Documenting St. Martin's Wildlife One Species at a Time
By Matt Haber
A lot of people dream about packing up their workaday lives and moving to paradise, but few of us actually do it. Mark Yokoyama, a former marketing and merchandising executive, and his partner, Jenn Yerkes, an advertising copywriter, did just that when they moved to St. Martin in November 2009 to found Les Fruits de Mer, "the world's first Extreme Shallow Snorkeling team, dedicated to pioneering the sport, art and science of extreme shallow snorkeling all over the world."
When not extreme shallow snorkeling, Yokoyama spent much of the last three years hiking the island and documenting the diversity of its wildlife. The result is The Incomplete Guide to the Wildlife of Saint Martin, a book of original up-close nature photography and original research he released as a print-on-demand edition in 2010. Yokoyama is currently raising funds on Kickstarter for a revised and expanded edition. According to his campaign video, the more copies Yokoyama sells in advance, the cheaper he can make them and the more accessible the book will be to the island's kids. (He freely acknowledges playing the "do it for the kids" card.)
As he tells T+L below, the book is also a great resource for visitors to the island with an interest in nature and local culture.
Q. What are you doing on St. Martin and how did you come to document the island's wildlife?
As a child, I was very interested in wildlife and wildlife photography, but I grew away from that in my teens. I ended up in St. Martin after developing a love of scuba diving and underwater photography. Spending all day wandering the hills taking photos of insects was a natural next step, and now I'm doing exactly what I loved to do when I was ten-years-old.
Do you have any scientific training or are you self-taught?
I don't have a scientific degree, I studied English in college. But when I was a kid I spent a lot of time hanging out with serious entomologists. I was even the President of the Oregon Entomological Society, which was mostly comprised of entomology professors and retired butterfly collectors. There is a long-standing tradition of non-professional biological research in the Caribbean. During the colonial era, most of the work was done by priests, military officers and physicians. Even today I know clergy on different islands that do quite a bit of research.
What's your method while making this book? Did you have a checklist of what to look for, or did you find animals first and then research them later?
The work really starts in the field, because no one has really done a biological inventory of the island. After I find stuff, I do a lot of research online, in old academic journals and with different professional specialists in the U.S. and Europe. I've gotten to the point where I can tell what is unusual, so hopefully this year I will help identify some new species on the island.
What's the most amazing natural wonder you encountered during the course of making this book? Did you ever find yourself face-to-face with danger?
On St. Martin you don't see things that are "crocodile eating a hippo" amazing. A couple months ago I saw a duck that had never been documented on the island and to me that was pretty exciting. Or if I see a butterfly I haven't seen before it makes my day, even if it's only one centimeter long. The trick, if there is one, is showing how amazing the little stuff is. The greatest danger on the island is a paper wasp known here as the Jack Spaniard. They're very aggressive when defending their nest and they nest everywhere. I have been stung on the face more times than I can count.
How do you think visitors to St. Martin can use your book to better experience and enjoy the island?
The book includes basically everything a visitor would normally see and includes local names and folklore about animals, so it gives some cultural context as well as scientific context. It also includes a ton of stuff that visitors would probably never see, so I think it reveals some depth and mystery. There are also some really nice hikes to do on the island, so I think it might motivate some visitors to try something new while they're here.
Photo by Jenn Yerkes, courtesy of Mark Yokoyama.