Whale Rider

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 June, 2011, 12:00am


Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes
Directed by: Niki Caro
Year of original release: 2002
Genre: Drama


Whale Rider was a small independent film in 2002 that took the world by storm. Produced in New Zealand and shot at locations where the story takes place, Whale Rider starred a 12-year-old girl who had never acted before.

Keisha Castle-Hughes (above) was chosen for the part after auditions involving 10,000 young girls from schools all over New Zealand. Keisha even earned a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars. She was the youngest actress ever to be nominated.


Pai is a 12-year-old girl and is the only child in line for succession in a Maori tribe. By tradition the tribe's chief must be male, but Pai is the last descendant of the tribe's founder who arrived in New Zealand on the back of a mighty whale.

Pai's grandfather, Koro, is distressed. He resents Pai and blames her for the tribe's problems. Yet the girl is keen to become chief despite her grandfather's reservations.

One day whales beach themselves on the shore near her village. Pai climbs onto the largest one's back and coaxes it back into the ocean. She becomes a whale rider just like her famous ancestor.


Waka are slim, elegant canoes ranging in size from small fishing vessels to mighty 'warships' more than 40 metres long.

The waka taua, the Maori war canoe, is an elaborately decorated vessel carved out of a single hollowed-out tree trunk. At its front, it bears a fearsome carved headpiece. Enemies would flee when they saw the prow emerging out of the mist at sea. The largest waka taua needed 80 Maori warriors to paddle it.

During the construction of a waka, a Totara tree was selected and prepared many years in advance. The bark was removed from one side of the trunk where magical prayers and chants were performed to give the tree power.

If anyone died accidentally during the building of a waka, the vessel was abandoned so bad spirits would not be attached to it when it took to the water.

The Haka

The Maori dance (below) can be an intimidating sight. The haka involves foot stomping and fierce facial expressions. Warriors stick their tongues out and bulge their eyes while they emit loud grunts and cries.

Yet it is not just a war dance. Women and children also perform the haka to welcome guests, celebrate or simply entertain. Members of New Zealand's famous All Blacks rugby team have long performed the haka before their games. Many schools in New Zealand have also developed their own haka for sporting events and ceremonies.

According to the Guinness World Records, the largest-ever haka involved 2,200 dancers during a festival in September 2005.

Rangi and Papa

According to the Maori legend of creation, the universe was once dark and empty. Rangi, the sky-father, held Papa, the Earth-mother, tightly in his arms. Yet their many children wanted to get out of the darkness.

Tane, the god of forests, decided to separate Rangi and Papa to form the sky above and the Earth below. Tane placed his head against Papa and his feet against Rangi, and with a mighty effort, he tore his parents apart. As soon as the sky was prised from the Earth, light appeared in the world.

Yet Tawhiri, the god of thunder, followed his father up into the sky sending storms, hurricanes and strong winds down below. He wanted to remind humans that he did not want his parents to be apart.

Right Whales

Right whales are the rarest of all large whales. They have almost been hunted to extinction. These gigantic sea mammals have massive heads, which can measure up to a third of their body. They also have big mouths - with baleen plates to catch their food.

The animals' name came about during hunts when whalers simply identified them as the 'right' whale to kill. These sea mammals have always been valuable for their body oil, meat and bones. Because their body mass is mostly thick blubber, dead whales float on the water, which makes it convenient for whalers to get at them.

Whole herds of right whales were wiped out during intense whale hunts over the past three centuries. In the northern oceans, only a few hundred right whales are left.