Some tribes see whales as the descendants of Tangaroa, the god of the ocean. Whales possess a tapu (sacred) significance to Maori as both supernatural beings and as harbingers of personal change and spiritual growth.
When whales appeared on long journeys by waka (canoe) across the Pacific ocean, they were seen by Maori as a sign that the iwi (tribe) should settle in a particular place. Also, they were seen as benevolent guardians when they swam alongside the waka, guiding the way through tumultuous Pacific storms towards the safety of land.
A popular example of this is depicted in the highly acclaimed book by Whiti Ihimeara Whale Rider, which was made into a well-known New Zealand film. The story follows Pai, a little girl who is the tribal descendent of Paikea, a legendary Maori ancestor of the Ngati Porou tribe of Gisborne. Legends have it that Paikea was saved by a whale and voyaged from Hawaiki (the ancestral land of the Maori people) to Gisborne by riding on the back of a taniwha.
WHAT IS A TANIWHA?
So what is a taniwha, you ask? Good question! They are magnificent monsters, sometimes sea-dwelling but often languishing in the rivers and caves of New Zealand. They display awesome feats of physical power and strength in their bodies, although they also have spiritual powers which can either be protective or threatening in nature depending on the iwi’s (tribe’s) belief. In some traditional stories of taniwha, they would ensnare women and take them as wives. The taniwha would then need to be killed by the tribe in order for the woman to return to her whanau (family).