Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Te whānau puha – whales

by  Bradford Haami

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 in Māori tradition

Tribal knowledge of whales

Māori have a long association with whales. While whales provided food and utensils, they also feature in tribal traditions and were sometimes guardians on the ancestors’ canoe journeys to Aotearoa. Oral histories recall interactions between people and whales in tribal stories, carvings, specialised language and place names. There is also a wealth of tribal knowledge about whales.

Whale names

Names for the different species of whales vary from tribe to tribe. One of the old terms for whales was 'ika moana' – fish of the sea. They were part of the family known as 'te whānau puha’ – the family of animals that expel air. While ‘tohorā’ (or tohoraha) is considered an all-embracing term for whales, it also refers to the southern right whale. Other names are:

  • hakurā or iheihe – scamperdown whale
  • miha pakake – a whale calf
  • paikea – southern humpback whale, or a whale with a white belly and deep grooves along its length
  • pakake – minke whale
  • parāoa – sperm whale
  • ūpokohue – blackfish or pilot whale.

Honorific names for whales or families of whales are Tūtarakauika, te Kauika Tangaroa, Wehengakāuki, Ruamano, Taniwha, and Tū-te-raki-hau-noa.

Whale origins

There are many tribal versions of the origin of whales. Some say Tangaroa (god of the sea) is the ancestor of sea creatures, while others name Te Pūwhakahara, Takaaho and Tinirau as progenitors of whales. Another tradition cites Te Hāpuku as the main ancestor of whales, dolphins and seals as well as tree ferns, which are often known as ‘ngā ika ō te ngahere’ – the fish of the forest.

The story of the whale and the kauri places trees and whales in their environments. The tohorā asked the kauri to return with him to the sea, but the kauri preferred the land. Tohorā then suggested they exchange skins, which they did. This is why the bark of the kauri is so thin, and as full of resin as the whale is of oil.

The pakake motif

Many carved houses and pātaka (food storehouses) feature the pakake motif on their maihi (bargeboards). Some believe this design depicts the story of the death of Tinirau’s pet whale.

In this story, the ill-favoured tohunga Kae visited the great chief Tinirau, and asked if Tinirau’s pet whale, Tutunui, would carry him home. Tinirau reluctantly agreed. Kae rode the whale to his homeland, but forced him to beach. Eventually he killed Tutunui and roasted him on a fire of koromiko shrub. On learning of the murder, Tinirau punished Kae. Some versions of the story say Kae built a house to commemorate his wretched act, showing the hauling of Tutunui ashore on one maihi and the cutting up and preparation for cooking the whale on the other. The bones of Tutunui were suspended on the rafters and framework of the interior of the house. Tinirau was also said to have built a house to honour the sad event.

Whales and Māori voyaging

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.

Whales and Māori society

Whale place names and imagery

The whale has often been commemorated in place names. These include:

  • Moutohorā (captured whale), an island off the coast at Whakatāne
  • Te Ara-a-Kewa (the path of the right whale), the name for Foveaux Strait
  • Te Ara-a-Paikea (the path of Paikea), a whale-shaped hill on the Māhia Peninsula
  • Whangaparāoa (bay of sperm whales) in Auckland and the East Cape
  • Te Waiū-o-Te-Tohorā (the breast milk of the whale) is the name of a spring of white water associated with hills around Welcome Bay and Pāpāmoa in the Tauranga area. The hills represent a family of whales (mother, father and baby) that lost their way. After drinking from a magical spring at Karikari, they were all transformed into the ranges in this region.

Rangatira (chiefs) and whales

Many sayings about whales allude to the aristocracy. 'Te kāhui parāoa’ – a gathering of sperm whales – indicates a group of chiefs. ‘He paenga pakake’ (beached whales) refers to fallen chiefs on a battlefield.

A whale of a Trojan Horse

The origin of the name for the Ngāti Kurī tribe of Muriwhenua is linked to the construction of a whale made of dog skins. This became a Trojan Horse, concealing 100 warriors as it appeared to lie beached on the coast, in front of an unsuspecting enemy village. The people left the safety of their to gather the valuable whale meat and were met with a major surprise.

This same ploy was used by the Ngāti Kahungunu warlord Taraia, who dressed his warriors in black cloaks and ordered them to lie on the beach in front of Heipipi pā to lure the enemy out. The people thought a pod of pilot whales had stranded, and streamed out of the pā, to their demise.

Whale resources

It is thought that Māori did not actively hunt whales, but they were known to force whales to beach themselves. Whales provided meat, which was eaten fresh, hung to dry or cooked in a hāngī (earth oven). Milk was taken from a suckling mother, oil was used for polish and scent, and teeth were made into ornaments and jewellery such as the prized rei puta (whale-tooth neck ornament).

Whalebone, in particular the jawbones from the parāoa (sperm whale), was fashioned into weapons like patu, taiaha, tewhatewha, and hoeroa, and other objects like heru (combs), tokotoko (walking sticks), and hei tiki (neck ornaments).

Disputes over resources were common. At Whangaparāoa on the East Coast, Pou-mātangatanga of the Tauira tribe sought to claim a stranded parāoa. This was challenged by Taikehu from the Tainui canoe who had already fashioned a patu from the jawbone. This led Pou to relinquish his claim and shift to Maraenui. Kauaetangohia (extracted jawbone) is the name of an ancestor, a hapū (clan or descent group), and a marae that commemorate this incident. In another dispute, when a pod of whales was stranded near Te Awanga in Hawke’s Bay, the chief Tamaariki arrived home to find that his son had not been given a share of the meat. He was offended and left the district.

From whaling to tourism


With the advent of whaling in Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the later 18th century, many Māori became involved in the industry. By 1804, they were said to be participating in whaling, and by the 1840s whaleboats were being widely used by them. Māori men played a major role at shore stations, some reaching the position of headsman in command of a whaleboat. Around most of the country, as many as 40% of the whalers may have been Māori, and in Otago the figure was higher.

Whalers’ descendants

Visiting European whalers had profound impacts on Māori society. Many were highly dependent on Māori for food and repairs, and a number married local women. Many Māori can trace descent from marriages between Māori women and Pākehā whalers. Well-known whalers such as Dicky Barrett, George Fyfe, Paddy Gilroy, Thomas Halbert, Happy Jack Greening, William Haberfield, John Hughes, Manuel Lima, Jacky Love, William Morris, James Spencer, Phillip Tapsell and Edward Weller all fathered children with Māori women.

The end of whaling

Māori continued whaling in the late 19th century, long after most of the whaling stations had closed. Increasingly, they pursued it as a seasonal, part-time activity, hunting humpbacks and the occasional sperm whale. This remained an important practice until the mid-1920s for the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui tribe, and for families around Cook Strait and further south.

Modern Māori and whales

More recently, Māori have moved into ecotourism ventures. Members of Ngāti Kurī, a hapū of the Ngāi Tahu tribe, created Kaikōura Whale Watch. Tourists observe the migratory parāoa (sperm whales), Hector’s dolphins and other attractions along the Kaikōura coastline (on the north-east coast of the South Island).

Māori have also asserted their rights, under Article Two of the Treaty of Waitangi (New Zealand’s founding document), to harvest resources such as bone from stranded whales that die. Some tribes are actively involved in this as a way of recovering their cultural traditions relating to beached whales. The people of Wharekauri (the Chatham Islands), Te Tai Poutini (the South Island’s West Coast), Ngāti Haumia (at Paekākāriki), Ngātiwai (in Northland) and other tribes all take part.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Bradford Haami, 'Te whānau puha – whales', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2024)

Story by Bradford Haami, published 12 June 2006