Earth Science Exploration Life Science

The Sublime Waitomo ‘Glowworm Grotto’

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

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

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 Mace 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 found themselves enveloped in the sublime glow of thousands of Arachnocampa luminosa larvae. Commonly known as glowworms, these little carnivores employ bioluminescence to attract flying insect prey toward a forest of sticky silk suspended from the ceiling.

The moist, calm environment of the cave is free of any winds that could entangle their silky snares. It is also devoid of the light pollution that could distract potential prey. In other words, 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 explorers emerged and shared their discovery. Unsurprisingly,  their enthusiasm was contagious and gradually the interest became great enough that Chief Tane Tinorau was opened the caves to tours in 1889.

Eventually, so many visitors were flocking to the region that the colonial government unjustly seized 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’ continue to 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 imaginations ever since a surveyor and a Chief drifted into its 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. ISBN 0-908683-09-X


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