Story: Shipwrecks

Page 1. Māori shipwreck stories

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Shipwrecks have long been a part of human experience in New Zealand. The country has a long and often rocky coastline, and windy, changeable weather, which make navigating the seas around New Zealand difficult. In addition to this, there was the constant possibility of human error. Since European settlement began in the 1790s there have been over 2,300 shipwrecks.

Canoe traditions

How many canoes and Māori lives were lost is unknown. Māori traditions make it clear that Māori found the seas surrounding New Zealand a challenge. When their canoes sailed from Hawaiki, several were wrecked on the New Zealand coast as they landed.


According to tradition, the story of the Tairea explains why greenstone (known to Māori as pounamu) is found on the West Coast of the South Island. The Pounamu were a race of people living in Hawaiki. Fearing the two races named Matā (flint) and Hōanga (grindstone), they fled in the Tairea to the West Coast. However, they were shipwrecked and the crew turned into pounamu, taking refuge from their enemies in the rivers and waterfalls where the treasured stone is now found.

Ārai-te-uru and Mamari

On the east coast of the South Island, the Ārai-te-uru canoe suffered a similar fate. As it sailed down the coast, a violent storm washed it ashore at Matakaea (Shag Point), where it turned into a reef. Its cargo ended up at Moeraki beach. The large round boulders are said to be kūmara (sweet potatoes), gourds and eel pots. In another incident, near Maunganui Bluff in the north, the Mamari canoe was also wrecked and then transformed into a reef.

How to cite this page:

Gerard Hutching, 'Shipwrecks - Māori shipwreck stories', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Gerard Hutching, published 12 Jun 2006