Dolphins are mystical beings full of intelligence, compassion and consciousness. For different Māori iwi, dolphins hold sacred significance and they are known as taniwha. They are considered tapu (sacred) and possessing a powerful mauri (lifeforce).
What are Taniwha?
Taniwha (pron. tan-ee-far) are mysterious creatures that dwell in the sea, rivers, lakes or in caves. They have a reptilian, fish-like or amphibious appearance and can shape-shift at will to confuse humans. They could be likened to a dragon from Celtic myth, a selkie in Scottish myth. Although unlike dragons they rarely have a generic appearance and can take on the form of a shark, lizard, whale or dolphin or even an inanimate object like a log in a river. Some taniwha are fierce and full of cruelty while others are peaceful, gentle and helpful. In order to appease a local taniwha and to stop it from running amok, i.e. kidnapping women and children or killing people, tribes would offer karakia (incantations) or koha (gifts). In many cases, taniwha were benevolent creatures, full of kindness and affection. These types would guide and reorient lost people who strayed far from their tribe or who found themselves on a dangerous stretch of water. Some would warn of an impending invasion by a neighbouring tribe, giving time for the men to get ready for battle.
The endangered Maui’s dolphin
Kai’ili Kaulukukui: “This mural addresses the importance of Maui’s Dolphins, which are critically endangered and the tiny remainder is dwindling rapidly. They are the smallest species of dolphin on the planet, and have unusual breeding practices that lead to a low reproduction rate. We need to speak up for them now before they quietly disappear. I tried to present them as large as possible to represent the immediate importance of this issue.”
The Taniwha named Tuhirangi of the Marlborough Sounds
According to an ancient story, the legendary taniwha Tuhirangi guided Polynesian scout/explorer Kupe from the ancient Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki to New Zealand. Kupe left his delphic companion at the French Pass in the Marlborough Sounds. When Kupe later returned to the Marlborough Sounds with his kin, Tuhirangi famously guided the first canoes through a dangerous stretch of water between D’Urville island and the mainland. Later during the Victorian era, a dolphin named Pelorus Jack made regular appearances in areas of the Marlborough Sound, Nelson and Wellington between 1888 and 1912. In 1900, a correspondent for a Māori-language newspaper described the dolphin as ika tipua (supernatural fish) and suggested that it could be a taniwha. For 24 years, the naturally playful Pelorus Jack would swim alongside of ships sailing through the French Pass. If there were two boats then she would choose the faster one and would easily outrun the vessel, reaching speeds of up to 30 km per hour. In particularly treacherous weather at night, Pelorus Jack’s outline would shimmer in the water, glowing with phosphorescence from plankton in the water. Below is part of a song that recounts Kupe’s journey.
The Taniwha named Opo of Opononi, Northland
In the 1950’s a female bottle nose dolphin called Opo become estranged from her pod and actively sought out human company. She attracted big crowds in the little seaside town of Opononi, in Hokianga Harbour in 1955 and 1956. A playful and sociable dolphin, she allowed children to handle her and ride on her back. She relished showing off and responded to human cheers by performing ever more sophisticated leaps in the air. There were waiata (songs) dedicated to her. The whole nation mourned when she died in March 1956.
The Taniwha named Moko of Mahia Beach, North Island
Only a few years ago in 2008, a young bottle nose dolphin named Moko became legendary in New Zealand by helping with a whale rescue. For many hours, conservation workers had been trying to coax two beached pygmy sperm whales off the beach and out to sea, with no luck. Moko responded to the distress calls of the whales and led them back out to sea through a narrow channel of tidal water. In 2010 Moko moved to the East Cape region near Whakatane and was given a local minder to keep him in optimal health. He became the subject of a documentary called Soul in the Sea. This story centered around Maori wahine Kirsty Carrington. A Maori/Cook Islander who didn’t grow up with Maori culture. Kirsty became the protector of Moko and longed to get in touch with her Maori roots by learning Te Reo Maori. After she spent time with Moko, Kirsty felt deeply connected with her culture found it somehow easier to understand Te Reo Maori.
Tragically Moko’s young life was cut short when he was found washed up on the beach near Tauranga. The cause of death was never uncovered. When Kirsty arrived at the beach to see Moko’s body, she called on a local tohunga (priest) to deliver a final stirring karakia (blessing) over the dolphin’s body. Time Magazine named Moko as one of the world’s top ten animal heroes.
Wurunjeri beliefs in Australia
Dolphins have been the subject of fasination and reverence throughout all sea-faring cultures, including the ancient Vikings and ancient Greeks….
Find out more
Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand: Taniwha Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand: Dolphins Pelorus Jack/ Tuhirangi
KAIKAI-A-WARO. Marlborough Express, Volume XLIV, Issue 301, 30 December 1910
Moko’s selfless rescue of two beached whales Moko: Cause of death a mystery Mana Wairoa
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary
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