In Māori traditions, whales guided the canoes on their great journeys to New Zealand. They carried people to safety, and were called on for protection. Whales were a source of food, and the jawbone was carved into weapons, combs, walking sticks and jewellery.
Whales are known to Māori as te whānau puha – the family of animals that expel air. Some of the names for whales are:
- tohorā – southern right whale
- paikea – southern humpback whale
- parāoa – sperm whale
- ūpokohue – pilot whale.
It is said that whales guided the canoes that brought the first people to New Zealand. In one story, the Tākitimu canoe travelled behind a pod of whales during a storm. In another, a water spirit, thought to be a whale, calmed the waves for the canoe of the Tainui tribes.
Priests who navigated called on sea animals to guide the canoes and protect them from storms.
In traditions, there are many Māori who rode whales. Paikea was on a fishing trip with his brother Ruatapu, who tried to drown him. Paikea called to the sea guardians to help him, and a whale carried him to New Zealand.
Te Tahi-o-te-rangi rode a whale from White Island to the Whakatāne River. And the priest Tūnui rode his pet whale at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay.
Whales were important to Māori for food and tools. Whales that stranded or that Māori forced to beach were eaten. They used the oil for polish and perfume and made whales’ teeth into pendants. The jawbone was made into weapons, combs, walking sticks and jewellery.
In one story, a leader ordered his warriors to wear black cloaks and lie on the beach near an enemy tribe. The people thought they saw stranded whales, which were very valuable. They rushed out, and were killed.
Many Māori were whalers in the later 1700s and 1800s, working in the shore stations or commanding the whaleboats. Some families caught whales until the 1920s.
In the late 1900s and early 2000s the Ngāi Tahu tribe set up tourism trips called Whale Watch. They take people to see the whales off the Kaikōura coast.