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The Sublime Waitomo ‘Glowworm Grotto’

Waitomo 'Glowworm Grotto'.  Photo author unknown.
Waitomo ‘Glowworm Grotto’. Photo author unknown.

Note: This post features a few photos with unknown authors.  If you are aware of who took these photographs, please let me know in the Comments section below so I can be sure they are credited appropriately for their hard work.

In 1887, English surveyor Fred Mace and Maori chief Tane Tinorau boarded a raft made of flax stems and drifted into the water outside an entrance to the Waitomo cave system.  Formed within Oligocene limestone, the cavern was just one of several hundred formations in the Waitomo region and while the local Maori people were aware of this particular cavern’s existence, it had yet to be formally explored.

Image of 'Glowworm Grotto' by Corin Walker Bain
Image of ‘Glowworm Grotto’ by Corin Walker Bain. Fromm ‘New Zealand’s Waitomo Caves: Water, Time, Light’ ISBN: 9780473227746

To outside observers, the combination of these two explorers may have seemed like an odd pairing, but the sight of the Englishman and the Chief venturing into the unknown together was probably not as unusual as one might suspect.  Among the ranks of New Zealand’s colonial surveyors, Mace was a bit of a ‘special case’ and he held a unique position in a region and society typically guarded against outside intrusion.  In the words of Anthropology graduate student Tracy Anderson in her dissertation, having established residence within the Maori kingdom and having married a Maori woman, Mace “lived his life balanced on the fissure between two distinct cultural (and social) worlds.”  Thus, when he set-out with the Chief that day, it was likely in the same adventurous spirit that had already spurred him to traverse numerous physical and social boundaries before.

Detail of glowworm silk strands
Detail of glowworm silk strands. Photo: Kristina D.C. Hoeppner via Flickr (

As their raft floated into the dark, the explorers quickly found themselves enveloped in the sublime glow of thousands of Arachnocampa luminosa larvae.  Commonly known as glowworms, these little carnivores employ bioluminescence as a means to attract flying insect prey toward a forest of sticky silk suspended from the ceiling.  As a moist, calm environment relatively free of gusty winds that could entangle their silky snares and of light pollution that could distract potential prey, the Waitomo caves appear to provide ideal conditions for the glowworms to thrive; making for what must have been an absolutely otherworldly experience for Mace and Tane Tinorau.

Waitomo 'Glowworm Grotto'.  Photo author unknown.
Waitomo ‘Glowworm Grotto’. Photo author unknown.

After continuing-on to explore another section of the cave, the jubilant explorers emerged and shared their discovery.  Unsurprisingly,  their enthusiasm was widely shared and gradually the interest became great enough that Chief Tane Tinorau was motivated to open the caves to tours in 1889 and eventually so many visitors were flocking to the region that the colonial government saw fit to seize control of the caves in 1906.  (As an aside, it should be noted that control of the caves was eventually returned to the original Maori owners 100 years later in 1989.)

Today, the Waitomo caves and the famous ‘Glowworm Grotto’ still attract throngs of tourists and you are able to book your visit here if you are interested in experiencing a remarkable natural phenomenon that has gripped visitors ever since the surveyor and the Chief drifted into its irresistible glow more than 125 years ago.

References and Further Reading
  • Anderson, Tracy.  Living on the Boundaries: Fred Mace and Surveying in Nineteenth Century New Zealand. Graduate Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies
    2:2 (2004), 64-76.  PDF available.
  • Anderson, Tracy Maria. Boundary crossings: Fred Mace and surveying in the King Country, 1876-1921. Diss. ResearchSpace@ Auckland, 2004.
  • Broadley, R. A. and Stringer, I.A.N. (2009) Larval behaviour of the New Zealand glowworm, Arachnocampa luminosa (Diptera: Keroplatidae), in bush and caves. In: V.B. Meyer-Rochow (Ed.), Bioluminescence in Focus – A Collection of Illuminating Essays (pp. 325–355). Research Signpost. Kerala
  • Broadley, R.A. and Stringer, I.A.N. (2001) Prey attraction by larvae of the New Zealand glowworm, Arachnocampa luminosa (Diptera: Mycetophilidae). Invertebrate Biology 120 (2): 170-177.
  • Pavlovich, Kathryn. “The evolution and transformation of a tourism destination network: the Waitomo Caves, New Zealand.” Tourism Management 24.2 (2003): 203-216.
  • History of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves – Blackwater Rafting Company website
  • The New Zealand Glowworm by V.B. Meyer-Rochow, 1990, Published by Waitomo Caves Museum Society. 60 pages

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