You may have read Witi Ihimaera’s book, Whale Rider, or seen the movie adaptation of the same name that garnered so many awards in 2002. Paikea is the original whale rider of Whangara, and his legend is the backdrop for the story. But there is more to the tale than just Paikea riding a whale.
To find out more about Paikea, and other whale riding tales, I visited Whales: Giants of the Deep, an exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. This exhibit was put up by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongerewa and is currently touring the US.
The exhibit is chock full of information about all things whale: their biology, their conservation and the complex cultural relationship the Maori people have with these amazing creatures. There are many tales of whale riding past and present along with an experience that is the closest any of us humans of us will ever get to diving for kraken with the giants of the deep.
Paikea - Whale Rider of Whangara
Paikea, according to Mr. Hone Taumaunu, Ngāti Konohi, was the favored first-born son of his father. The second-born son was jealous, not just of his brother apparently but of the entire concept of first-borns getting all the love. He invited all the first-born sons of the village on a fishing trip. Once out to sea he began to kill them. Only his older brother Paikea escaped. Paikea, Taumaunu says, saw that the sea was “smoking blue with tohorā (whales).” Paikea hopped on the youngest one and swam off. When they got lost, Paikea and the whale headed south. After many adventures they arrived in Whangara on New Zealand’s north island.
The First Time I Rode a Whale...
Ramari Stewart, a whale researcher, is also featured in the exhibit. She begins by saying, “The first time I rode a whale I was about 10 years old.” The first time?! As a child Ms. Stewart and her friends would swim their horses in a trough of ocean water between the beach and a nearby sandbar. One day a whale appeared, swimming with them. She rode on and swam with the whale for what “seemed like hours.” Can you imagine?
Te Tahi-o-te-Rangi - Whale Rider of Whakaari
Stewart also tells the story of Te Tahi-o-te-Rangi, a tohunga, or spiritual leader of old. Crops had been bad for a couple of years and the community blamed it on Te Tahi-o-te-Rangi. They didn’t want to kill him outright for fear of the consequences of murdering one so powerful, so they marooned him on a distant offshore volcano instead. He had the ability to communicate with whales and one came to his aid. The whale suggested that he take revenge on those who had abandoned him. But he asked the whale to just take him home. “Let their shame be their punishment,” he said. When those who had abandoned him to die returned home, Te Tahi-o-te-Rangi was already there, waiting for them on the shore.
Tinirau - Whale Rider of the Magic Island
On average 90 whales are stranded every year on the islands of New Zealand, more than anywhere else in the world, according to information in the exhibit. The ancient Maori depended on stranded whales as a major protein source on islands where big game was scarce and came in the form of a giant chicken (hunted by a giant eagle—but that is a story for another post). Yet whales are also revered in Maori culture. This complicated relationship shows up in Tinirau’s story. Tinirau had a friendly relationship with a whale named Tutunui. An honored tohunga named Kae was visiting and Tinirau cut a small piece of flesh from Tutunui to serve Kae for dinner. Upon his departure Kae demanded that Tinirau give him the whale instead of a canoe to take him home. For fear of offending the powerful tohunga, Tinirau agreed. Kae rode Tutunui home, forced the whale onto the beach where it died and he and his family ate it. When Tinirau and his people realized what happened to Tutunui, the women of the magic island visited Kae’s village disguised as traveling entertainers. They kidnapped Kae and brought him back home so Tinirau could take his revenge.
Of course riding whales is not something I am recommending. This past summer a Florida man caught a ride on a whale shark, which, of course, is a fish not a whale. While certainly amazing and technically not-illegal, experts in the Houston Chronicle article reporting the event were quoted as saying that too much close human contact with threatened species can hurt the animals.
"Your Name Here" - Armchair Whale Rider
The exhibit features a small acoustic theatre where humans can ride along as a sperm whale hunts for giant squid. These are the creatures that inspired Melville to create Moby-Dick. This particular sperm whale dives nearly 5000 ft to hunt for giant squid, the probable source for legends of the kraken. Researchers attached a D-Tag device to a sperm whale’s back and recorded the sounds of the hunt as the whale searched the murky depths with echolocation. The hunt is played back and animated so you can interpret what the whale is “seeing” with its clicks and sonic booms. As you “dive” two enormous articulated sperm whale skeletons hang from the ceiling—swimming through the air just behind you. It is quite a ride!
Sadly, the exhibit has left Denver. But if your dancing shoes take you to California, it will be in San Francisco at the California Academy of Science in April and at the San Diego Natural History Museum next year.
Whale Riding stories in the Maori Tradition: Told in mixed media in the Whales: Giants of the Deep exhibit created by Museum of New Zealand Te Pap Tongarewa. Please click on the hyper link to go to the Whales Exhibit. (Bonus: The museum also has great exhibits on Middle Earth from the filming of the LOTR movies in New Zealand. Please click on the hyper link to go to Middle Earth and other exhibits.)
The story of Tinirau: “Tinirau and the Whale” in Maori Myths & Legendary Tales by A.W. Reed, 1999 by New Holland Publishers (NZ) Ltd., Auckland, Sydney, London and Cape Town. Excellent source for tales of whale riding and other Maori cycles told in a manner friendly to younger readers.
Cross post-from FictionUnbound.com