The Te Anau Glowworm Caves Tour provides a 2.5-hour journey into a subterranean wonderland illuminated by hundreds of glowworms. Guided by experts, you’ll receive a lake cruise and cave walking tour, where you’ll cruise the lake and explore intricate limestone formations before marvelling at the bioluminescent spectacle deep within the caves. This guide outlines everything you need to know about this must-do Te Anau activity that unveils the magical world of New Zealand’s living lanterns.
Te Anau Glowworm Caves
The Te Anau Glowworm Caves are located deep inside the Murchison Mountains on the western shores of Lake Te Anau in the Southwest of New Zealand. These limestone caves, accessible by boat, offer visitors a unique adventure into the underground of Fiordland National Park.
History and Cultural Significance
The caves were first known to Māori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa, New Zealand. The name Te Anau comes from the Māori phrase “ Te Ana-au,” which means “the cave of swirling water,” and Māori legend told of a cave filled with glowing light.
In 1948, an explorer named Lawson Burrows went looking for these caves and found water disappearing into the mountainside and reappearing in a lake above. He dove under Lake Te Anau, found himself inside the caves, and soon after began the first tourism operation to the caves.
The Te Anau glowworm caves are part of a long, intricate limestone cave system, known as the Aurora Cave System. The cave system is around 15,000 years old and began forming when movement in the earth’s crust pushed underground limestone toward the earth’s surface. Water above the surface then began calving its way into the soft limestone below, forming large, twisting caverns over millions of years. The glowworms live in the youngest part of this cave system, an area around 12,000 years old.
1948 was a big year for the Murchison Mountains both above and below the ground, as it was also here that same year, in the rugged mountains, where the famous Takahē bird was rediscovered after being presumed extinct for 50 years. The lake in the mountains was named Lake Orbell after the explorer, George Orbell, who rediscovered the Takahē, and it’s the waters from this lake that feed the Aurora Cave System.
Both the Murchison Mountains and the Aurora Cave System are protected to conserve their precious ecosystems. Only conservation workers are permitted in the Murchison Mountains, and visitor access to the caves is restricted to a set number of people per year, with the only visitor access being via a tour boat.
The Fascinating World of Glowworms
Te Anau Glowworm Species
Despite their name, glowworms are not actually worms. They are the larvae of fungus gnats, insects that look similar to a mosquito. In their larval stage, the glowworms live in damp, dark areas such as in caves and on stream banks.
They excrete long silk threads from their mouths and send down thick mucus to make them sticky enough to catch insects like moths and midges. The brighter glowworms glow, the hungrier they are, and they use the glow to lure their prey to them. Their prey mistakes the glittering lights for the open sky and flies upwards into the sticky threads.
The glowworm species you’ll see in Te Anau are called Arachnocampa Luminosa, and they live throughout New Zealand and Australia. Caves are the best place to see them because it’s dark enough for the glowworms to glow 24/7.
How Glowworms Glow
Glowworms are bioluminescent creatures, meaning they are living organisms that produce light. The glowworms emit light from a small organ near their tail, where light is produced as the result of a chemical reaction between an enzyme called luciferase and various chemicals in the glowworms’ bodies.
Glowworms have 4 stages to their life cycle and live for just over a year in total.
Egg: Glowworms first develop inside eggs for 10-20 days.
Larvae: The glowworms then hatch out of their eggs as larvae a few millimetres long. They spend most of their lives, around 334 days, in this stage, as it is the only opportunity they have to feed and grow, reaching around 3-4cm at the end of this stage.
Pupa: Once they’ve matured, the glowworms pupate into a cocoon, similar to a butterfly, and spend around 13 days undergoing their adult transformation.
Fly: Once their transformation is complete, they hatch out as flies, that no longer glow, and live for another 2-5 days. As adults, they don’t have mouths, so they have to rely on their energy reserves formed in their larval stage. They spend their final days looking for mates and breeding. After a female fly has laid around 40-50 eggs, both she and her mate will die while their eggs develop and begin the cycle again.
Te Anau Glowworm Tour
Lake Cruise and Forest Walk
Lake Te Anau is the largest lake in New Zealand’s South Island. Surrounded by rolling hills to the east and mountains and wilderness to the west, it offers a picturesque backdrop to the first part of your Te Anau Glowworm experience.
The cruise departs from near the centre of the Te Anau township at the RealNZ Visitor Centre, 85 Lakefront Drive Te Anau. The visitor centre is within walking distance of many popular Te Anau accommodation options, and there’s also plenty of parking available in this area. Once here, you’ll board a cruise vessel and travel for 30 minutes to Te Anau’s Western shores.
New Zealand’s daylight hours vary significantly throughout the year, so if you’re cruising later in the day, you may not be able to see far across the lake, particularly in winter months when daylight hours are short. if you want to ensure you can see all your surroundings during the cruise, it’s a good idea to book a tour earlier in the day.
After cruising across the lake, you’ll leave the boat and be guided on a leisurely forest walk to Cavern House, the entry to the caves. Here, you can spend some time browsing interesting biological and geological information about the caves before being split into smaller groups and paired with a knowledgeable guide who will lead you through the caves.
