There is an unbelievable sight to witness while in New Zealand, that will leave you with your jaw hanging open. In a small town called Waitomo, they have something truly magical hidden deep within the underground limestone cave system formed over 30 million years ago. There are multiple ways to get into the caves but the most fun, in my opinion, is to start with a 20m (60 ft.) hanging rappel (abseil) down a waterfall!
Welcome to the Glowworm Caves
Essentially, the only reason to visit Waitomo is to witness the glowworms that inhabit the cave systems. To truly appreciate these creatures, you have to understand how incredibly amazing they are. Let me try to explain…
These minuscule blue glowing worms are actually larva. They hang from the top of the caves and stay in a larva state for 9 months — the longest stage of their short lives. The blue light that they emit is used to attract flies and moths that trick them into thinking it is a way out of the dark cavern. The bugs fly toward the light and get caught in one of their many silk threads or ‘fishing lines’ — sticky mucus covered beadlike strands that dangle below them. Once stuck, the glowworm pulls up the thread and eats the unfortunate bug. Pretty impressive, eh?
That’s not the half of it….the light that they emit is 98% efficient and this is the result of a biochemical reaction that involves luciferin and an enzyme, luciferase, to burn their poo because they have no bum hole. In comparison, a standard light bulb is a mere fraction of this (around 20%, I think. Sorry can’t remember exactly) and those new fancy ‘energy efficient’ ones are only a bit better! In an effort to try and capture this efficiency, medical researchers have started to use luciferin and luciferase in biotechnology as bioindicators for gene expression studies. Pretty amazing if you ask me!
So what happens after 9 months?
They hatch and become flies…yay! Right? Well unfortunately, they have no mouths. Their main objective is to mate and then they die within about a 4 day period…cruel, isn’t it?
There are several options available to tourists to see the glowworms and also have caving adventures. For those that would like to just see the glowworms and aren’t interested in strapping on a wetsuit and braving the chilly waters, there are dry options including boat cruises into a cave.
We hired Waitomo Adventures for our caving adventure and I opted for a ‘wet’ adventure tour through the caves, called Haggis Honking Holes, and I can tell you I was not disappointed. It was about 4 hours long and consisted of 3 rappels down waterfalls, including one hanging, rock climbing, and wedging yourself through several tights spaces where I regretted having that cookie a few hours earlier. I would have never considered myself a claustrophobic person, but this adventure truly tested my tolerance!
We were truly in good hands with our two guides — they always put our safety first took care of us the entire way. They educated us about all the cave features: stalactites, stalagmites, fossils, limestone, and of course the glowworms. The experience was exhilarating, scary, interesting, challenging, educational, and just overall amazing! In my opinion, it is a must do while in New Zealand.
Maybe it was because being in the cave system reminded me of childhood vacations to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky with my sister, cousins, and grandparents. My grandparents were the first that I can recall, to open my eyes to travel outside of the U.S. They took vacations all around the world to places I had never knew existed, but made me pull out the encyclopedias (yes, I am that old) and want to learn more. I couldn’t be 🙂
- If you are interested in seeing the glowworms up close and personal, you will have to hire a tour company. The access to almost all of the caves are on private property (you own the land, you own the cave) and the tour companies typically have leases with the land owners for the caves.
- Choose your adventure wisely. If you are uncomfortable in tight, enclosed spaces – opt for a boat ride possibly.
- You do need to be relatively fit in order to get around the cave system and do the rock climbing, but as long as you have a good attitude, you can do it. There are tours that accommodate all levels of fitness.
- It would be good to understand how large your tour group will be. The more people, the more waiting for everyone to complete rappels and climbs
- There were no cameras allowed on my tour, which is probably for the best with rappelling and water. The guides did bring a camera and we had the option to buy the photos. If you are part of a group, split the cost and email them all to each other.
Side note: I am not a scientist or expert in glowworms, but merely trying to explain what I can remember of the scientific aspects of these creatures. Bottom line…they are badass.
Anyone else ever been here? Is it on your bucket list??