The Night of the Palolo

Microdocs Journal – Ofu Island, American Samoa

The Night of the Palolo

by Dan Griffin

If you were a palolo worm burrowed deep into a south pacific reef, you’d be waiting for one special night.  A night that we had traveled to see on Ofu, one of the Manu’a Islands of American Samoa, to shoot video of the palolo’s rock –and-roll interstellar mating launch.

Traditionally, the palolo spawn comes on a waning moon in late October or early November, which is late spring in the South Pacific.  That time coincided with the ongoing research of Stanford’s Steve Palumbi, who planned to also continue his climate change research in Ofu’s unique lagoon.  When we realized that we might be at the right place at the right time for a palolo launch, I emailed Tisa Faamuli, a local naturalist who lives on the main island of Tutuilla.  She wasn’t encouraging.   She said, “The moon face and tides are not compatible this year. The last quarter moon and full moon do not match up to make a good palolo harvest for both October and November according to scientific and traditional knowledge.

 

Bummer.  Tisa is usually right about anything in the ocean.

 

Still we were there.  The moon was waning.  So we decided to go palolo hunting.

Describing the worms as they emerge from inside the reef, Palumbi said. “The worms wait for just the right conditions and when its time, the worm breaks it’s body into two parts. One part stays in the reef and the other swims out to spawn”.

 

It breaks in half? One part swims away?  Which part is that?  That would be the gonads… the sex organs…Think swimming spaghetti.

 

The alarm went off at 1:00AM and we got up from our pre-dive nap, gathered up the gear and cameras, jumped into the pick-up and headed down to the lagoon.  Already we had the feeling that Tisa was right.  There were no locals out that night.  On a big palolo night, trucks with their high beams glaring would line the shore pointing out to the reef.  That’s right.  On a good night, they would be there to scoop them up, cook them up and have a big south pacific beach party.

 

Moving out into the lagoon, we were struck by how much wasn’t there –few fish, shrimp or anything on the prowl.  We swam out toward the reef crest where the water began to get shallow, and then the first worm spiraled in like a piece of outer space pasta hurtling toward our light.  This was sheer instinct; wriggling and swimming intent on making the connection that keeps the species alive.

Instead of thousands, there were dozens.  A small event.  We spent a half hour watching the worms…or worm parts, shoot out of the darkness with an urgency and intent.  We did see connections made.  We also saw worms that had used up their energy packet drifting in the current.

There had to be a message in this somewhere.  You could say that the worms were acting just like people.  The call of love has certainly caused many of us to leave our brains behind.

 

See more films on the ocean at http://Microdocs.org.

Dan Griffin’s work can also be seen at http://ggfilms.com

 

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