Honouring the gift of Puhiwai Rangi

Te Rawhitiroa Bosch documents the traditional harvest of a sperm whale stranded in the Coromandel.

Written by      

Te Rawhitiroa Bosch

When the body of a 55-tonne sperm whale was towed from Matapaua Bay to Wharekaho in October of this year, it was escorted by a pod of four dolphins, two to a side. As the karanga sounded out from the shore, they darted along the beach, only leaving once the giant bulk of the parāoa came to rest in the domain of Tūmatauenga, between the high and low tide lines. Ngāti Hei, who hold mana whenua in Wharekaho, named the whale Puhiwai Rangi.

“Puhiwai is the name of the pā site where the whale was originally stranded,” says kaumātua Joe Davis. “Rangi encapsulated everything else that was around him, including the tribes who were there helping on the day, so we included the name Rangi as well—the heavens and the earth and the moana.”

The beach at Wharekaho is located a short distance from Ko te Rā Matiti marae, where mana whenua Ngāti Hei welcomed manuhiri from across the motu on the morning work began. The team of cutters were supported by medics, knife-sharpeners and cooks over three long days of mahi on the golden sands.

Within just a couple of days he would be harvested, his blubber rendered, oil collected and flesh buried in a process guided by a long tradition of mātauranga Māori. The massive operation was orchestrated by Te Kaurinui Parata, the son of Ngātiwai tohunga Hori Parata, but present were iwi from across the motu.

Te Kaurinui, named after a whale harvested by his father 25 years ago, had driven with his whānau through the night from Whangārei at the invitation of Ngāti Hei. After an early morning briefing and karakia, he, alongside upwards of 40 cutters, medics, support crew and haukāinga (locals), made their way onto the beach. It was his first time leading the process. His dad watched from the dunes.

At just 25 years old, Te Kaurinui Parata (right) led the harvest for the first time. Tohunga Hori Parata, Te Kaurinui’s father, watched quietly from the dunes as huge slabs of blubber were rendered down and spermaceti collected from the whale’s head.

“We only show up when we’re invited by other iwi. That’s about acknowledging mana i te whenua,” says Parata. “It’s essential to follow the tikanga of other iwi.” Aside from showing respect, following local tikanga is pragmatic: mana whenua know these beaches, where the tide marks are, how the waves behave.

Parata drew a line in the sand around Puhiwai Rangi; inside the circle was tapu, and outside was noa. This delineation was as much practical as it was spiritual. Cutters, dressed in rubber boots and overalls, were in a state of tapu, and were fed by hand by those in a state of noa—according to correct tikanga, which is informed by hygienic necessity.

“Being fed by hand was amazing,” says Davis. “It wasn’t for show or anything, it had a real practical, spiritual and cultural reasoning behind it. It was genuine. Those cutters, you’d basically steer away from them for all sorts of reasons. The flashing blades—samurai swords—flying around for a start, but also contamination of food and that sort of thing.”

The hauhake (harvest) began with the deconstruction of the head. Photographer Te Rawhitiroa Bosch (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu, Pākehā), who shot the process for tangata whenua, says one significant moment was when the eye of the parāoa was returned to Tangaroa, as a placenta is returned to the whenua. He hopes documenting this ceremony and the hauhake process will “help Papa Hori, Te Kaurinui and their crew create resources to help preserve this mātauranga for future generations”.

Another important step was the removal of the jaw. It was carried intact up the dunes, propped up on poles, the prized teeth formidable under the sun. Like the cutting, boiling, feeding, it was big mahi, and dependent on teamwork.

“For me, I see it as an opportunity for us as Māori to exercise our mana motuhake (self-determination/independent identity) and our tino rangatiratanga in a very literal form,” says Parata. “We actually get to do the work. With enough people you carry tonnes, shout beyond your own decibels, hear beyond your own ears, see beyond your own sight. It’s empowering to have people working on the same kaupapa.”

Under the guidance of Ngātiwai’s expert flensers, the jaw of Puhiwai Rangi was removed whole. Sperm whale jaws are prized for their bone and strong, curved teeth, which can be carved into pendants, weapons and taonga pūoro (Māori instruments).

“It’s about respect, acknowledgement, recognition that they are whanaunga (relatives) to us because they are created by the same god that we are created by.”

Parāoa are descendants of Tāne-mahuta, says Parata. Long before Darwin devised his theory of evolution, Māori believed that whales had originated on the whenua and moved into the oceans. Looking at the skin of a sperm whale, it’s easy to see why; the ripples and whorls and gnarled barnacles resemble nothing more than the bark of a kauri tree. Internally, says Parata, it’s much the same.

“Their descent from the land makes sense to my own eyes when I’m opening them up and deconstructing them and looking at their vertebrae and their lungs.”

Davis says that connection may provide a solution to the problem of kauri dieback in their rohe. Hundreds of litres of spermaceti, an oily substance found inside the head of sperm whales, was harvested from Puhiwai Rangi, collected into drums carried up the beach with the help of a local farmer’s tractor. Some will be mixed with other rongoā Māori ingredients to create a poultice which will be wrapped around the trees.

“The spermaceti poured out for two days; it was like someone turned on a tap,” says Davis. “Our warriors used to daub themselves in a red-ochre-and-whale-oil blend to bring luck. They’d also use it on palisades and buildings to ward off evil spirits as well. We want to do the same thing to metaphorically drive off the evil of the pathogens in the soil.”

On the final day, Puhiwai Rangi’s bones and teeth were buried beneath the sand, where decomposition will strip them down to a usable condition over the next year. Nearby was the excess flesh, placed at a depth where it might be absorbed back into the food chain, sustaining life from microorganisms to bugs to birds.

“At the end, we covered everything up, packed everything away, and it was like nothing was there,” says Davis. “Just Tāwhirimatea blowing the sand along the beach again.”

While the tradition of hauhake has roots in the distant past, modern machinery facilitated the process at Wharekaho, allowing workers to grapple with Puhiwai Rangi’s 55-tonne bulk.

More by