Cave owner bats back at critics

bat cave lg

Plans to set up an eco-tourism site at caves in North Side that house bats have nature lovers in a flap. 

Photographs of heavy machinery in the cave posted on the Internet this week led to an avalanche of negative reaction. But the site’s owner insists he is planning an environmentally sensitive project that would protect the caves rather than damage them. 

Owner Christian Sorensen has a trade and business licence for a restaurant, a tourism attraction and a gift shop for the planned Cayman Crystal Caves project. Last year, he obtained a liquor licence to sell alcohol at the site. 

“I want to make it clear that I specifically declined a music and dancing licence. It was offered and I declined it,” he said, countering rumours a nightclub was planned for site.  

Mr. Sorensen said he plans to create a gift shop, waiting area and restaurant or bar where visitors may eat and drink about 500 feet from the main entrance to the caves and no commercial business would be built within the caves. 

He also countered allegations he was carrying out site work without planning permission. He insisted that the excavation work that appears to be going on in the photographs is being done to clear debris and mud from the bottom of the cave and its entrance, so the bedrock could be located for inclusion within his planning application when he submits it. 

Mr. Sorensen, whose family opened up the sustainable tourism award-winning Harrison’s Caves in Barbados to visitors 35 years ago, said there were also no plans to build a rumoured 30-feet wide asphalt road to the cave.  

“It’s not just the caves that are the attraction, it’s the trees and the animals – the parrots and snakes and hermit crabs,” he said. “The car park will be a 15-minute walk from the caves and we’ll also have something in place for those who would have difficulty getting through, like golf carts or electric cars so those people can also enjoy the path to the caves.” 

Mr. Sorensen said an access road had been created to allow the machinery to get to the cave, but said this was not through the nature trail leading to the site. 

According to the Cayman Wildlife Connection, the caves are home to three types of bat – the Cayman Fruit Bat, the Brazilian Free Tailed Bat and the Big Eared Bat.  

At one time, up to 30,000 of the now rare Big Eared Bats were believed to live within the caves, but the numbers waned and by 1986, only about 100 remained, according to 2009’s Cayman Islands Bat Study Guide of 2009, which reported that none of the bats remained in the cave at that time. However, the following year, they returned and were photographed on the ceiling of the cave. 

The owner said he was sensitive to the fact that bats roost in the caves and that he had spoken to local bat expert Lois Blumenthal. At that time, just fruit bats were in the cave, but the Big Eared Bat has since returned. Mr. Sorensen said he believed the reason that particular species of bat may have left was because it was disturbed by “illegal tours” through the caves. To keep those visitors away, he erected a no trespassing sign and put up fences and gates, but “they’ve been torn down”, he said. 

He plans to hire security guards 24 hours a day to prevent non-official tour groups from entering the site.  

“There are hundreds of caves there, I’m going to be opening up five of them to the public,” he said. “The problem right now is people are going in there and doing whatever they want and there’s no control over the caves they go into. They’re breaking off stalactites and taking them as souvenirs. These take hundreds of thousands of years to grow and there’s been a lot of damage done to them over the years.” 

Mr. Sorensen, who bought the site in 1997, plans to make access to the caves easier, especially to one hard-to-get-to cave which contains a lake. “It’s spectacular,” he said. “The plan will be to be able to walk from the grand opening of the cave at the front to the lake cave.” 

The National Trust acknowledged that two of the three species of bats within the caves were considered “quite rare and are very susceptible to disturbance by the presence of humans”. “For this reason, among others, these caves have been recognised as an environmentally sensitive area,” a statement from the National Trust read. 

According to the statement, the Trust received no notification from the Department of Planning “regarding the North Side property where the caves (which appear to be under development) are located”. 

“The Trust expects to have received such notification prior to the commencement of any form of development given that the Trust’s Mastic Reserve is adjacent to this property, and landowners are legally required to notify adjacent property owners of their intent to develop their property,” the statement continued. 

Mr. Sorensen said he has not yet applied for planning permission and the work visible in the photograph is a continuation of similar work carried out in 2004, that was halted after Hurricane Ivan, to clear mud and guano and rubbish that had accumulated over the years so the bedrock could be found.  

“The cave opening is at the bottom of a steep hill. Mud and debris have come down the hill and filled up the bottom of the cave,” he said, adding that the bedrock appears to be about 4 or 5 feet under the mud at the entrance of the cave and about 1 foot underneath further inside. 

The National Trust said despite being a stakeholder in the protection of a sensitive natural area, it had not been approached regarding the development and was not aware of other stakeholders being notified. 

“Although at present Environmental Impact Assessments are not legally required for the development of any environmentally sensitive area in the Cayman Islands, such assessments are accepted as best practice in the vast majority of developed countries. Such an assessment will objectively rate the value of the unmodified site as compared with the value of proposed enhancements to accurately inform the development process along with the relevant stakeholders,” the statement from the National Trust said. 

Bat cave

This photograph which has been circulating online this week of heavy machinery at the cave in North Side has raised concerns among nature lovers. – PHOTO: FILE

CS caves

This lake cave will be opened to the public: PHOTO: CHRISTIAN SORENSEN

CS Caves4

Cavers explore the Crystal Caves. – PHOTO: CHRISTIAN SORENSEN

5 COMMENTS

  1. Shows you that you can buy a piece of land and you are not free to do whatever you want with it. Although you bought it from 1997, certain aspects of it, is not yours to do whatever. Look at Joe Imperato who wanted to quarry his property, and look at the opposition he got. Environmentalist as well as the people of east end was up against him. With Sorenson, it is over bats. The person who took the photo must have tresspassed on his property to take it…. lol… now that is funny. You can go on someones land and take pictures of what they have and what they are doing like a spy… just amazing!

