Selong Belanak’s Nyale worm; the elusive sea creature behind a Lombok legend.
One of Lombok’s most intriguing and unique cultural festivals – Bau Nyale, meaning ‘To catch sea worms’ in Sasak, takes place each year in the south of Lombok, at the beaches of Kuta and Selong Belanak.
The festival attracts hundreds (sometimes thousands) of participants from all over the island who gather to witness and participate in the unique spawning phenomenon of a rare variety of Palolo worm (Eunice viridis) – a tropical species of marine polychaete worm that is found in Lombok, Savu and Sumba in Indonesia, and also around some Polynesian islands.
In Indonesia the event usually takes place around the full moon on the tenth month of the Sasak calendar (which occurred this year around February 15th) when the appropriate seasonal, lunar and marine events combine to produce favorable spawning conditions.
At these times, certain beaches around South Lombok become inundated with writhing masses of colourful Nyale. The worms are collected by the Sasak people and eaten boiled, fried or sometimes raw. Reports from our more adventurous Selong Selo staff are that the taste is somewhat similar to an oyster.
Cultural festivities aside for a moment, the biology of the Nyale (or Palolo) worm is very interesting in its own right. These unusual creatures live in relatively shallow depths of up to 25m and spend most of their lives burrowed head first into coral and rock where they feed on organic matter.
Each year in preparation for spawning, the worms begin to develop a long segmented ‘tail’, containing eggs and sperm. This tail has a photosentive eyespot that can detect light, enabling the coordinated release of the tails during a full-moon cycle. During the mass-spawning event the worm’s tails all break off simultaneously and undulate to the surface where they burst, releasing the eggs and sperm in the process (unless of course they are captured and eaten first). This coordinated spawning session usually occurs over a 3-day period.
Meanwhile, the head end of the worm remains alive and well and safely attached to its burrow at the ocean floor.
In Lombok the Bau Nyale festival and the accompanying legend behind it, is deeply rooted in local Sasak tradition and culture (see the Legend of Nyale below). Lombok people believe that gathering and eating the elusive worms bring good luck, can signify a good rice harvest, and can bring beauty, fertility, prosperity and success.
Sasak people travel from far and wide to celebrate the Nyale festival and for 3 days and nights Selong Belanak becomes abuzz with activity. Stalls and warungs line the beaches and roads of the fishing village, selling a variety of food, drinks and nets used for scooping up Nyale. Concert stages are erected and singing and dancing continue all throughout the night. The worms are then collected at around 5am on the lowest tide and by 10am an eerie quiet suddenly overcomes the village as partygoers get some well-earned rest in preparation for another night of reveling and celebration.