10 Fascinating Facts About the Waitomo Caves


Fun Things to Know About the Waitomo Caves

Sure, the Waitomo Caves look impressive with their crazy rock formations and grottos of glowworms, but their history, discovery and inhabitants mean that there’s a lot more to the Waitomo Caves than meets the eye. This super-popular New Zealand attraction is definitely worth getting to know more about. With that in mind, we have put together this list of fascinating facts about the Waitomo Caves!

Seeing the caves is half the fun, (check out all these things you can do in the Waitomo Caves), but learning a little more about the caves will give you a richer experience. And by the way, make sure you check out The Complete Guide to Waitomo for things to do in Waitomo both in and above the ground.

1. Glowworms Aren’t Even Worms!

… But they do glow! The New Zealand glowworms that reside inside the Waitomo Caves are actually a species of gnat called Arachnocampa Luminosa. When you see them glowing then are in their larval stage where they can be better described as a maggot rather than a worm.©

2. The Caves Started Forming 30 Million Years Ago

The limestone rock that makes up the incredible stalactite and stalagmite formations started off as the bones and shells of marine life. Over millions of years, these marine fossils hardened on the seabed turning into sedimentary rock. When tectonic activity rose New Zealand out of the sea it brought this sedimentary rock with it. Then, about 1 million years ago, the rock was exposed to rain which, over time, has created large cracks that eventually became the caves we can see today. (Well, that’s the short story anyway).©

3. Glowworms Glow to Attract Insects

… and tourists, but glowworms mainly glow to attract other insects to their long sticky lines that they suspend from the ceiling. They also glow to attract a mate using the bioluminescence created by their tails. Chemicals in their tail react with oxygen to create this blue glow.©

4. There are Hundreds of Caves in Waitomo

Many people will only hear about three main caves in Waitomo but did you know there are actually hundreds of caves? What’s more, there are around 10 caves that you can explore with tours! Check them out at The Best Glow Worm Caves in New Zealand.©

5. You Can See Glowworms for Free in Waitomo

Waitomo is packed with many exciting ways to see glowworms. However, there are a few places where you can just rock up and check out the glow worms for free. On an evening, take a torch to the Ruakuri Bushwalk to check out glowworms along the trail. Find out more in the 15 Free Things to Do in Waitomo.

 Eli Duke on Flickr© Eli Duke on Flickr

6. Waitomo Means “Water Hole”

“Wai” means water and “tomo” means a hole or an opening. Makes sense!

10 Fascinating Facts About the Waitomo Caves©

7. People Have Been Visiting the Caves for More than 100 Years

It’s said that the first person to discover the Waitomo Caves was Maori chief Tane Tinorau during the 1800s. After exploring the caves with a local surveyor, local Maori guides started taking tourists into the cave in 1904.

10 Fascinating Facts About the Waitomo Caves©

8. Glowworms Have a Depressingly Short Life as an Adult

After about 10 months of being an egg, then a juvenile larva, then a cocoon, the glowworm finally gets to become an adult fly. However, the adult fly cannot feed so makes the most of its time by mating and laying eggs until it dies about 2-3 days later.


9. Glowworms are Not the Only Cave Inhabitants

The Waitomo Caves are not only a home for glowworms, but then also hold another amazing insect called a cave weta. Otherwise known as a cave cricket, weta are endemic to New Zealand. There are 70 different species, with one of those species, the giant weta, being the heaviest insect in the world. Plus, they have been around for millions of years seeing the dinosaurs come and go. Learn more about the fascinating wildlife in New Zealand in our 20 Animals and Birds Unique to New Zealand.©

10. Touching the Limestone Features Can Damage Them

When on a tour in the Waitomo Caves, keep in mind that touching the limestone features can destroy them. The stalactites, stalagmites, pillars and helictites that you see in the Waitomo Caves have taken thousands of years to form. Not only are the formations delicate, but the chemicals on our skin can also have a bad reaction with the limestone.©


Robin C.

This article was reviewed and published by Robin, the co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. He has lived, worked and travelled across 16 different countries before calling New Zealand home. He has now spent over a decade in the New Zealand tourism industry, clocking in more than 600 activities across the country. He is passionate about sharing those experiences and advice on NZ Pocket Guide and its YouTube channel. Robin is also the co-founder of several other South Pacific travel guides.

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