  2. I agree Apprentice, If this land was so sensitive it should have never been put up for sale. People always complain and make accusations about what folks want to do with land they spend their hard earned cash on and accuse them of being hungry for money. But never take a look at the people who put the land up for sale, where is thier responsibility. If a land owner is concerned about what will happen to his land when he sales it, he should not sale it. If he feels it’s in the best interest of Cayman to insure it’s not changed or developed he should donate it to the National Trust instead of selling it to get the money and then trying to fight the development ideas of the new owner, Emerald Sound is a perfect example as well as people complaining that foreigners own too much of Cayman while regularly putting their own family land up for sale for the highest bidder from abroad.

  3. One of Cayman’s best kept secrets, not many people are aware of the beauty of these caves as they are on private property. I visited these caves in 2009 when there was not a ‘No Trespassing’ sign posted at the entrance to the trail. Back then there was at least one ‘tour group’ that used to take visitors and residents on weekends. From the owner’s statement it seems that there still are official tour groups.

    If the owner can ensure the conservation of the caves and the rare animals then there should not be a problem at all. In fact it will add one more quality tourist attraction.

  4. The photo on Friday’s Cayman Compass front page is mine. This was taken when Hope Academy’s Grade 9 class went to the caves as part of our Cayman Island Social Studies unit. As it happened, we learned a lot more than the Flora and Fauna of the island.
    The question the student’s asked, Can’t government do anything? Let us refer to Abraham Lincoln’s line government for the people and by the people. Is our government for the people? Mr. Sorenson says he was granted a business licence for a restaurant, a tourism attraction and a gift shop. It seems like crass commercialism at its highest, for the few to profit under the guise of eco-tourism?
    Who then is accountable for the genocide of our rare bats? Mr. Sorenson blames illegal tours for damaging the area, but his plans for eco tourism and the glaring image of an excavator inside the cave does not seem incongruous? Brings to mind Peter Arnett’s quote from a U.S. officer We had to destroy the village in order to save it.
    West Bay road along Seven Mile Beach looks like a Miami strip mall, do we have any laws that prevent that from going all the way to East End? Or is it taken for granted that it will?
    I have been taking students of all ages to explore these caves over the past 16 years. The children were always awestruck at the natural beauty and that caves of such magnitude existed here in Grand Cayman. Never again
    Will there be a coke machine in the cave the next time we visit?

  5. These caves are a unique treasure of the Cayman Islands.

    The large bat cave with the excavator shown in the above picture is one of the most beautiful and awesome areas I’ve ever seen in Grand Cayman.

    The ficus tree’s roots which can be seen growing down behind the excavator’s bucket are some of the largest trees remaining anywhere in the Cayman Islands.

    The caves of Cayman Brac are also amazing but the caves in Old Man Bay, Grand Cayman specifically, are truly unique due not only to their many interconnecting tunnels/caverns that spread hundreds of feet across the entire parcel but also due to portions of these caves containing water deep enough to swim in.

    People should not only be concerned about the flora and fauna (bats) of the area but with the preservation of this extremely old geological occurrence.

    This sort of environment is not only rare to the Cayman Islands but also to the Caribbean.

    While I agree with Mr. Sorenson that these caves have been damaged over the years by unsupervised people touring them and breaking off the stalactites/stalagmites isn’t this exactly what he intends to do when he opens up the tunnels large enough for people to be able to easily walk between them?

    Mr. Sorensen’s suggestion that these ‘illegal tours’ are somehow responsible for the bats disappearing is ludicrous and ridiculous to say the least. Are his ‘legal’ tours somehow going to encourage the bats to return? I also wonder how these ‘illegal tours’ would cause more disturbance than an excavator operating inside the large cave where the bats live.

    Mr. Sorensen would like to use his father’s history of assisting with the Harrison Caves in Barbados as his vision and justification for his plans at the Old Man Bay caves but I also wonder why if the Harrison Caves of Barbados are owned/managed by the Barbados Government, why the Old man Bay Caves aren’t owned by the people of the Cayman Islands and managed and protected by the National Trust.

    Some people will argue that its his land and that if he bought it he should be able to profit from it but if Mr. Sorensen wanted to make a profit on his acquisition of this land then perhaps his efforts should have been spent on convincing the Cayman Islands Government or National Trust to purchase this land from him and for them to turn it into a Eco Tourist Attraction for the benefit of the Cayman Islands and its people.

    While it is good to hear that he has refused the Music and Dancing portion of his liquor license application this does not give me any reassurance that he won’t use his experience and expertise in other dark and cavernous businesses, such as the Jet Nightclub, to truly capitalize on the business potential he has for this property.

    This is about money people. Plain and simple.

    Although Mr. Sorensen’s idea to turn this into a tourist attraction is not a terrible idea, I feel that this property should be owned by the Cayman Islands and managed/protected by the National Trust for all the people of the Cayman Islands to enjoy unspoiled and FREE OF COST like they have for many years prior to Mr. Sorensen conceiving his idea or erecting his no trespassing signs.

    An entrance fee could be collected by the Government/Trust in order to offset the costs related to keeping the site clean, etc.

    The Cayman Islands Government or the National Trust should approach Mr. Sorensen immediately in order to acquire this land from him before his ambitions lead to something truly tragic.

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