Waitomo: New Zealand’s glowworm cave

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The word “Waitomo” in Maori is composed of two parts: ‘wai’ meaning ‘water’, and ‘tomo’, meaning entrance or hole. The word could be translated as “water that flows into the ground” and brilliantly summarizes the essence of a region located in the norhern island of New Zealand.

About 300 limestone caves are located in this area which was geologically formed about 30 millions years ago when, due to volcanic activity, it started to emerge from the seabed.

The caves of Waitomo offer beautiful examples of stalactites and stalagmites formations and the tourism in the area is well organized and respectful of the natural environment, also thanks to the fact that this area is a nature’s paradise, with a population that reaches only 2.7 people per square kilometer.

But among these caves there is one in particular that offers a true natural spectacle: the Glowworm Cave.


In 1887 local Maori Chief Tane Tinorau accompanied by an English surveyor Fred Mace ventured in a water logged cave with a hand-made raft of flax stems armed with candles as their only lighting. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they were astounded to see a magnificent starry sky inside the volt of the cave.

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What they saw was in reality a phenomenon called ‘bioluminescence’ created by hundreds of thousands of tiny worms hunging from the cave’s ceiling.

Arachnocampa Luminosa is the scientific name of an insect that is specific to New Zealand. During its larvae stage, which lasts about 9 months, this insect uses bioluminescence to attract food and burn off waste.


After the first exploration, many more followed and the upper level of the cave, where the main entrance is located today, on dry land, was found.

The cave was opened to the public by 1889. Today the visit of the cave includes a tour of the upper level, on dry land, which includes formations known as the ‘Catacombs’, the ‘Pipe Organ’ and the ‘Banquet chamber’’. Linking the upper and lower level ofthe cave is the ‘Tomo’, a 16 meters shaft created by an ancient waterfall.

The lower level is partially explored by boat and, on top of the Gloworm Grotto, it features the ‘Cathedral’: the largest cavern of the complex (18mt high) which is world-renowned for its superb acoustics.

Bioluminiscence in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves

The Gloworm Cave is protected by an automated monitoring system which ensures that the natural balance that allows the gloworms to thrive is not disrupted, so if you are lucky enough to be able to visit this place, you can be reassured you won’t cause any damage to this amazing natural wonder.



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