Story: Te whānau puha – whales

Page 2. Whales and Māori voyaging

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Whales as kaitiaki (guides)

Many traditions mention that whales accompanied or guided the canoes on their journeys to Aotearoa (New Zealand). Waitaha followed his sister Hāhuru to New Zealand from Hawaiki, guided by the whale Tūtarakauika. They eventually landed at Ō-tara-muturangi, near Matatā.

The song ‘He oriori mō Tuteremoana’ describes a canoe, believed to be the Tākitimu, safely following in the wake of a pod of whales during a storm. Some of the whales are specifically named in this song. The tohunga (priest) on board the Tākitimu was Ruawharo. He possessed the mauri (life force) of whales, which he laid to rest at Māhia Peninsula to attract whales to the region.

Pane-iraira was a taniwha (water spirit), thought to be a whale, who calmed the waves for the journey of the Tainui canoe. Tohunga responsible for navigation exercised their powers during storms, appealing to sea creatures to escort the canoes and shield them from the fury of a storm. Often the tohunga would pull a hair from his head and throw it to the whale or taniwha as recognition of assistance. This tradition may have been prompted by the reported habit of toothed whales and dolphins presenting gifts of seaweed to each other.

Whale riders

Whale riding, illustrated in the Tutunui legend, is a common theme in Māori oral storytelling. It was made popular worldwide by the film Whale rider, based on the Ngāti Porou tribe’s tradition of Paikea. According to the story, the ancestor Paikea was enticed on a fishing trip with others. During this, his jealous brother Ruatapu sank the canoe in an effort to drown them. However, Paikea called on the guardians of the sea to help him. A taniwha in the form of a whale was sent to take him to safety. He eventually landed at Aotearoa (New Zealand). A similar tradition, thought to be from the Waikato, is that of Waihuka who was also carried back to land on a whale, after being abandoned by his brother who left him to drown at sea.

Other famous whale riders are:

  • Te Tahi-o-te-rangi, an ancestor of the Mataatua tribes, who rode a whale named Tūtarakauika from Whakaari (White Island) to the mouth of the Whakatāne River
  • Tūnui, the Hawke’s Bay tohunga, who was seen riding his pet whale, Ruamano, out of the Keteketerau outlet on his way to Cape Kidnappers.
How to cite this page:

Bradford Haami, 'Te whānau puha – whales - Whales and Māori voyaging', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2024)

Story by Bradford Haami, published 12 Jun 2006