Story: Taniwha

Page 5. Sharks

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Some taniwha took the shape of sharks. The northern bay of Mangōnui (meaning great shark) is named after a guardian taniwha, in the form of a giant shark, that accompanied the canoe Riukaramea into the harbour. There are several stories of these taniwha in Māori tradition.

Pānia and Moremore

‘Pānia of the Reef’ is one of the great romantic stories in Māori tradition. Pānia was a sea maiden who swam ashore at sunset and returned to the sea before dawn. She would hide in a clump of flax beside a freshwater spring at the foot of Hukarere cliff in Napier. One day Karitoki, a chief in the area, was thirsty and came to the spring for a drink. He caught sight of Pānia, and took her home to be his wife. But every morning Pānia would return to the sea.

After some time Pānia had a son, Moremore, who was without hair. The chief worried that he might lose his son and wife to the sea people. He consulted a tohunga, who told him that if he placed cooked food on the mother and child while they slept, they would never return to the sea. He did this, but the ritual did not work and Pānia was turned into a rock, forever in the ocean. Moremore became a taniwha in the form of a shark. He lived in a cave in the sea, and his descendants used to frequent the Ahuriri harbour. He was a kaitiaki (guardian), patrolling the coastal waters and inner harbours while his people fished and gathered seafood.


Tūtaeporoporo, the renowned taniwha of the Whanganui River, also began life as a shark. A chief named Tuariki caught a shark and kept him as pet in a nearby river. The shark soon grew until he was as large as a whale. Then he began to change, with hard, spiky skin, bat-like wings, a lizard-like tail, webbed feet and claws like a hawk’s. His head became like that of a featherless bird, but he retained shark’s teeth.

Later the chief Tuariki was killed by warriors from Whanganui. Tūtaeporoporo set out to avenge his master’s death, making his way to the mouth of the Whanganui River. He made his home in a cave under a high cliff. After a while, some canoes came down the river. The taniwha swam out and, though the people tried to escape, he swallowed them and their canoes whole.

This was the first time he had tasted human flesh, and he liked it. He devoured everyone who travelled down the river. They began to look for ways to slay him. An old chief named Tama advised them to find Ao-kehu, renowned as a taniwha slayer. They did, and Ao-kehu returned with them to Whanganui, taking 70 people and two māripi (shark-tooth weapons). He got his people to take a log and hollow it out so that a man would fit inside. A lid was then made. Ao-kehu got in, the lid was fitted, and any holes in the log were filled with clay to make it watertight. The taniwha Tūtaeporoporo smelt Ao-kehu, and came down and swallowed the log. Then Ao-kehu used his māripi to cut the ties around his container and slash his way out of the taniwha’s stomach.

Tūtaeporoporo was soon defeated. When his body floated to the river bank, the people came and cut a hole in it. Inside they found people, canoes, weapons, tools and pounamu (greenstone) pendants. They buried the people, and left the body of the taniwha for the birds and fish.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Taniwha - Sharks', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 24 Sep 2007