Kiwi’s Taniwha

Posted by: Loren Coleman on October 17th, 2007


On Tuesday, October 16, I agreed to be on one of the many radio shows I do around Halloween every year. For whatever reason, mainstream and alternative radio both enjoy cryptozoology more around October 31. I suppose the annual holiday allows them the freedom to talk about monsters, creatures, and cryptids without looking over their shoulders at their programmers and sponsors.

Anyway, frequently I don’t know much about a show I agree to go onto, there are so many these days. With the internet shows, well, it can get overwhelming. But certainly, if Australia calls up and asks if I’ll be on a show, I’m intrigued on the one hand and I’m not familiar with the Australian airwave offerings, on the other.

So, after I discovered their “tomorrow” wasn’t Wednesday because it was Wednesday already and they wanted me to come on during Tuesday, I was a guest for over an hour yesterday. If you know what I mean, mate?

The program was Trevor Chappell’s “ABC Overnights” (ABC Radio-Australia). I spoke about cryptozoology, dragons, Burus, and other cryptids. I also learned more about Australia and New Zealand.

Trevor Chappell

“ABC Overnights” of Australia Radio’s Trevor Chappell.

Wow, I was taken aback by the high energy, immediately, of the call-ins. Trevor told me in a break the “Overnights” show is broadcast all across Australia. News to me. I looked on their website and saw the show is on 57 ABC Australian radio stations between 2 am and 6 am local EAT every night. (I was going to do that background checking yesterday, but there was that little thing about our miscommunicating with each other about which day it was. Or is.)

It was literally lots of fun to talk of Burus, Bunyips, and especially a bit about Paul Cropper’s and Tony Healy’s book, The Yowie: In Search of Australia’s Bigfoot. But back to dragons and monitor lizards in the Outback….

Those telephoning into the show were well-read, wanted to share, and overflowed with good stories. Some of the mates were downright hilarious and it wasn’t just their accents. Trevor had a good style about him in being able to nurture an interest in each listener, and supported the point of view of every caller. It really was masterful, and as opposed to some American hosts who seem always to be cutting off the “too-long-talkers,” I was struck by Chappell’s difference in style. Each caller, and they were on wall-to-wall during my entire appearance, all felt “heard.”

One Aborigine who shared a story about picking up a little “dragon” (lizard) and later wiping it across his brow in a towel by mistake, was allowed to tell his whole short funny tale. He ended up making some good points about the different names in his culture for various creatures.

Which brings me to New Zealand. In America, I think it’s a misconception that people in Australia naturally know everything about New Zealand. It just isn’t so.

During my radio time, it came up that there might be a dragonlike cryptid in New Zealand. I admitted I didn’t recognize the name the Australians asking about it were saying. But it became obvious that they might not have had it correct to begin with, after all.

Now today (really, never mind what day, as it is probably tomorrow there anyway), I’ve received the following email from New Zealander Barbara Bolt who has this to say:

Loren, I have been listening to you on ABC (Australia) when the NZ “tunifa” was mentioned [by a caller]. Not quite right.

I am a “kiwi” (i.e. a New Zealander) married to an Australian, but I have my touch of home in a carved wooden “taniwha,” the half man half fish of Maori legend, protector of waterways. Or a giant eel if you want to lose the magic. Strangely enough where I live the district has been named “tanawha” presumably by some homesick early settler, from its rainforest nature, much
like NZ bush.

Closer to your interest there is a kind of “Bigfoot” in the Coromandel mountain range close to Auckland. Now I have found your blog I’ll get back to you about it.Barbara Bolt

Well, yes, I am interested in Yowies, Yetis, Yerens, and Bigfoot; I will look forward to hearing more about that special New Zealand hairy hominoid.

Of course, I never turn down a good cryptid that I need to know more about. And this includes the Taniwha.

With all due caution, I read the Wikipedia semi-detailed entry on the Taniwha to learn more. The Taniwha do appear to be figures from Māori mythology that reportedly “live in deep pools in rivers, dark caves, or in the sea, especially in places with dangerous currents or deceptive breakers.” In the variety that Ms. Bolt is discussing, it can have “the appearance of a large white eel,” apparently.

The serious nature and impact of the Taniwha can take on the importance of the spotted owl in the States, in stopping projects. Concerns for damaging the sites related to the Taniwha caused problems “in 2002 when Ngāti Naho, a Māori tribe from the Meremere district, successfully halted and eventually caused the redevelopment of part of the country’s major highway, State Highway 1, to be rerouted in order to protect the abode of their legendary protector. This Taniwha was said to have the appearance of large white eel, and Ngāti Naho argued that it must not be removed but rather move on of its own accord; to remove the Taniwha would be to invite trouble. Television New Zealand reported in November 2002 that Transit New Zealand had negotiated a deal with Ngati Naho under which ‘concessions have been put in place to ensure that the taniwha are respected.'” (Sources, here and here.)

Taniwha/Tunifa also lives on the edge of the netherworld of folkloric creatures where you get shifting descriptions. Besides chiefs being called Taniwha, I see this: “The word taniwha has been reconstructed to Proto-Oceanic tanifa, with the meaning ‘species of shark’. In Tongan and Niuean, tenifa refers to a large dangerous shark, as does the Samoan tanifa; the Tokelauan tanifa is a sea-monster that eats people. In most other Polynesian languages, the cognate words refer to sharks or simply fish (Pollex).”

