Whales on display at Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, Wellington


The Place of Whales in Maori History

There has been a long and well-documented association between Māori and whales. Whales provided food and utensils but they also featured 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 iheihescamperdown whale
  • miha pakake – a whale calf
  • paikea – southern humpback whale, or a whale with a white belly and deep grooves along its length
  • pakakeminke 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 place names and imagery

The whale has also been commemorated in many place names around New Zealand. 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.

The Origin of Whales

There are also 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 the ancestors most linked with 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 as Guides (kaitiaki)

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 O-tara-muturangi, near Matatā.

The song ‘He oriori 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.

Chiefs (Rangatira) 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.

The whale as 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 to lure the enemy out. The people thought a pod of pilot whales had stranded, and streamed out of the , 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).


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.

More recently, Māori have moved into ecotourism ventures. Members of Ngāti Kurī, a hapu 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), Ngāti Wai (in Northland) and other tribes all take part.

 This page was last reviewed on 20/06/2008.



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