Author: Mark Yokoyama

The Tree of Life Goes On

Gaïac, Lignum Vitae, Guayacán—there are many names for the tree of life. This tree is a Caribbean original, found only the islands of the West Indies and the Caribbean coast of South America. It is one of the most beautiful and precious trees on the island. It has survived Irma and many trials before.

Before Irma, a series of trunks joined to form a dense crown.

The Gaïac evolved here, and the climate of the Caribbean helped determine its form. These trees have deep roots so they can keep their green leaves during the driest of dry seasons. They have the hardest wood in the world, thick with resin to discourage insects that might try to eat it. Deep roots and a strong trunk also help ensure that the heart of the tree can survive a hurricane and be reborn.

Today, leaves are returning to a skeleton of bare branches.

Historically, we have been the greater threat to this wondrous tree. They were cut down for their strong wood, which was used in boats, mortars, billy clubs and even billiard balls. The bark of the Gaïac was known—incorrectly it seems—as a cure for syphilis. Today the tree is endangered. People often think of it as a small tree because all the huge old ones are gone.

Luckily, the Gaïac has many fans. It is a beautiful tree, bursting out into blue flowers once or twice a year. They have been planted in yards around the island and a few wild ones can still be seen in the hills. The storm has given us a chance to watch their recovery up close.

New growth came quickly after Irma.

In Grand Case, a tree near the sea lost almost every branch, but new leaves were growing right away. After a few weeks of growth, all the new leaves were eaten by caterpillars of the Bewitching Melipotis moth. Today, a balance has been reached and the tree continues to recover while also providing food for some caterpillars.

Caterpillars eat new growth down to the last leaf.

In Cay Bay, a number of twisting trunks reach up together. Bare patches reveal their form, new leaves point to the life returning. Previously, they formed a thick, shady crown together. Eventually, they will again.

This Is a Test

As we begin a new year, memories of Hurricane Irma are still fresh. On the island, there are still a million reminders of the destruction, big and small. But we’re also moving on. As we turn toward the future, we should try to make it a better one.

St. Martin faces many challenges, but at the heart there’s really just one question: How do the people of St. Martin prosper in the long term?

Where will we go in 2018?

Of course, the island is prosperous in many ways. Over the last 50 years, it has built up a huge tourism industry for such a tiny island. But, like many places, the prosperity has been unequal and unsustainable. Poverty and unemployment are too high, and issues like pollution and waste management are threats to both health and the local economy.

Unlocking the value in St. Martin’s nature and heritage could make a big positive impact. Irma reminded us we live here at the grace of mother nature, but we need to take that to heart. Our health and survival depend are tied to the health of the island. Air we can’t breathe and seas we can’t swim in are bad today. If they continue, these environmental issues will eventually bring down the entire economy.

Nature and heritage are also undervalued as assets. St. Martin makes money from the beach and the sea, but other things are mostly ignored. History, architecture, birds, archaeology, wetlands and lizards that live nowhere else on earth all have unused potential. There are efforts to highlight and share these things, but they have yet to get the attention they deserve.

Nature and heritage can be part of a tourism offering that is unique and sustainable. Education on these topics should be available to everyone. Today’s schoolchildren should be tomorrow’s experts on everything that makes the island unique. They should enter the workforce with the skills to take on rewarding jobs or start their own businesses.

Understanding and valuing nature and heritage also gives us the incentive to protect them. Many on the island are frustrated with the lack of progress on environmental issues, or the failure to preserve historic sites. When it is strong and widespread, the will of the people will ultimately bring change.

In Irma’s shadow, we have choices about how to rebuild, what to protect and how to tell the story of the island. It’s a chance to build a better future. This is a test.

Year in Review: 2017

2017 was a pretty amazing year for Les Fruits de Mer. Here are a few of the highlights.

Our year started strong, with the relaunch of our pop-up natural history museum, Amuseum Naturalis. We remade all our exhibits with big, bright signage and added many new attractions. Special exhibits, including original whale paintings and the unsung heroes of Caribbean science took the Amuseum in interesting new directions. Over the course of the season we welcomed almost 9,000 visitors. The all-volunteer team ran the Amuseum during busy Mardis de Grand Case street fair nights and daytime classroom visits.

In April Les Fruits de Mer held the 4th annual Endemic Animal Festival at the Amuseum. It was a chance to see the unique animals that live only on St. Martin. The event also featured nature-themed art activities and giveaways of Gaïac seedlings as part of our Club Gaïac project. The next weekend members of the team also hopped over to Anguilla to volunteer at the 2nd Anguilla Iguana Day festivities.

The team traveled quite a bit during the summer. Members visited Statia to film and research and Amsterdam to attend a conference about Maria Sibylla Merian, a groundbreaking scientist who did key work in the Caribbean. Jenn Yerkes and Mark Yokoyama gave presentations and led workshops at the BirdsCaribbean International Conference in Cuba and Jenn presented at the International Association of Caribbean Archaeologists meeting in St. Croix.

