In the “The conservation of whales in the 21st century

As elsewhere among Polynesian peoples, many Maori tribes have strong cultural affinities to whales.

In Maori cosmology, whales are the descendants of Tangaroa, the god of the oceans. They were thought of in awe, as supernatural beings, and often deemed tapu, or sacred.

Whales appear in the migration legends of many tribes. In some, whales were a sign indicating to a tribe that it should settle in a particular place. In others, whales were a guide. A legend highlighted in the acclaimed New Zealand film, ‘Whalerider’, has a whale bearing the tribal ancestor, Paikea, to New Zealand after his canoe sinks on the voyage from Hawaiiki, the ancestral home of Maori.

Some individual Maori were said to have a whale guardian spirit when at sea. Stylised whale shapes, symbolising the bounty within, were often carved on the bargeboards of storage houses.

Whangaparāoa, the name of a peninsula north of Auckland as well as a bay near Cape Runaway at East Cape, means “bay of sperm whales”. Pendants carved from the teeth of sperm whales, rei puta, are still highly prized by some Maori. Whale bone is still carved into clubs, cloak pins and combs but nowadays only bone from beached whales that have died is used.

Today, the Ngai Tahu tribe runs the world’s most successful sperm whale watching operation out of Kaikoura, in the South Island.

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