There’s a place, just 60km south of Sydney where you can see a constellation of blue dots in the dark, that come from the glow worms. In fact, there are a number of places where you can see them on the east coast of Australia but the most convenient would have to be the Helensburgh Glow Worm Tunnels.
UPDATE: Unfortunately, silly, loud people is why we can’t have nice things. As of 30 June 2018 (just a month after I went!) the Department of Crown Lands erected a fence at the entrance to the tunnel. Apparently, it’s because visitors were too loud, left rubbish and the glow worm population was being affected. I would have liked to have at least seen a rubbish bin and signs installed first to see if that would help, but sadly no.
According to Facebook reports it seems that the gate is open during the day but I’m not sure about night or if there’s any pattern to the gates open times, but at least it is still accessible for photographs. It is possible to photograph the glow worms during the day, you just have to go deep into the tunnel.
How To Get To Helensburgh Glow Worm Tunnel
If you don’t have a car, then no worries! It’s not that hard to get to the Helensburgh Glow Worm tunnel. It’s is just down the road from the Helensburgh train station (see map below). The glow worm tunnel is actually part of the old Helensburgh train station, but being 624m long with no vents wasn’t such a good idea so it was permanently closed in 1915.
There are a number of old tunnels in the area, the glow worm tunnel is officially and confusingly called the Metropolitan Tunnel 1st (Tunnel No.4). Across the road is the 80-metre Helensburgh Tunnel (Tunnel No.3) that has been blocked off at the southern end.
If you visit by car during the day, Monday to Friday, you’ll find a lot of cars parked on the side of the road which may lead you to think they’re all tourists in the tunnel. Fear not, they’re just workers who have parked there and walked up to the station (phew, was I relieved!)
I ventured in on a weekday, late afternoon. There was no one in the tunnel when we arrived but we met another guy just as we walked in. Over the next hour there were another 5 or so groups that went through but they didn’t stay long and nearly everyone had gone by sunset.
You don’t have to visit at night to see the glow worms but you will have to go deep into the tunnel to see them during the day, at least 100m.
I did notice that even though we were deep in the tunnel, it seemed that more glow worms lit up the closer it got to sunset, I don’t know if they somehow sense it. At first, I thought it was just my eyes adjusting but when we first went in the glow worms didn’t show up on my phone camera but towards sunset they did, even though we were in pitch darkness.
It’s pretty exciting when you first start to see them. Just a blue dot here and there but as your eyes adjust the ceiling soon fills with a constellation of glow worm stars.
Funnily enough, they’re not actually worms but the larvae of fungus gnats who use their glow to lure in small insects to feed on, trapping them in sticky threads that hang from the roof.
A couple of things to note if you’re going into the tunnel.
- It can get really muddy and slippery in there, especially if it’s raining or has rained recently, so wellies or high-top, waterproof boots that you don’t mind getting dirty, are a must.
- Take a torch, but don’t shine it on the ceiling! This makes the glow worms not glow. Also if people are already in the tunnel don’t shine your torch down it, you’ll probably ruin their photos, just keep it trained on the ground to see where you’re going.
- Don’t use your camera flash either!
- Keep quiet, loud noises can disturb the glow worms and they’ll glow less. There are also people living nearby so don’t annoy them.
- I didn’t have a problem with any insects in the tunnel, but it may be different during different seasons, so if you must spray repellent do it outside as spraying inside can kill the glow worms.
- DO NOT use the tunnel to create steel wool, fire-twirling photos, IT KILLS THE WORMS!
- Same goes for smoking, so don’t smoke in there.
- Don’t leave any rubbish in there, take it with you!
- Avoid going by yourself, it is very slippery sometimes and if you fall over and hurt yourself you could be waiting awhile for help. There’s little to no phone reception in there!
When it comes to photographing the glow worms, a phone camera isn’t going to cut it. I tried mine just for a laugh and sure there are blue dots in the pic but nothing else, so it’s not a very interesting photo.
You’ll need a camera that can shoot in BULB, which means you can leave the shutter open for as long as you want. All modern dSLR’s have this option and some of the better compact cameras may have it.
Also tripod, need one.
You’ll need to experiment with settings so firstly crank up the ISO. Try around ISO 5000 first and see how far you can take it. Better quality cameras will have low noise (looks like heavy pixelation in dark areas) with high ISO’s, whereas cheaper cameras will have a lot of noise as soon as the ISO goes over 1000.
Pop the aperture to around f/11 if you want to get the length of the tunnel in focus. A wider aperture will let more light in but may reduce your depth of field.
Because it’s so dark you’ll have to blind focus, so I usually take the focus to infinity then bring it back just a tad, set focus to manual and do a test shot. Zoom in on your test shot to see if everything is in focus, readjust if need be.
Shutter speed will depend on how close you are to the entrance of the tunnel and if you plan on light painting. Most of my shots were around 90 seconds to two minutes, but if I had my time again I’d reduce my ISO and go longer, maybe 3 minutes.
Try light painting the foreground and sides of the tunnel with your torch to create some foreground interest or have someone stand in the middle of the tunnel with a torch behind them to create a back-lit silhouette (just avoid pointing the torch up!)
Get creative and don’t be too annoyed if other people come in, if you space yourselves out you shouldn’t appear in other’s photographs. It’s a very long tunnel after all and sometimes other people’s lights can create some great effects.
In short, be safe and don’t annoy the glow worms!