Friday October 26th – 4 am
I am sitting in bed on a tropical island wrapped in a fleece blanket shivering. That’s what you get for spending about 2 hours in the ocean in the middle of the night catching and eating the sperm and eggs of elusive sea worms….
Once a year in certain regions of the south central Pacific (Samoa, Rarotonga, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu) palolo, the edible portion of a polychaete worm, swarm to the surface of the ocean where hungry islanders catch them as a local delicacy. A small handful will sell for $20. The front portion of the palolo contains a mouth and eyes and remains in the coral reef. The remaining portion of the palolo is a segmented epitoke that breaks away and contains reproductive gametes (colored blue-green for female and tan for male). The uncaught palolo will stay in the water until daybreak when they dissolve and release the eggs and sperm they contain. Each epitoke contains a light sensing spot that draws palolo towards light sources, like the moon or the flashlights of hungry Samoans and curious palagis. The timing of palolo night varies every year, but palolo swarm approximately seven days after the full moon in October or November. Supposedly the flowering of a certain tree, a smell from the reef, abrupt weather changes, and several other natural phenomenons can also predict the date of the palolo swarming.
Armed with knowledge from a palolo related journal topic in my English classes I grabbed my headlamp and headed out with my fellow palagis for an evening of palolo fishing. We hung out at Cat and Wes’s house until midnight helping keep each other awake (we watched 1 of 4 TV channels to catch up on our celebrity gossip). At midnight we headed out to the beach and met up with the rest of the village who were also beginning to gather to check for palolo. Around 1am the palolo finally started to swarm. Everyone grabbed their headlamps, flashlights, nets, and buckets and headed into the water. Palolo are attracted to light, so shining a flashlight into the water attracts the palolo to you allowing you to scoop them up in a net and dump them into your bucket. In the spirit of palolo night I ate a few raw still squirming palolo. It’s like eating a really thin and salty worm that wiggles all the way down. I can now check eating the raw reproductive organs of sea worms off my bucket list! We then spent about 2 hours in the water scooping up palolo for our Samoan friends. The swarm begins slowly with a few smaller palolo and continues to increase until there are countless palolo ranging in size from a few inches to a foot or more. When the palolo reached their peak I could easily grab a few just by sticking my hand into the water and grabbing them. The entire time you are in the water you can feel the palolo swimming into your legs and body. I’m not sure a tickle is the correct word to use, but I’m not sure there is a word for how palolo feel swimming into your legs at 2 am. Leafa was the primary recipient of our palolo catch, until a guy came over and asked for some help since he is visiting Manu’a from Pago for work and con’t hold is bucket, flashlight, and net at the same time. I lent him a hand and headed out into deeper water with him as his light source and bucket holder. We chatted while he marveled at the impressive amount of palolo the two of us were able to catch (he says I am a palolo magnet). A little over 2 hours after we had started fishing the palolo swarm was coming to an end and hypothermia was setting in from the chilly water. Leafa rewarded our hard work with a hot HotPocket and chips before sending us home to shower, warm up, and get some sleep. I have had a lot of cool cultural experiences while in American Samoa, but palolo fishing is currently on the top of the list.
Saturday morning update: We headed down to Leafa’s this morning and tried some cooked palolo. One popular way to prepare palolo is to fry it in a little butter, onion, and pepper. It’s a strange blue-green color, but it is actually pretty good. I even went back for seconds :)