Hurricane Irma hit St. Martin in early fall, delaying most plans. The Fruits team worked to document the hurricane’s impact on nature and the subsequent recovery. Since the storm, Mark Yokoyama has been writing weekly columns in The Daily Herald about nature after Irma. The team has also produced a number of short films highlighting different aspects of the recovery. Our videos were viewed over 100,000 times in the last three months. In October, Marc AuMarc released the second album of Les Fruits de Mer theme songs, Fruits Around the World.

Les Fruits de Mer restarted public outreach with a bird feeder giveaway at Sky’s the Limit restaurant in October. The 5th annual Migratory Bird Festival was held in late November at Friar’s Bay. It was a fun event, with great activities and a super team of volunteers. The 2017 theme was Welcome Back! to both the migratory birds and the recovering habitats that they depend on. The 4th Heritage Photo Contest was also launched in November, with the theme Rebirth. Entries were accepted through the end of the year, with an exhibition to follow in early 2018.

The association is also very thankful for the generous support of friends and members in the final months of the year. Sarah Allen and Maël Renault collected donations. William Moore and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap also made donations. Jarrad Nunes included Les Fruits de Mer in his Cheer Project fundraising which drew support from many fine people. We were also incredibly grateful to have sponsorship support from local businesses for the Migratory Bird Festival despite the challenges that they are facing right now. This timely support made it possible for us to continue our work celebrating local nature and heritage at a time when it is truly important.

Thanks to everyone who helped make 2017 such a great year for Les Fruits de Mer, and we’re looking forward to an even better 2018!

Rebirth: Alita Singh

Nature’s Footsteps – Humans can plan and build, but Mother Nature every so often reclaims what’s hers. This is a section of Orient Bay Beach that once housed restaurants and bars. Now, nature has reclaimed it … until humans again decide to take a claim. But, as the saying goes – “Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret” (You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she always comes back!).

This is an entry in the 2017 Heritage Photo Contest. Our theme this year is Rebirth. View all the entries in the online gallery, learn more and find out how to enter here.

Eye on the Invaders

It is a sad and common story in island ecology: humans bring new species that eat or outcompete native species. Usually we bring them by accident. Hitchhiking animals are the unintended consequence of global trade.

While their arrival may be accidental, there are a number of factors that contribute to the success of these invaders. Animals and plants from large islands or continents are adapted to more complex, more competitive ecosystems. Arriving on a small island they find it easy to excel—imagine Rihanna showing up to karaoke night at your neighborhood bar.

House Sparrows make a home in some of the least natural places on earth.

Often, successful invaders are also well-adapted to life in degraded habitats. House Sparrows are a good example. We find them living in airports, train stations and other places that would be unthinkable for most species. It’s no surprise many invaders can live in landscapes that have been changed by humans. Living around humans makes them more likely to be transported and more likely to find success in a new home.

A devastating hurricane is a big opportunity for species skilled at living in marginal spaces. Post-hurricane conditions have a lot in common with human-altered landscapes. Vegetation is cleared and new growth may be at least temporarily dominated by a handful of fast-growing species. That’s a lot like land cleared for development or agriculture—a forest replaced with a handful of plants.

On St. Martin, a couple of introduced species have been living on the edge for years. These two tree lizards have established populations, but each has been stuck in a little corner of the island. The Puerto Rican Crested Anole has lived at Port de Plaisance, and the Cuban Brown Anole has lived at the cruise ship terminal.

The Puerto Rican Crested Anole is still here.

Each of these lizards has found limited success in a very unnatural habitat. Neither has made it into wild scrub or forest areas. In those areas, our two native tree lizards—the Anguilla Bank Anole and Bearded Anole—still rule the roost. All four species occupy very similar spaces in the local ecosystem, which may be on reason the introduced species have had trouble spreading.

Hurricane Irma posed a challenge to our invaders: either small colony could have been wiped out. It also may have opened an opportunity. Widespread destruction may have given them a chance to spread.

The Cuban Brown Anole, living on the edge in St. Martin.

Like so many other things, the status of these invaders on post-Irma St. Martin deserves some attention. Do natural disasters and human activity work together to speed the invasion of non-native species? For now, we know that the colony of Puerto Rican Crested Anoles has survived. To see if it spreads, we will have to keep an eye on these invaders.

The Case of the Missing Wasp

If you’ve ever wandered the hills of St. Martin, you’re sure to be familiar with the Jack Spaniard. It is a red, yellow and black wasp that builds nests of paper and defends them fiercely. Too often, the first sign of a nearby nest is a piercing, electric sting. A couple days of itching and swelling follow. Any dry spot is a likely nest location: a big branch, a wide leaf, an awning or a rocky overhang.