Shifting descriptions, indeed. Compare the images of the Taniwha at the top and bottom of this blog.

Out of context and not a “Kiwi” myself, I remain confused by what a Taniwha might be. But, of course, that doesn’t matter. They know what they are.

The Yowie Healy Cropper

While you may be able to click on the cover above to make the Yowie larger, one thing is certain, the Taniwha is not a relative of “Australia’s Bigfoot”!

taniwha puppet

Here you see Taniwha can be represented in popular culture in New Zealand in the most frightening of ways – as a hand puppet.

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

19 Responses to “Kiwi’s Taniwha”

  1. scotsman responds:

    I have definitely heard this word before “taniwha” although being a native of Scotland, I find it hard to figure out where or when I heard it! I’m thinking possibly a movie? Or even a television documentary or program?


    I will think about it.

  2. drjon responds:

    …and dammit, but when is Cropper & Healy’s book going to be in a Brisbane bookstore?

  3. Loren Coleman responds:

    I know there’s an Australian edition out.

  4. scotsman responds:

    It came out last year did it not? Is it still not in a bookstore yet? I know it can be bought from Amazon!

  5. shumway10973 responds:

    very interesting. Yeah scotsman, you’re right, the name sounds familiar to me as well. I’m from California, so I’m not sure where I’ve heard it before. Unless someone in the entertainment world heard of the word and used it in a movie or tv show (and not necessarily with the right meaning attached to it).
    I am also wondering how a big foot type creature found their way onto a small island like New Zealand? I can only think of 3 possible ways: 1) these creatures are/were intelligent and found their own way there 2) were known and a part of ancient south pacific tribes, like the “hobbit” 3) New Zealand was at one time attached to Australia and then something caused them to break apart. It just seems strange to find such beings, of size especially, on such a small place.

  6. Artist responds:

    Very entertaining entry this morning (or was it yesterday?), Loren, especially when your cryptid sense of humor makes an appearance, as in your closing comment above.

  7. bill green responds:

    hey loren & everyone very interesting new article about the yowie & cryptzoology animals. thanks bill green 🙂

  8. DARHOP responds:

    Sorry, but there are some things I just don’t buy. And half man half fish is one of them. A giant eel yes, but half fish half man no!

  9. Ceroill responds:

    Scotsman, shumway, I’m thinking it might have been in the movie Whale Rider. Does that ring a bell? Anyway, nice piece, Loren. Always happy to learn more about our world.

  10. Loren Coleman responds:


    As Loren’s blog post brings up the topic, here’s an early discussion of Taniwha and other Maori folkloric creatures: here. – Chad Arment

  11. red_pill_junkie responds:

    Is it possible to get a podcast of this aussie interview somewhere?

  12. flea responds:

    Evenin’ all, first time on here and got to say it’s a magnificent site. The ‘taniwha’ was mentioned during the excellent NZ movie, Once Were Warriors as a creature of one of the Maori legends. Also NZ has the Waitoreki, an otter like crytid and the occasional moa sighting, although this is generally thought to arise from a couple too many homebrews, or a wind up of the tourists! Then again just look at the takahe. And in a country with something as bizarre as the kakapo, who knows ?


  13. Kei Islander responds:

    Kia ora Loren –
    this column was especially interesting to me (I’ve lurked here for years.)
    Taniwha stories abound, and they vary wildly: I’m of Kai Tahu descent (Kai Tahu are the major South Island tribe) are our taniwha are not like eels – more dragonish. They are always associated with water, and are dangerous. They’re also shapeshifters, and can be killed. They are distinctly supernatural beings, and may have their origins in memories of saltwater crocodiles…
    Three other matters: the being depicted at the head of this column is not a taniwha – it’s a marakihau (note the fish-tail & the long tubular tongue.) They’re oceanic, and were rumoured to suck down entire canoes. Two: Aotearoa – NZ is not a ‘small island.’ We’re a large archipelago, with a land mass similar to that of the British Isles. And 3 – the manlike cryptid – for which there is no evidence except stories – is the maeroero. They’re tall, live only in wild country, are associated with mist and flutes (like the very different patupaiarehe) and known to kidnap humans (not for benign reasons.)
    Anyway, this is an absorbing site, and much appreciated-

  14. Prof. Hex responds:

    I thought this sounded familiar. In 1982 the New Zealand band Split Enz put out an album called Time & Tide, which includes the song “Dirty Creature”. The lyrics include a chorus:

    I don’t wanna sail, I don’t wanna sail,
    I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna sail tonight,
    Taniwha is waiting for me just below the surface so bright
    Even as we speak the Dirty Creature springs a nasty surprise.


  15. Quacker1 responds:

    Taniwha is a monster in the Magic: the Gathering TCG

  16. scotsman responds:

    Haha!!!! Thats it! Once Were Warriors! I knew I had heard it somewhere, cheers for the help Flea.

    And aye, I think it may have been in Whale Rider as well actually.

  17. Ceroill responds:

    Once Were Warriors! Of course! Cool movie. Thanks!

  18. rl_esteves responds:

    Back in the 70s I read about a witness to bigfoot type entities in Australia that swam across a lake and the pelted the witness (s) with large rocks before they managed to escape the attack. Anyone else ever read this? Might have been John Keel, not sure.

  19. Cropper responds:

    Hi guys. In answer to the question about our Yowie book, Tony and I have been trying to get a mainstream publisher interested here, without much luck. We will try and setup a Qld bookshop over the next month or 2. Cheers Paul.

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