The Caves and Glow Worm Grotto
Before you enter the mystical glowworm grotto, you’ll be guided through the beginning of the maze-like cave system, walking on specially-designed boardwalks through sculpted rock passages, past whirlpools, and over chasms of rushing water while your guide shares interesting information about the cave history and points out the highlights.
On this part of the tour, you may need to bend down slightly at the beginning but you’ll still be able to walk easily. There will also be dim lighting in this part of the caves, and you’ll be on walkways with handrails to ensure you won’t fall or lose your way.
Once deep inside the caves, you’ll board a small pontoon boat and venture into the hidden underground grotto. This part of the tour is pitch black, with the only light coming from the glowworms. You’ll be asked to stay quiet as you glide through the cave, and the only sound will be the swishing water as you relax and gaze up at the thousands of glittering glowworms above.
What you need to know
Bookings and Prices
This tour is run by RealNZ, and you can easily book online from their website or other popular booking platforms. It is possible to book same-day glowworm tours, but spaces are not guaranteed, especially in the peak summer November - February months, so it’s a good idea to book your glowworm tour in advance. Booking earlier also means you’ll have a range of tour times to choose from.
The tour costs NZD$119 for adults over 16 years, and NZD$59 for children aged 5-15 years. Children must be booked with an adult, and the tour is not recommended for children under 5, as it’s very dark inside the caves, and the water can be very loud.
Below we explain how you can save with a joint Glowworm Caves & Milford Sound Tour package.
Safety and accessibility
The tour is very safe, and it’s accessible to everyone with the ability to walk and navigate stairs. You will not need to bend right down on your hands and knees at any stage. You may need to bend slightly at the beginning of the cave system, but once in the caves, you’ll be able to stand up straight and walk easily during the tour. The cave system has safe walkways with handrails, and you’ll be in a small group, so your guide will be able to ensure everyone is safe inside the caves.
It is very unlikely for any incident or emergency to occur, but tour guides are highly trained for emergencies, have access to first-aid kits, and there is a portable defibrillator at Cavern House.
Te Anau Weather
The tour is generally not impacted by weather, and because both the cruise vessel and caves are undercover, it can be a great activity to do on a rainy day.
Due to the shape of the lake, the cruise is calm, even in rougher weather. The chances of getting motion sickness are slim, and the tour is seldom cancelled due to weather. If there happens to be extreme weather conditions causing a cancellation, the tour operator will let you know.
What to Bring
Make sure you bring a warm layer to wear, even on a hot day, as the air is cool inside the caves. Although you won’t be out in the open for very long, It’s also a good idea to bring a rain jacket in case of a shower and ensure you’re wearing sturdy, non-slip shoes for walking inside the cave.
Bring sunscreen and sunglasses for the cruise, some insect repellant to prevent sandfly bites and any personal medication you need. You’re not likely to get seasick from the cruise, but if you’re particularly sensitive, then some sea-leg tablets might be helpful.
Filming and photography are not permitted inside the caves as they can disturb the glowworms, but you might want a camera for photos of the lake and forest.
Milford Sound Tour + Glowworm Caves Experience
For an incredible two-day experience of Fiordland’s world-renowned wildlife and landscapes, you can book a Luxe Milford Sound Tour + Te Anau Glowworm Caves Experience package. With this package, you can treat yourself to an expertly guided journey to Milford Sound from Te Anau, viewing stunning landscapes and unique wildlife, followed by the mystical glowworm cave tour the following day.
This package costs NZD$345 for adults and NZD$248 for children aged 5-15 years and can be easily booked online. The package is a great option to take the stress out of your Fiordland visit, as these tours are designed to ensure you will get to see all the best scenery and have the best photo opportunities while all the driving and planning are done for you.
This package also means you will need to stay two nights in Te Anau, and Te Anau offers a range of accommodation options to choose from to suit your budget and preferences.
Day One: Milford Sound
Day one of your experience will begin at 8:45 am with a pick-up from either your Te Anau accommodation or town centre, where you’ll board a luxury 12-seat Mercedes van. You’ll then journey along Milford Road and be given plenty of time for nine photo stops and four special experiences before arriving in Milford Sound and boarding a premium cruise boat at 1pm. For 2 hours, your Milford Sound Cruise will take you through the fiord past tumbling waterfalls and towering mountain peaks while you learn about the area and unique wildlife. You’ll then be transported back to Te Anau with one more photo opportunity, arriving back in Te Anau around 5:30 pm.
Day Two: Glowworm Tour
Your day two experience begins at 10:15 am, departing from the RealNZ Visitor Centre, 85 Lakefront Drive Te Anau. After your adventure into Fiordland’s glittering underground, you’ll arrive back at the visitor centre around 12:30 pm. If this glowworm tour time doesn’t suit you, you can easily change it with our booking team.
The Te Anau Glowworm experience is highly recommended for all visitors to Te Anau and Milford Sound. With a serene boat ride, an enchanting glowworm display, and the idyllic surroundings of Lake Te Anau, the Te Anau Glowworm Caves Tour is a magical underground expedition for any weather and will add another unforgettable chapter to your adventures into Fiordland National Park.