The hunt for a lucrative ‘sperm’

One week after full moon in October: it’s time to make the annual early morning pilgrimage to one of the spots known to produce lots of palolo worms in the past.

Whether we’ll be lucky, today is anyone’s guess.

Arriving at Tuialamu in Aleipata at 5 o’clock in the morning shows more people know about this spot, about 100 cars are parked along the road. 

Walking towards the reef in the dark shows dozens of torches shining into the water: the scouts standing in waist-deep water waiving their hand-made nets about. 

As time goes on one hears the call ‘palolo’ now and then, but no definitive war cry.

By the light of the last-quarter moon, more and more people move into the water: holding their containers, waiving their nets and shining their torches down. 

An occasional long worm is seen wriggling about. They are only a few millimetres in diameter, but the segments can but up to a foot long. 

Most of them are only one to a few inches. Collectors taste the occasional sample: very salty and some say nutty in flavour. 

It turns out many Samoans don’t like them at all. 

But if successful, this can be lucrative business, fetching high prices on the market from connoisseurs.

As it grows a little lighter beyond Nu’utele island it becomes obvious just how many people there are fishing in the knee- to waistdeep water: literally hundreds! 

It’s all in good spirits, even if the catch is disappointing this morning.

Tomorrow is another chance, and then again in one month’s time before the nets are hung up for next year.

Those who have caught a reasonable amount of the worms – either by sheer hard work or pooling family effort – seem happy to give a taste of them. 

As it becomes lighter everyone moves out of the water. Because they know: once the sun is up the palolo “melt”, they dissolve out of sight and the fun is over.

But in biological terms, this is when the real thing begins. 

Because the phenomenon of palolo rising is nothing less than a reproduction orgy that brings millions and millions of sperm (in the green worm segments) and of eggs (in the red worms) to the water surface. 

When the segments dissolve, all those sperm and eggs are released en masse so fertilisation takes place, and a new life cycle of the palolo worm begins.

Palolo live in the coral reef and, by the way, the front part of their bodies always stays there. 

What we collect and eat are just the segments at the end of the worms that are snared off. 

How amazing though, that that happens just once or twice a year, exactly one week after full moon, precisely in the two hours leading up to sunrise. 

How do these simple worms know when it’s time to let go?

* Jaap (“iapi”) Jasperse, who first heard about Samoa when studying biology in the Netherlands.

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