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Photographer's journal: Bat cave assignment

Photographer’s journal: Bat cave assignment

I jumped at the chance when photo editor Rob St. John asked me if I was interested in going to the caves of New Mexico in search of bats infected with white-nose syndrome.

The story has so many layers and levels and certainly has the creep factor going for it.

White-nose syndrome is spreading like wildfire through the bat communities in the East, through 16 states, leaving more than 1 million bats dead or dying. What self-respecting news photographer wouldn’t want to jump on the opportunity to crawl on his belly through a dark, musty cave, through guano in search of bats possibly infected with a mysterious, incurable disease?

In preparation for the trip I was told that I would have to throw away all of my clothing, shoes, and try to disinfect my camera gear with baby wipes. So I figured, what’s the worst thing that could happen, maybe I could get stuck down there or maybe get bit by a hibernating rattlesnake (known to frequent the caves).

Los Angeles Times staff writer Louis Sahagun and I met up with cave experts and biologists from the Bureau of Land Management and we began our journey into the caverns of the Fort Stanton Cave near Ruidoso, N.M. Equipped with full jump suits, heavy-duty kneepads, gloves, helmets with headlamps and extra flashlights, we made our descent into the cave.

It wasn’t like something at Knott’s Berry Farm. It was dark, dusty and a little strange. We were able to walk upright for a while, and then we had to crawl on our hands and knees in a tight passageway that led to a cavern aptly named “The Bat Cave.”

Inside the bat cave a giant room opened up before us. Clusters of tiny bats were clinging to the 30-foot ceiling. Our entire group stood in complete silence as we studied the scene before us. Luckily, there were no dead bats and no signs of the white-nose syndrome. I was not permitted to use any flash equipment so that the hundred or so bats that call this place home would not be scared and have a panic attack with the strobes going off. I also turned off the auto focusing on the lenses, in case there were any noises interfering with the bat’s hibernation.

I made a series of photos, illuminated only by flashlight and stopped for a moment to take all of this in. After about 10 minutes we were given the sign to leave, and we exited through the narrow passages and back to daylight. Once on the surface we discarded the clothing and shoes underneath our jumpsuits, wiped our exposed skin and equipment with disinfectant wipes and like all “cavers” we bronzed the memory of this bizarre experience in our memories.

Still in search of bats with white-nose syndrome, on the following day we drove to the Ladrone Cave, near Socorro, N.M., and this is where I discovered my limitations. We were warned that Ladrone is a known rattlesnake den. It is where rattlers hibernate and propagate and sleep in the rock crevices.

Ok, I admit, I hate snakes. So, I sent the experts down ahead of me with snake sticks. Luckily, the snakes found it either too warm or too cold, or they had already hit the surrounding desert in search of food. Or they didn’t like the strong, ammonia smell of the mounds of bat guano littering the floor. Either way, the snakes were gone, and there were no signs of bats, except for a few on the ground that did not appear to have met their end from white-nose syndrome.

We walked down a 30-degree trail carved out of travertine and the cave began to narrow. Gradually, the ceiling got lower and lower until we had to crawl on our hands, then slide through a rock crevice. Carrying expensive camera gear through crevices is not a good idea, and again we had to light everything with our headlamps. My stopping point came in the Ladrone Cave when the other (smaller) people scrambled through yet another crevice by turning their bodies sideways. I took one look at that and said no way! My journey was over, and the assignment was complete.

Chalk this one up to the memory book. Once back on the surface, we again threw away our clothing and shoes and wiped down the gear.

Our editors have no idea what we go through. Someday I will probably stop and write all of these memories and experiences down on paper. But, then again the photos are like a diary for me, a visual collection of crazy stories and places that we share with our readers in the paper every day.

It may sound strange, but I really hope I can return to the bat cave some day.

Watch Mark Boster’s video of the bat cave or view his portfolio.


  1. April 3, 2011, 9:51 am

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been trying to blame humans for contributing to the spread of WNS, even though there have been numerous instances that document bats can stow-away on ships coming from Europe. The disease has progressed strictly along known bat migratory flight routes.
    The alarmist anouncement that the fungus had been found in western OK. is still unconfirmed (a year later) and caused the "blanket closure" of USFS caves in Region 2 to people. People are not the cause of the spread, bats are. The USF&WS needs to show they are doing something, so instead of doing something contrucitve, they are doing something that looks good … keep people out.

