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Waiomio Glowworm Caves

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by Gail Clifford MD (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer and photographer traveling the world, often following my daughter. Visit our site at www.ABLETravelPhoto.com and follow us on Instagram @ABLETravelPhoto
Published June 4th 2022
New Zealand Bay Of Islands Land View
New Zealand's Bay of Islands


Have you ever met a glow worm? Turns out, we'd met its cousins, but never expected to have such a great science and history lesson in the Bay of Islands.

We had missed the Glow worm caves between Auckland and Rotorua so were glad to find these near the Bay of Islands.

Glow worms, species Arachnocampa genus luminosa, thrive in these damp, dark caves and are killed by photography, even infrared exposure, so interior photographs were not allowed.

This is a family run cave, descendants of the original chief (unusually, a woman) who, legend tells us, had taken pity on an abused woman, Roku, escaping from her husband after he beat her.

New Zealand Bay Of Islands Land View
New Zealand Bay of Islands Cave


Roku took shelter in the cave, built a fire for warmth and to cook her food, and slept on the floor.

To survive, she stole crops, usually sweet potatoes, which was eventually discovered.

The tribe found Roku in the cave, took pity on her and sheltered her until her husband threatened tribal war and they were forced to return her to him.

They estimate this happened 360 years ago, and the growth of limestone over the sandstone is about 1 cubic inch per 100 years.

The cave is narrow, our entry dependent on boardwalks installed with handrails for most of the trek.

Floods have weakened the boardwalk at the exit point so the bush walk is "on your own" (at your own risk) at the time this was written.

No photography inside the cave as the red light burns the worms – luminescence only 0.02 – and stuns their growth or burns them outright

This danger was discovered when the population, counted periodically, dipped below the typical 10K, the amount that this region can feed based on the glowworms territorial nature and need for space to capture their prey – flies, midgies, etc., moths

After photography was forbidden, the population returned.

Photography in front of the cave and on the bush walk is highly encouraged.

New Zealand Bay Of Islands Land View
New Zealand Bay of Islands is a Land of Boats


We had Kaitlynn as our guide.

We had a lantern for every 3-4 people and were asked to carry our lantern like a "torch" – and it had three speeds: full, dim, and off.

A creek runs thru the cave and water drips from the limestone – no touching, that will discolor or kill the limestone. The sandstone base is stagnant.

The limestone doesn't have the green color we saw other places and the creek is a dark, clear color, unlike the green water seen at the Blue Mountains caves.

First stop, Kaitlynn explained the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. The stalactites, growing from the ceiling, "hold on tight." The Stalagmites, "might make it to the top." When the two join, they form a column.

There wasn't as much bridal veil effect pointed out along the way, though some was noted by me on the side walls.

At this point, we were instructed to turn our lanterns off and, voila! The glowworm tail was instantly visible. It really did look like the night sky.

Kaitlynn explained the life cycle of the worm – about a year each. They spend 2-3 weeks from egg to worm. Then 11 months as a worm, 2-3 weeks in a cocoon, then 3 days as a fly.

The female fly, once mated, will lay about 120 eggs in the same region where she lived her life.
The male fly tells by pheromones where the females are and may even wait outside the cocoon for the female to (get out)

The new worms will eat its neighbor and get enough energy to build a hammock and create it's lines – saliva secretions from 1 cm to 20 cm that will catch flying insects – and are then sucked back into the worm

Light is controlled by the worms, the brighter the light, the hungrier the worm. If the worm chooses to turn the light off altogether to conserve energy, it takes about 2 hours to return to full strength.

This is also where we saw the place Roku is thought to have lived "Roku's Kitchen" and her bed of rock, spot where she had her fire, and potato like outcroppings above her bed are visible.

We strolled ahead, back with full torch light, into the widest, longest section of cave.

Kaitlynn pointed out the worms hanging from the ceiling, evenly spaced based on her description of the territories they prefer. At a low hanging section, worms in their hammocks with lines dropped were visible. I didn't spot any caught insects on the hundreds of lines visible.

This part of the cave they call "the Milky Way." It looks even more like the evening sky and doesn't change much over time.

Reproduction happens throughout the year so looking at one swatch of cave roof represents all parts of the glowworm life cycle.

We walked a little further for our third and final stop to see additional glowworms.

Watch out for the "headbangers" so named because they're stalactites so close to the handrail you will hit them with your head if you don't take care.

Since we couldn't exit the stairs due to safety concerns, we were able to take a return trip thru the glowworm caves with the lanterns on dim and enjoyed a second look at this natural phenomenon.

Kaitlynn said 87% of the world's glowworms live in NZ, the remainder on the east coast of Australia. Only one species here and 6-7 species there. As she said, that means "our glowworms are better, stronger, just like our rugby players." Some of the Australians in the crowd had to groan at that, the rest of us don't mind acknowledging the All Blacks as the superior rugby players.

Photos at the end of the cave, and back to the parking lot.

There are bathrooms currently under renovation so johnny on the spot bathrooms are available – 4 – fairly clean stocked with toilet paper and anti-bacterial gel in each.

At this writing it was $30 per adult and, should you decide to take a tour, the coach fare runs about $50 over that.

The recent floods have wiped out the road Route 11 and, based on the problems NZ has getting roads back –example Christchurch and earthquakes 7 and 8 years ago, don't expect anything fast.

It's a neat tour, something we'd not seen and were glad to go once.

Our host had told us the glow worm is a lot like our East Coast lightning bug – he's not wrong. It's just different seeing them strung from the ceiling and the knowledge that it doesn't really change over time based on their own natural selection.
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Where: 49 Waiomio Road, Waiomio 0243, New Zealand
Your Comment
Great article Gail. There is more to see in the Bay of Islands than the hole in the rock.
by Neil Follett (score: 3|4270) 71 days ago
Looks like there is so much to learn and discover on this tour.
by Gillian Ching (score: 3|5098) 71 days ago
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