I visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park recently. I’ve been to Carlsbad before, but it’s been years, so the DH and I decided another visit was in order. Although they provide elevators for your 700+ft descent into the caverns, we decided to enter the more exciting way through the Natural Entrance. Of course, the natural entrance has handrails and blacktop on the path, so it’s not really “natural,” but it’s more natural than the elevators. It allows you to feel the excitement as you make the 1.25 mile trek into darkness and watch the sunlight from the opening disappear behind you. Plus, you get to smell the bats.
And oh, does Carlsbad have bats. They have their own wing of the cavern. (Get it? Wing? Bat? Hello? Is this thing on?) In fact, there are so many bats, that while the temperature of the caverns is a steady 56°F year round, the section that holds the bats hovers over 90°F. That’s a whole lot of bats, over 700,000. And between Spring and Fall, these glorious winged creatures will fly about 1.5 miles through the caverns to exit en masse at sunset to feed until the sunrise, at which time they return to sleep the day away. When the outside temperatures drop in the fall, they will all pack their little bat suitcases and head to Mexico, where they will party and drink tequila throughout the Winter. (Okay, that last part is made up, but if I was a park ranger, I would totally throw it in there just to mess with people.)
With so many bats exiting the caverns each day, Carlsbad created a “Bat Flight” viewing program. Built into the rock on the opposite side of the natural entrance, is a small stone amphitheater from which viewers can sit and watch clouds of bats leave the cave. During the week of our visit, the bats had been leaving around 6:55pm, so about a half hour before, Emily, the Carlsbad Ranger, gave us all a Bat Presentation, sharing some exciting bat facts, like how bats will eat their weight in insects, and the fact that female bats can find their pup baby among hundreds of thousands of other pups. And that they will often knock other babies off the ceiling, just to be mean. (I whispered to the DH that the mean bats sound like some workshopping photographers.)
After regaling us with cool bat facts, Emily stopped in mid-sentence. Clearly, she heard or smelled that something was about to happen.
“Okay, folks, they are on their way. Enjoy the show.” Park Ranger Emily is totally in-tune with bats.
Not 15 seconds after that, the first black wave made its way to the mouth of the cave. They swirled tornado fashion for a few seconds, spiraling upward in a counter-clockwise motion until they hit the sky. This happened over and over again.
After the initial “Ohhhh’s” from the audience, the amphitheater was completely quiet. Well, except for the lady behind us who felt the need to eat her snacks from her crinkly snack bag. I hoped one of the bats would take exception to this lack of respect and guano her. But alas, the bats were more interested in eating mosquitoes and bugs, leaving crinkle bag lady to enjoy her noisy snack.
After a couple minutes of watching, the DH whispered over to me, “How do they know to leave?”
I replied, “The information says they leave at civil twilight, which is 28 minutes past sunset.”
“No,” he said, “That’s not what I mean. Does one bat start all this each night?”
I shrugged. “Maybe they have a little “Take a Number” system, like at the DMV.”
“No, but seriously. This is is fascinating. Does one bat make the move from the ceiling and then the rest follow?”
Now, I know he’s asking a serious question, but there is no way I can answer it seriously.
“I can’t prove it,” I say, “but I suspect there’s some sort of bat audition where they pick the leader each night:
“Okay, Kenny. It’s been decided you’ll lead the exit from the cavern tonight.”
“Yeah, you. Congratulations. You’ve made it. This is the big time, kid.”
“But…but…but…I’ve never done anything like this before.”
“Kenny, stop worrying. You’re gonna be great.”
“But what if I fly into a stalactite or something? And everyone is behind me and sees it happen. I’ll never live that down. I’ll have to stay in Mexico.”
“Kenny…bro…you are thinking way too much about this. Just fly to the entrance and go.”
“OMG..the entrance! I have to do that counter-clockwise thing. What if I ‘eff up and fly CLOCKWISE? I don’t even have an appetite anymore and now my wings are all sweaty.”
“You know what, you’re right. Kenny, you’re out. We’ll find someone else.”
The DH just stared at me.
“Promise me you will NOT say any of this to the Park Ranger.”
In the end, I kept my theory to myself, but I whispered to the sky as I left, “Break a leg, Kenny.”