: co-founder of the world’s first Extreme Shallow Snorkeling Team, an avid photographer, passionate naturalist, and author of The Incomplete Guide to the Wildlife of Saint Martin. A recent transplant from the same cold and unfortunate Brooklyn outpost where my half of the Uncommon Caribbean team resides, Mark now spends warm, sunny days scouring those same 37 square miles in an effort to catalog diverse insect, reptile and mammal species for no other reason than he loves it.
It was Mark’s idea to visit St. Martin’s largest remaining bat cave. He promised hundreds and hundreds of bats. To some, this might sound like a nightmare. To me, it sounded like just the type of trek I was looking for. We set out near dusk, when the bats would be waking up and getting ready to go out for a night of feeding.
“It’s one of those places where a lot of people find it interesting… but not a lot of people want to hang out.”
We drove from Grand Case south to the lowlands area of St. Martin. Between Baie Rouge and Long Bay, we turned into a fairly typical gated community of expensive vacation homes. (We probably shouldn’t have been there, so I won’t go into more details than that.) Once inside, we drove maybe a quarter of a mile before parking and continuing on foot into the bush. Through thick undergrowth, it was only 15 yards before we could hear a chorus of high-pitched squeaking ahead. It was only 30 yards, or so, off the road before we encountered a large hole in a limestone hill.
Dark shapes darted around in its shadowy depths.
This was what we were here for. We entered the cave. The domed ceiling was positively covered in a squealing mass of tightly packed
rodents chiroptera vibrating against one-another as they hung upside-down. Occasionally, some would detach themselves, flying all around—even right in front of your face. Antillean cave bats (Brachyphylla cavernarum) and Jamaican fruit-eating bats (Artibeus jamaicensis) according to Mark. Take a look:
For a while, we continued exploring the depths of the cave, stepping carefully over the guano covered rocks. We chatted about harvesting all this “great” bat poop for an island garden and searched around in the dirt/poop mixture for bat skeletons. Soon enough, though, it was time to leave.
With just a quick walk back through the bush and a short drive north, Mark and I were once again in Grand Case, knocking back Campari and orange cocktails poolside at the excellent L’Esplanade hotel. It was the perfect end to our little uncommon excursion.
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself on St. Martin and recognize Mark, just buy him a Campari and orange— with a little encouragement, I’m sure he’d take you out on a nighttime adventure to snap photos of giant centipedes, or out to a cave overrun with bats. Of course, if that’s not your thing, he could probably point you in the direction of some world-class extreme shallow snorkeling sites too.