    By: Ray Keeler
  2. April 4, 2011, 3:40 pm

    Mr. Keeler, (if this is really you posting "Ray Keeler • 1 day ago" )….
    If this is really you, shame on You as a known past and present NSS official posting anonymously with your hostile response to the best science-based response to a potentially human transported diesase??? Did you seek permission to speak on this forum from the Board of Directors?? Not one scientist has dis-proven human transport as a WNS transmission vector. The best science has to offer currently points ever-increasingly towards a human transport element of WNS. Heres a quote from the most currernt decon protocols posted on the USF&WS website – page one of the PDF link found here… at WNS-affected hibernacula has demonstrated, however, the propensity for conidia (spores) of G.d. to attach to gear used inside affected caves (Okoniewski 2010), supporting concern for anthropogenic, or human-assisted, spread of the fungus." … (more to come)____Mark V. Turner__Life Member – National Speleological Society__

    By: Mark Turner
  3. April 4, 2011, 3:43 pm

    It's true that once WNS is present in a bat colony, the bat-to-bat spread of the disease predominates because bats cluster in the hundreds per square foot when hibernating. But bats are unlikely to be transporting the disease in 400 mile jumps; especially if they have the wing membrane damage and scarring from previous infection during winter hibernation.

    No one is discussing how the first responders to the outbreak in New York likely spread WNS from ground zero outward when looking for evidence of it's then-extent. Perhaps someone should do some interviewing about that aspect…. Then perhaps there will be more evidence pointing towards a human transport element of the disease.

    The National Speleological Society does itself a dis-service from it's uneven handling of it's response towards caving moratoriums, closures and re-openings of cave preserves in WNS-impacted localities; especially Trout and Hamilton caves.. The NSS approach to keeping cave access open in this disease advance is totally contrary to it's stated conservation by-laws and catch phrases.

    Mark V. Turner
    Life Member – National Speleological Society

    By: Mark Turner
  4. April 4, 2011, 3:45 pm

    What part of "Take nothing but pictures, Leave nothing but footprints and Kill nothing but time" have to do with cavers using contaminated camera gear (You can't immerse it in fungicide and wipe-downs are unproven in a large-sample study); wearing leather boots (which cannot be properly decontaminated without destroying them quickly and are most likely to be a prime WNS transport vector); and if human transport through gear, bodies or vehicles is a vector, what does all of this have to do with Kill Nothing but time.??

    Cavers who are committed to fighting the spread of this disease should be willing to forgoe their favorite activity for a couple years until science sorts the human vector question out. Life is long and the continued short-sighted real-time activities of caving enthusiasts on the organized and independent levels are contrary to a rational and step-wise approach to WNS containment. (more)

    Mark V. Turner,
    Life Member, National Speleological Society

    By: Mark Turner
  5. April 4, 2011, 5:06 pm

    Let's also consider that at each turn that decontamination protocols issued by the USF&WS have become more detailed and demanding. Furthermore, we should all be aware that decontamination is only as effective as the least qualified individual practicing it. Some of the most enthusiastic cavers are not the most-well educated, not most inclined to perform proper decontamination.

    Others are philosophically dis-inclined to practice decontamination or to cease visitation of closed caves and mines. Their attitude of resisting authority comes from a very 'individual rights trumping the public good mentality'. Others just don't give a rat's Adze.

    So, c'mon 'Ray' the USF&WS is posting their science, their evidence and their guidance on the official website …. whaddya' got to dispute or contest the best science has to offer. What does noted cave scientist and NSS member Dr. Hazel Barton of Northern Kentucky University have to say? Based on the currently available research, does she recommend compliance with the recommended closures and decontamination protocols? I think she does.

    Mark V. Turner,
    Life Member, National Speleological Society

    By: Mark V. Turner
  6. April 4, 2011, 5:10 pm

    Didn't Dr. Barton also use another Family member of Geomyces destructans to surrogate test whether caver gear and boots could pick up and retain viable spores? I think she did… didn't she also find that gear and boots could pick this stuff up and it remained viable – even after normal washing and even high-temperature drying??. Wasn't it her research which has led to the current fungicidal-based decon protocols?? __And how about this from a science conference abstract…. "Conidia of G. destructans were observed in swab or rinse samples of apparel and a gear used in WNS-affected hibernacula. [oral]" – Source – Detection of the Conidia of Geomyces destructans in Northeast Hibernacula, at Maternal Colonies, and on_Gear – Some Findings Based on Microscopy and Culture , JOSEPH C. OKONIEWSKI1, JOHN HAINES2, ALAN C. HICKS1, KATE E. LANGWIG1, RYAN I. VON LINDEN1, AND CHRISTOPHER A. DOBONY3_
    I invite your reply and explanation…
    Mark V. Turner
    Life Member, National Speleological Society

    By: Mark V. Turner
  7. March 4, 2013, 6:48 am

    It has been almost two years since this article has been published. And still, the fungus continues to progress along, and radiating out from, bat migratory routes.

    Mr. Turner noted a 400 mile jump in one year. While I assume he is referring to the New York to West Virginia spread, and suggests this was caused by people, the jump was along a well established bat migratory route. What was left out is a 400 mile jump from New York to Nova Scotia, Canada during that same period. i.e. the opposite direction. I know of no cavers that have been caving in WNS New York, and then in Nova Scotia.

    Bat to bat.

    By: Ray Keeler

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