But where are they now? In the days immediately after the hurricane, Jack Spaniards came to our hummingbird feeders, but then they stopped. They’ve been conspicuously absent in the months since. We have bees and we have butterflies. We have had plenty of flies and mosquitoes. But the Jack Spaniard seems to be gone.

From the “where are they now?” files…the Jack Spaniard.

Hurricanes seem like the perfect tool to get rid of these wasps. The winds were strong enough to rip their paper nests down to be soaked and destroyed. Adult wasps feed on nectar—which is why they were at our hummingbird feeders—and most of them may have starved in the aftermath of the storm. These wasps feed their young on caterpillars, another resource that would have been absent immediately after Irma.

This triple threat may help explain why Jack Spaniards vary so much from island to island. Pre-Irma they were extremely common here. On St. Kitts, I only saw them a couple times during weeks of field research. If recovery after a major storm takes years, perhaps differences between islands can be connected to hurricanes.

I imagine many would say “Good riddance!” to the Jack Spaniard. Personally, I don’t mind being able to walk down a trail without being stung. But they do play a role in the local ecosystem—a few, in fact. They pollinate flowers when they are feeding on nectar, and they kill a lot of caterpillars to feed their larvae. They’re also a popular food for the Gray Kingbird.

Dedicated parents, Jack Spaniards hunt caterpillars for their young.

What will happen next? Chances are, they’re only mostly gone. I would guess that some nests survived in very protected areas, like caves or abandoned buildings. If there are some still here, we will start to see them as the population grows. This could be a very fascinating chance to watch and learn as a unique phenomenon happens.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we have any Jack Spaniard specialists working on the island right now. I guess it is up to all of us. If you see Jack Spaniards or their nests, contact Les Fruits de Mer on Facebook or at Let us know where and when you saw them, and take a photo if you can. Perhaps together we can make a new discovery about how an animal population recovers after a hurricane. That’s gotta be worth a sting or two!

Rebirth: Alita Singh

From roots to hilltop – It’s green from the old trees in the valley to the top of Sentry Hill, the highest point on the Dutch side of the island. The revitalization of what was the crumbling boiler house into a restaurant has added to the feeling of hope following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The inaccessible is now accessible and that made bare thrives again.

This is an entry in the 2017 Heritage Photo Contest. Our theme this year is Rebirth. View all the entries in the online gallery, learn more and find out how to enter here.

Thank You Cheer Project

We want to give a big thank you to The Cheer Project—Jarrad for doing it, Andy for helping and everyone for donating and sharing! Yesterday we raised $732 for Les Fruits de Mer, which we will be using to fund a really exciting set of projects for 2018. We will be rebuilding the Amuseum, printing new books about wildlife, making films about wildlife and how Hurricane Irma impacted the island. If you missed the video, here it is. If you want to make a donation, you still can.

Rebirth: Alice Claeyssens

Houses and buildings may be down, but seascapes and shorelines are proud to rise up from devastation. Islanders should be thankful for this gift. Cleaning and rebuilding will take a while but st martiners will succeed to honor what opportunity nature keeps offering them.

This is an entry in the 2017 Heritage Photo Contest. Our theme this year is Rebirth. View all the entries in the online gallery, learn more and find out how to enter here.

Rebirth: Mason Chadwick

A gentle shower painting its hues across St Martin Lagoon this morning.
The haze of colour both hides and reveals the torn architecture.
Yet our eyes track the rainbow, and feel it in our senses of hope, renewal and rebirth.

This is an entry in the 2017 Heritage Photo Contest. Our theme this year is Rebirth. View all the entries in the online gallery, learn more and find out how to enter here.

Rebirth: Alita Singh

Rebirth: Return of Velvet
The breeze caressing the velvety-looking grass is an inspiring sight. It’s nature’s own ballet. Every December, this grass blankets the hillsides and to see it return after Irma’s wrath is both overwhelmingly emotional and hearteningly strengthening.

This is an entry in the 2017 Heritage Photo Contest. Our theme this year is Rebirth. View all the entries in the online gallery, learn more and find out how to enter here.

Rebirth: Alice Claeyssens

The island is greener than ever, nature cycle has caught up with what it was before Irma, even stronger. Another proof that nature makes it faster than us to show us an example we should follow.

This is an entry in the 2017 Heritage Photo Contest. Our theme this year is Rebirth. View all the entries in the online gallery, learn more and find out how to enter here.

Rebirth: Alice Claeyssens

Two young stallions friends playing primitive games , showing animals and nature are recovering faster than human, spending time at being what they are meant to be instead of fixing roof to go back to normal. St Martin December 16th.

This is an entry in the 2017 Heritage Photo Contest. Our theme this year is Rebirth. View all the entries in the online gallery, learn more and find out how to enter here.