A small, blue light pops into view as a crevice in the cave’s ceiling is revealed. Like stars in the night’s tapestry, one becomes a hundred, then a thousand. They are the creation of bioluminescent worms. They are an ethereal, natural wonder.
The creature responsible for the caves’ lightshow is known as the New Zealand glowworm and it is unique to the continent. It is roughly the size of a matchstick and looks like a grub commonly found in home gardens.
Only a 30-minute ferry ride from Te Anau, a region two hours southwest of Queenstown, separates spectators from the glowworms’ inherent artistry and boulder-enforced canvas.
A Tapestry of Stars
The Te Anau Caves twinkle with New Zealand's glowworms
Mary Kathryn Carpenter
“The cave itself is intriguing. It is very young, only about 12,000 years old,” Thomas Lundman, a cave guide said. “It’s an engineering marvel. Every piece of the structure has been custom made to fit the cave. We haven’t damaged the environment. We’ve worked around it.”
The Te Anau caves, which are kept dark and oxygen rich, remain crucial to the glowworms survival. The bioluminescent worms control a chemical reaction between oxygen in the air and a unique chemical they excrete from a pore. When exposed to bright light, glowworms reduce their glow in fear.
“We light the walkways strategically,” explained Carrie Skilton, a guide with a background in environmental science. “For health and safety reasons we don’t allow photography in the caves. If a flash went off, everyone would be blinded.”
Among the tourists, metal stairs and roaring waters, the glowworms eat flying insects they catch in sticky lines they hang from the ceiling of caves. The lines form a chandelier of clear ropes that gleam with the glowworm’s light.
For David and Roxanne Halkett, guests on a tour through the caves, the experience was unforgettable.
“It was absolutely wonderful when they turned the lights off and you got your first glimpse of the glowworms together,” Roxanne explained. “It was like the stars in the sky. I felt a connection.”
Marveling at the glowworm’s eminence is only one part of the tour; visitors learn more about the insect’s lifecycle. It will remain in the larval form for nine months before developing a cocoon, like moths or butterflies, for two weeks. After emerging, the adult fly only lives three days, where its only objective is to reproduce and lay eggs in a safe cave.
The bioluminescent worms in the Te Anau caves, located between Queenstown and Milford Sound, are preserved within the Fiordland National Park. Tourist agency Real Journeys offers guides and transportation.
Visitors can expect to pay $81 ($57 U.S.) for an experience similar to Halkett. With prior notice, this tapestry of stars is available for all levels of accessibility.
FINDING THE LIGHTS
In addition to Te Anau, visitors to New Zealand can view glowworms in six locations.
On the North Island:
On the South Island:
Paparoa National Park