Palolo worms can be delicacy or nightmare
, I asked readers to tell me, if they could, what kind of worms might have tangled themselves in a woman's hair in the Caribbean.
"Perhaps the most famous ... would be the palolo worm, found in both the Atlantic and Pacific," e-mailed Greg from Eugene, Ore. "It is quite the treat or nightmare, depending on your state of mind."
I've heard of swarming palolo worms, but I thought they only lived in the Pacific, specifically in Samoa, where they're a delicacy. But I was wrong. Twelve species of palolo worms occur throughout the world's warm seas, including the Caribbean.
In an online magazine called "Shallow Water Angler," a Florida Keys man wrote of his experience "fishing the hatch."
When he moved to the area in the '70s, he heard that sailfish were currently offshore, but there were no tarpon, of course, since it was June.
"Where are the tarpon?" the newcomer asked. Laughing, an angler said, "They're all down at Bahia Honda Bridge eating worms." Palolo worms, it turns out. But the fish weren't feasting on the worms themselves. They were eating the worms' reproductive organs.
During the day, palolo worms (4 to 8 inches long) hide in their own mucus-lined burrows inside coral reef cracks. At night the worms emerge to feed on algae and small invertebrates.
Each worm carries its sex cells in a long, cylindrical sac at its rear. When the eggs and sperm mature, these sacs start wiggling until they break off. They then swim to the surface. At daybreak the squirming sac bursts, and the sperm and eggs find each other (hopefully) to start a new generation of worms.
The older worms, safe in their burrows, immediately begin growing new rear ends. The next year, these will again break off and go swimming.
Apparently, some Caribbean palolo spawn in June. Here in Hawaii (and other places) palolo worms don't spawn in swarms, but go off here and there. In the summertime at night, you can sometimes see the ends of these worms squirming and squiggling through the water.
In Samoa, people once set the calendar by palolo worms. Their spawn usually occurs the seventh night after the first full moon following the fall equinox. In pre-missionary Samoa, this "big rising" marked the beginning of the new year.
It was also time for a feast, and remains so to this day. On the specific night, people get up before first light and head to the sea with flashlights to attract the worm ends (each has a row of light-detecting eyes down its center), and then scoop them up in nets. Some people wade; others go out in small boats.
Most of the collecting is for a feast the next day, but some people pop the wiggling, green spaghettilike things into their mouths right there in the water. The ones that make it to the feast are fried in onions and butter. Some restaurants that day have board specials that say, "Palolo on toast."
This salty, tart treat is sometimes called the caviar of the Pacific.
I'm grateful to my two readers, one who got worms in her hair, and the other who suggested they might be palolos, for writing. I've never seen these famous worms spawning or tasted their castoff gametes. Now I live for the day.