Balolo—“Caviar of the Pacific”
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN FIJI
DO YOU like seafood? If so, come with us to a village on one of the outer islands of tropical Fiji, where we are about to enjoy an exotic feast. As we listen to the gentle lapping of the waves against the outriggers, we note an underground oven, called a lovo, that has been dug close to the shore. A fire has been set to heat specially selected stones, over which the main course will be cooked.
But who is bringing the main course? No one! Instead, we will simply wait for the main course to come to us. If you suspect that there is something unusual about this meal, you are right. Our highly anticipated feast will be a plate of wriggling, delectable worms! These reddish-brown (male) and bluish-green (female) sea worms have been dubbed the caviar of the Pacific. Here in the Fiji Islands, this curious culinary delight is called balolo. *
Once or twice a year, for one to three nights during the third quarter of the moon, the balolo worms rise en masse to the surface of the sea. * The predictable timing of this spawning is not fully understood, but scientists believe it may be associated with rising sea temperatures, the moon and tides, or the length of daylight. Methods of prediction include observations of the weather, the flowering of certain plants, and various conditions of the sea. More recently, marine biologists have made balolo predictions based on lunar phases and the Metonic cycle. *
Back in the village, the sound of singing accompanied by ukuleles and guitars is interrupted by the announcement that the worms have started to rise. Let’s join the men, women, and children moving out to the reef. Some wear a brightly colored isulu (a wraparound cloth worn by men and women) and a beautiful salusalu (a fragrant flower lei). These people are unusually well-dressed, considering that they are about to wade into the ocean.
Several opt to participate in this event from inside a canoe, but we decide to join the group wading from shore. Soon we are waist-deep in the warm tropical water. Suddenly, we become aware that rising to the surface all around us are thousands upon thousands of worms!
Now we are caught up in the excitement of what has been called “one of the most bizarre curiosities in the natural history of the South Pacific.” Every imaginable means is used to catch the squirming creatures as they reach the surface—buckets, hand nets, mosquito nets, woven coconut-leaf baskets, and even bare hands. One visitor observed a Fijian man with bushy, curly hair ducking his head into the wriggling mass and shaking off into a boat those that had become entangled in his hair! Some eager participants are tasting the catch immediately, and they can be seen chewing vigorously as they continue gathering them.
It seems that as quickly as it began, this amazing spectacle is over—at least for another year. We decide to pass up the opportunity to eat the raw worms, but we join our friends onshore for our first taste of this “caviar of the Pacific” when it comes out of the underground oven. Rich in vitamins and minerals, balolo can be boiled, baked, or fried. Once cooked, it keeps for a week or more. We admit, though, that its fishy taste is not for everyone.
The time has come for us to depart, and we thank our village hosts for their warm island hospitality. As we reflect on the rising of the balolo worms, its predictable timing, and the interdependence of all living things on the reef, we marvel at the Creator of such diverse life cycles.—Revelation 4:11.
If you are planning to visit the Fiji Islands, you may want to sample a dish of these delicious polychaete worms. On the other hand, you might prefer to pack a lunch! Whichever you choose, you can be sure that at balolo time the islanders will be waiting for the rising of this fascinating “caviar of the Pacific.”
^ par. 4 Other languages, including English, use the Samoan name palolo.
^ par. 5 A similar event occurs at other locations in the southern and western regions of the Pacific, including the Cook Islands, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu. In addition, mass risings of related polychaete worms are reported in other parts of the world, including the Malay Archipelago, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Japan.
^ par. 5 A Metonic cycle is a period of 19 years.
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Are They Really Eating Worms?
You may be both surprised and relieved to know that this unusual hunting expedition is not what it appears to be. Consider why.
The tail section of balolo worms alters drastically and rapidly grows into reproductive organs called epitokes. These contain sex cells called gametes. The tail segment, complete with eyes and paddlelike limbs, separates from the worm and rises to the surface of the sea. If not snatched by a hungry human or an aquatic predator, the soluble casings explode, releasing eggs and sperm for a brilliantly contrived “chance” meeting. The tremendous numbers ensure that there will be sufficient fertilization, despite the toll caused by human and animal intervention. Those that survive as free-swimming larvae find a suitable patch of coral, where they settle to begin their life cycle.
Hence, when we eat balolo, we are only consuming tail segments of worms that are still living on the reef.
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Top: Sekove Bigitibau; left, center, and page 11: Paul Geraghty