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.