Saturday, January 22, 2011

Glowworm Magic (Waitomo Caves, New Zealand)

It twinkles like the sky on the darkest moonless night – a veritable galaxy of tiny blue-green lights. Like most caves, Waitomo have formations that sprout from the ceiling and floor of the caves, formed over millions of years by the constant drip and flow of water. Waitomo Caves have very plain stalactites and stalagmites, but contain a celestial night sky of glow-worms that light the cave’s passage. Millions of glow-worms each emit their tiny bioluminescent light making for an extraordinary natural sight.

Glow-worms are a more attractive name for what are actually fly larvae. Unenchantingly, the glow is efficiently generated via their mucus and waste. Each glow-worm casts a number of sticky threads like fine fishing lines, using their lights to attract unwary insects into their paralysing curtain of threads. Glow-worms only appear around streams with overhanging ceilings making caves an ideal environment.

In an unusual lifecycle, the larvae progress when sufficiently fed through the pupa stage into adulthood. As an adult, they have no mouth and hence don’t feed, rapidly mating, laying eggs and dying, completing the cycle.

On entering the cave, the stream runs near to the top of the stairs before plunging underground. The steep stairs allows the eyes to slowly acclimatise to the minimal light, the cave barely lit by occasional candles allowing the wondrous glow-worms to weave their spell like the finest Christmas decorations. Bones litter the entrance to the cave, a combination of livestock that haven’t watched their step with some creatures from times further past.

As our group walks further into the cave following the natural course of the stream, any semblance of natural light is lost with the seemingly limitless glow-worms lighting patches of the ceiling like the densest parts of the cosmos. Staring skywards, the delicate lights and tiny threads create a peaceful and tranquil haven, the bubbling stream echoing tunefully through the passageway.

The peaceful verdant farming community of Waitomo hides a rabbit warren of tunnels and subterranean passageways, the limestone etched away by the freezing streams over the centuries. Various companies reach agreement with the farmers for access to their land and underground caves. As such, a smorgasbord of offerings from a variety of companies (with lots of competitive discounts and coupons around) are available to experience the caves including walking, genteel boat rides, abseiling, cave climbing and black water tubing (where you simply don a wetsuit, sit in a large inner tube and allow the chilly stream to take you along the cave, leaning back to enjoy the sparkling light show).

Photo Credit: Glow-worm lines

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Barbara Weibel said...

Oh, gorgeous! Except for the waste and mucous part. Wish I had seen these when I visited NZ.

mike said...

These caves are definitely worth a visit if you're in NZ!! So cool!

Anil said...

The fact that it glows makes it not nearly as gross for some reason :)

Heather Dugan ("Footsteps") said...

Cool critters. I'll overlook the worm, waste, mucous stuff ;)

Mark H said...

@barbara: Somehow the mucus part doesn't get mentioned in the marketing literature.

@mike: Definitely worth a visit.

@anil: Seems practical to me. Saves energy.

@heather: Very special. Tricky to photograph though.

Sherry Ott said...

This was one of my first stops on my career break in 2006 - I LOVED it...worm waste that glows...I was fascinated! Plus- the 'black' water rafting part of my trip was a blast!

Heather on her travels said...

I like the sound of the light show - not so sure about that freezing stream though

Spencer said...

I'll bet the caves are an awesome site in person.

Mark H said...

@sherry: It sounds ugly ("glowing waste") but is truly majectic. And the rafting is special.

@heather: The wetsuits help...

@spencer: Very special.

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