So here we are, sitting at the sinkhole, a cave down below us. You can see no more than a few feet inside. The cave is in the middle of prime ranch land, with scrub all around. Bugs are humming. Birds are flying around. We see a skunk to our left. We are out in the middle of nature but right inside San Antonio, just off I-35 and 1604. What would a bunch of SeaWorld employees be doing at a cave, at 7:30 p.m., on an average weekday? To see the world’s largest aggregation of mammals, of course!
We're at Bracken Cave, home to well over 30 million Mexican free-tailed bats. Ok, but that still doesn’t explain why SeaWorld people are here? We are here to witness the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund hard at work! For several years now, the Fund has supported the renaturalization of the area around the cave.
Bat Conservation International (BCI) owns over 700 acres surrounding the cave. This former ranch land was home to a long line of Texans who had the cave in their family for centuries. Once Dr. Merlin Tuttle, founder of BCI, laid his eyes on it, he got together with the Nature Conservancy of Texas to purchase the few acres the cave actually rests on.
Years of ranching had torn down a lot of native trees and made room for invasive ones. Now, thanks to the Fund and the hard work of Fran Hutchins, Bracken Cave coordinator, the area surrounding the cave is now a haven for native wildlife, including endangered birds and, of course, the bats.
So here we are, staring at the cave. It's now 8 p.m,, the sky's dimming, and the cave's walls are starting to move. The bats that were sleeping all along the mouth are beginning to wake up. You can see them start to fly around. Suddenly, an actual tornado of bats comes out and spins around the area. Then, without warning, the tornado becomes a ribbon of bats leaving the area. They're catching thermals in the sky and taking off to eat over 200 tons of insects every night! The ribbon goes back and forth from flying over us to across from us as we sit in awe (but with our mouths closed.)
This colony is so important to the Mexican free-tailed bat populations as this is where the females have their pups. As I sit here in utter amazement at the vast number of bats coming out of the cave, I can’t be prouder of our very own Fund that supports amazing places like this all over the world and am so lucky that this one is practically in my own backyard!