Story: Taniwha

Page 6. Whales, dolphins and enchanted logs

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In some traditions, taniwha took the shape of whales. One story tells of four such taniwha, Hine-kōtea, Hine-mākehu, Hine-kōrito and Hine-huruhuru, who escorted the voyaging canoe Tākitimu from Hawaiki, the Polynesian homeland. Another, Pane-iraira, was a taniwha who swam with the Tainui canoe from Hawaiki. The famed east coast ancestor, Kahutiaterangi, later known as Paikea, was rescued from drowning by a taniwha in the form of a whale.

In another story, Te Tahi-o-te-rangi, a well-known tohunga (priest) from Whakatāne, was abandoned by his people on Whakaari (White Island). He chanted a spell and called up the great whale-shaped taniwha Tūtarakauika, who took him back to the mainland.


It was believed that a taniwha that acted as a protector for Ngāti Tamaterā of Hauraki would take the form of a dolphin and play about in the river to warn its people of an impending invasion.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s a white dolphin known as Pelorus Jack guided ships across a dangerous stretch of water around French Pass, in the Marlborough Sounds. Some Māori believed that this dolphin was Tuhirangi, a taniwha that had escorted the explorer Kupe from the traditional homeland, Hawaiki. In 1900, a correspondent for the Māori-language newspaper Te Pipiwharauroa described this dolphin playfully escorting his steamer near the French Pass. He described it as an ‘ika tipua’ (supernatural fish) and suggested it could be a taniwha.

In the Far North in the summer of 1955–56, a friendly female dolphin delighted thousands of children and adults by playing with them in the sea at Opononi. Nicknamed Opo, she was believed by many Māori in the area to be a taniwha.

Is that really a taniwha?

In 1907 Te Pipiwharauroa newspaper received a letter about a taniwha sighting at Waimārama. The taniwha, which emerged from the sea, had a head like a dog and fur on its body. It was killed by a local. The editor responded, ‘[K]o te ingoa o te taniwha na he kekeno he oioi ranei, he taniwha tapu, kua turengia e te Kawanatanga’ 1 (that ‘taniwha’ is either a sea lion or seal. It is a sacred ‘taniwha’ protected by law). He noted further ‘taniwha’ should be left alone to avoid prosecution.

Rākau tipua – enchanted logs

Enchanted logs were known as rākau tipua. Other things such as fish, dogs, stones, trees, and mountains might also be described as tipua. For example, a kōhatu tipua was an enchanted rock. But rākau tipua in particular were usually thought to be taniwha.

Whaiwhaiā was an enchanted log which was mainly seen drifting in rivers in the Waikato area. However, it was believed to have travelled to other areas, including the South Island. Because of the numerous places it was seen, a saying arose: ‘Ngā paenga he rau o Whaiwhaiā’ (the many stranding places of Whaiwhaiā).

At Waikaremoana there was a log, known as Tūtaua, which would sing. When the ethnographer Elsdon Best heard it, he compared the sound to the whistling of the wind. Others would say, ‘Kō Tūtaua e waiata haere ana’ (it is Tūtaua singing as it goes).

A taniwha named Humuhumu acted as a guardian of the Māhuhu canoe on its voyage to New Zealand. Later he acted as a guardian for his people, Ngāti Whātua in Kaipara. He was seen as a tōtara log drifting in a lagoon near the harbour. Like other rākau tipua he was recognised as a taniwha because he moved against the currents. He was said to have finally disappeared because his people had taken shellfish from his lagoon.

Another enchanted log was Mataura, who would mourn the death of a chiefly person by appearing as a huge tree on the water.

  1. Te Pipiwharauroa 116 (1907), p. 9. › Back
How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Taniwha - Whales, dolphins and enchanted logs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 24 Sep 2007