You will remember that Stof and I spent three rather dreamy days in a gorgeous lodge in the Yasawa islands (in Fiji). While there we received our weekly weather routing e-mail from Our Boy Bob** who dropped in a one-liner about this being the week for collecting edible worms in Fiji. Edible worms?! Well, we were in Fiji, so we thought we would ask around.
At first the staff at Navutu Stars seemed a little suspicious: they are not too used to guests wanting to harvest worms. They quickly realised that Stoffel and I were not their average hotel guests (might have had something to do with all our boat laundry we took in for cleaning) and we started to get more information about the worms.
We were informed that for one night (only) in October and one night (only) in November, thousands and thousands of tiny sea worms rise to the surface and collect in eddies in certain areas around the islands of Fiji. Villagers rise at about 4am in order to scoop the worms up with fine mesh before the sun rises over the horizon. If they are too late, the sun will “melt” the worms. “But how do you know about the worms?” we wanted to know. If they only come twice a year (for one night only), how can they tell when it’s time to awake before dawn and hit the surf with the fine mesh nets? There were giggles and coy looks, “we can smell them.”
Well Stof and I sniffed and snorted as we strolled along the shore and noticed no difference in odour, but our Fijian informers assured us that Wednesday morning was to be the October harvest of palolos (as we discovered the worms were named). Obviously, we couldn’t leave with all this excitement.
We checked out of the lodge on Tuesday morning and hung around like naughty children after our bed time – enjoying the guest’s kava ceremony before slinking off to Takalani, which was anchored right in front of Navutu. Then early the next morning we jumped in our little dink and returned to shore before the sun rose. Only one other hotel guest was up for worm collection (an Aussie nurse who works night shifts… so getting up in the dark felt kind of normal for her!). There was some confusion when the net that had been carefully constructed for our worm catching by the workshop the previous afternoon couldn’t be located. Eventually, the kitchen was raided and the Chef’s strainer selected as a stand in. We set off with the night watchman and his trusty assistant in the boat in search of worms.
We weren’t sure what to expect. As we rounded the corner of the island we could make out the shapes of about four other little boats on a small beach and as we drew closer we saw about thirty people in the water scooping and tipping their nets into buckets. Once our boat was landed, we waded out to find some palolos.
Palolo worms look a lot like really wriggly earth worms, except their colours range from burnt orange to brown to bottle green. Sure enough, if we scooped them out with our hands and held onto the worm without immediately tossing it into the bucket of fresh water, it would begin to gyrate wildly and then slowly break into pieces and… melt. All that would be left of your palolo was a little puddle of milky slime. Somehow the Fijians had discovered that palolos melt in sea water when the sun rises, but they last in fresh water… especially if steamed soon after harvesting.
We scooped and marvelled. Every now and then there was great shout of excitement and we’d all gallop over to the location of the holler to find another thick of worms to net. The three foreigners (us) kept laughing in disbelief. We were not alone, though, the villagers laughed at us laughing. And there was a lot of general laughter in that excited “this is a really special day” kind of euphoria.
There is a kind of magic to it all. Twice yearly these worms appear from nowhere and they must be harvested before the sun rises or they will disintegrate as if they never existed. It felt like something out of a fairy tale, but in this age of information, we had to google the science.
Click on this link if you’d like to read more about the palolo worms. In summary: the part of the worm we harvested is not the worm in its entirety, but rather the sexual organs of the eunice viridis worm which are released with the very intention that they disintegrate in order to spawn. The worms themselves stay burrowed in the sea floor, knowing that their species will continue, despite the hungry Pacific islanders eating their fill. The timing of the annual spawning coincides with the specific time of the waning moon in October and November… clever Fijians no doubt count the days after full moon as opposed to relying on their olfactory organs.
The worms themselves are supposed to be a great delicacy to the islanders… sadly we had forgo eating the palolo worms to up-anchor and head back to the mainland before the strong easterlies picked up. We did not want “beat” our way to Lautoka for 50 miles. The good news is that there are worm harvests across the Pacific… so if we’re really lucky we might find some Vanuatans with a taste for palolos that we can join in the November harvest.
* And this, I promise, is the last in this ridiculous series of la-la, lu-lu, lo-lo named posts.
** Bob McDavitt is this simply fabulous guy in New Zealand who (we think) must have surpassed his cruising days, but couldn’t give it up. So he now looks at the weather in the South Pacific and tells boats when to “GO!” so as not to get caught up in nasty weather.