Starry illumination inside Waitomo Glowworm Cave, New Zealand. Starry illumination inside Waitomo Glowworm Cave, New Zealand.

Discover the Beauty of Unfamiliar Places at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, New Zealand

Worms! They might be slimy and yucky altogether! But you might be astonished about what I am about to say. There is a sanctuary for thousands of glowing worms deep within The Waitomo Glowworm Caves that illuminates the craggy stalactites and stalagmites…And nowhere on earth can you find such complex caves comprising sinkholes, caverns, and subsurface rivers, as well as watch the thousands of glowworms, which ignite the darkness like infinite galaxies!

So, embark on a journey into the caves by reading this post to ignite your wanderlust to escape into the unknown.

The Waitomo Glowworm Caves are located on the North Island in the Northern King country region. It lies 12 km on the northwestern side of Te Kuiti. From Hamilton, the caves lie 80 km South. Here are the Waitomo Caves Directions in case you wish to take a trip there;

  • Address: 39 Waitomo Village Road, Waitomo, Waitomo Caves, New Zealand

Let Me Tell You a Bit More About the Waitomo Glowworm Caves

Be awe-struck over the thousands of magic glowworms above as you sail quietly by boat in the world-famous Waitomo Caverns. Guided for visitors since the late 1880s, this is an authentic, quintessential New Zealand attraction. These serene caves are found miles below the hilly expanse of the North Island. And they remain illuminated just by the glowworms even today!

I was surprised to know that its name arises from the Maori term Wai which means water, and Tomo, which means a hole in the surface. And the excellent part is that these Caves are exclusive to New Zealand. The Glowworms are not actually GLOWING WORMS. 

They are basically fly larvae produced by the insect Arachnocampa luminosa. These emit a glowing blue-green hue brightening up the underground cave’s river. 

You will wonder how they get the glow feature. The answer is simple! From their excretory organs. These long silk-like threads or lengthy beads produced by the insects are a prime source of attracting prey. So, the hungry they are, the brighter they glow to attract and catch flies and other bugs to devour! Isn’t this interesting?

Fun Fact: Did you know? These glowworms not only thrive amidst the dark spaces of the caves. You can find them even in the dense dark forests of New Zealand.

The Story Behind the Evolution of Waitomo Glowworm Caves

The parable of the Glowworm Caves in Waitomo dates back over 30 million years ago when limestone was created at the depths of the ocean floor. However, the fantastic part is that these caverns remained hidden from the rest of the world only 118 years ago.

It was in 1887 that the Maori Chief, Tane Tinorau, and Fred Mace, an English surveyor, embarked on an expedition into the caves. Locals knew the existence of the Glowworm Cavern. But these two individuals journeyed to explore the underground caverns deep inside the cave that were yet to be explored.

They sojourned into the caves through the stream that slithered underground, building a raft of flax stems and lighting their candles. First, they chanced upon the Glowworm Grotto that illuminated the cave’s ceiling like stars shining amidst the dark sky. After that, they drifted through the debris and dead logs that floated in the water towards the embankment to exit the raft and explore the cave’s depths. 

Here, they found themselves enclosed by beautiful cave decorations. Finally, after their victory in the first expedition, they often returned to explore the expanse of the caves. 

Chief Tane, who took an independent trip, discovered a shortcut route to access the upper level of the caves. Later with subsequent visits, they found how to embark into the caves from land. And this is the entry point used by thousands of adventure-seeking travelers visiting the caves annually. By 1889, Maori Chief Tane opened it to tourists, and he, with his wife Huti, escorted small groups into the caves for a small fee.

Later the visitor numbers increased, and the government seized the administration by 1906. 

 After 100 years since 1889, the land was returned to its original owners in 1989. These are the descendants of the Maori Chief Tane and his wife, Huti. Most of the staff working in the tourism segment of the caves are mostly their descendants. 

Bite-Sized Science About the Glow Worms

Enter the Cave of Glowing Worms

As mentioned earlier, the glowing worms are just the larval layout of the fungus gnat Arachnocampa Luminosa. In their ninth month of the larval phase, when they grow less than 2 mm to over an inch in length, they pupate. This pupa-forming process happens for nearly two weeks. And cocoons suspend from the cave’s ceiling.

Once they become adults, these giant mosquito-like insects just live up to three days and don’t possess the capacity to consume food. It is because of the essential gastrointestinal tracts they possess. Now, with a limited lifespan, they only have enough time to mate and lay eggs on the cave’s ceiling.

Once the larvae are hatched after three weeks, they begin glowing immediately and migrate to the upper parts, that is, towards the ceiling above the water.

This area sustains the worms as they are pitch dark and primarily moist. Each larva can produce up to 70 strands of the long sticky filament to attract the insects brought by the river. However, amidst the many places in New Zealand that rear these worms, usually in open-air grottos and sheltered banks.

Let me tell you that the Waitomo Caves is the only place that provides uninterrupted gathering in its dark underground caverns. With its numerous shaft openings, there is a free flow of air, water, and food source that the worms attract. These glide into the caves with the fresh air that flows with it. Unfortunately, they mistake the dotted glowing above and fly towards it to get trapped in the hanging filaments. 

Glowing worms are remarkable for their energy efficiency and bioluminescence for three months without food. Their light arises from a kind of phosphorescence resulting from a chemical reaction of luciferin, ATP, luciferase, and oxygen, without releasing heat. The larvae shining brightest are hungriest! 

But you must also know these worms can thrive in water for a few days when the caves get flooded. And it takes time for them to emerge in their full glory. When coming into contact with the sun, these worms lose their glow, and it takes hours for them to recharge and emit the glow to attract food. 

The Glow worms give the punch if you take a cave tour in Waitomo.

And these are peculiar species that reside exclusively in New Zealand. That’s why scientists are implementing measures to conserve the caves and the worms.

The Scientific Advisory Group has undertaken the charge of maintaining the caves with their automated equipment to keep track of the air conditions inside the cave. These include checking the carbon dioxide levels, temperatures, and humidity. This is to ensure that the caves are managed for prosperity. 

And for that, they usually restrict the number of visitors inside the cave to avoid excessive building up of carbon dioxide. 

I Can’t Stop Myself from Telling You Some Facts About the Waitomo Subterrane

So, here are some facts to blow off your mind!

1. Waitomo was Once a Place that Staged a Performance

The caves are available to access at two levels. The lower level remains flooded and is accessible via boat ride. The upper level displays impressive rock formations and is primarily dry. 

At the lower level, there is a place called The Cathedral, renowned for its acoustics. The famous opera singer in New Zealand, Kiri Te Kanawa, once staged a performance there.

2. Enormous Limestone Secretions are Dead Matter of Marine Organisms

The Waitomo was once a sea that later changed to become the caves. These caves contain enormous amounts of limestone, which are the carcasses of seashells, ancient coral, and fish that once remained in the ocean.

3. Stalactites and Stalagmites are Created by the Caves Themselves

When the limestones took shape into the caves, they had some water quantity inside them. When this melts and drips from the ceiling of the cave, stalactites and stalagmites are formed and get solidified like concrete on the cave walls.

4. Insects Are the Only Animals Thriving in the Caves

Insects such as the albino cave ants, giant crickets, and the renowned glowing worm Arachnocampa lumonisa once inhabited these caves. These worms are just an average mosquito’s size. 

Apart from them, the caves also possess several underground lakes, primarily from freshwater creeks or brooks. These lakes house New Zealand’s longfin eels.

5. These Caves Are a Result of Volcanic and Geological Activity

In the million-year process, the dead matter contained within the fossil rocks below the once-ocean Waitomo region layered on each other to form limestone. The caves began to emerge when the limestone rose up out of the sea bed. Once they came into contact with the surface, fissures, and cracks appeared in the thick limestone rocks. 

These suspended the waters and allowed the dissolving of the hard rock mass for years. As a result, the caves were born out of it.

6. You Are NOT ALLOWED to Touch the Cave Walls

That’s the beauty of this cave! The stalactites and stalagmites have taken centuries to create the cave to its present form, and touching them might result in discoloration and breakage. That’s why photography is restricted to certain areas, and smoking is prohibited.

7. It is the House of the Endemic Weta Insect

Not only is the cave home to the glowing worms, it also houses the world’s heaviest insect! There are seventy distinct species within which the giant Weta ranks No. 1 globally for its weight.

8. The Caves are a Renowned Tourist Attraction in the World

Comprising over 300 caves, the Waitomo, Ruakuri, and the Aranui cave are famous tourist spots globally. Topping them is the Waitomo, a tourist spot for over 130 years!

9. Boating Across the Spaces Inside Waitomo

Tourists end their trip here, taking an epic boating within the Glowworm Grotto. This ride takes you on the underground Waitomo River to awe at the stunning ceiling illuminated by the worms!

This is the climax of every Glowing Worm Caves tour.

Glow Worm Caves of New Zealand in 360° | National Geographic

Visiting the Waitomo Glow Worm Cave is indeed a magical and extraordinary experience. Here you can catch a glimpse of nature’s unexplored and untouched places.  With instructed tours, boat rides, rafting, and other activities available, there’s something for all to relish!

Last Updated on May 10, 2024 by Pragya

Authors

Hephzibah
Pragya
  1. Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are. This natural place is truly astonishing. Really want to explore it one day.

  2. These glowworms are so pretty to see but alas they don’t know that. And so much is happening around them in their caves, like the singer echoing her voice in the cave chambers. I bet they can’t experience any of these things or the hype that we humans have around them. At least there are efforts to conserve them. I hope people visit these places and appreciate them from afar.

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