Whale Rider

by | Feb 2, 2021

Whale swimming and the book cover of Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera

Over the Christmas break, I read the international bestseller, Whale Riderby Witi Ihimaera.  Whale Rider is a moving and spell-binding story. Read on to learn more about Witi Ihimaera, the book and why it is a must read.

Who is the Whale Rider?

The story centres on Kahu, an eight-year old Māori girl. Her great-grandfather is the chief of a tribe from Whangara, located on the east coast of New Zealand. The tribe believes that they are descendants of an ancestral hero, the whale rider. According to tradition, in every generation since the whale rider arrived in Whangara, the first-born male of his lineage has inherited the title of chief.

But now there is a major dilemma. No male heirs have been born. In fact, Kahu is the first-born child. While Kahu craves her great-grandfather’s love and attention, he makes little time for her, as she is a girl. He is also concentrating on finding the next leader of their tribe.  As a result of his rigid mindset, he fails to see that Kahu possesses a sacred gift; she can conjure the whale rider, her spiritual ally. 

Kahu courageously fights to be acknowledged by her great-grandfather and by doing so, dares to chart a new course for her tribe.

Who is Witi Ihimaera?

Witi Ihimaera is an acclaimed and award-winning Māori author from New Zealand. He has made significant contributions to New Zealand literature and culture. It is widely believed that Ihimaera was the very first Māori author to be published (Kiriona 2008). His volume of works includes novels, poetry and short stories. 

For a time, Ihimaera worked as a diplomat and held different posts in New Zealand, Australia and the United States. He later pursued his passion for storytelling and received fellowships at the University of Otago in 1972 and then, at the Victoria University of Literature (Kiriona 2008). While at the Victoria University, he also completed his Bachelor of Arts. Between 1990 and 2010, Ihimaera took up a position at the University of Auckland, where he eventually became a professor. He also founded the Maori Writers and Artists Society (Kiriona 2008)

Stepping into the Māori World

Whale Rider is a compelling read. The book gives us glimpses into the Māori worldview. As Ihimaera (2008,169-173) explains in the book’s notes, the story was inspired by a Māori legend of the whale rider, Kahutia-te-rangi. His myth is dispersed throughout Polynesia and the Pacific and there are many different versions. As Ihimaera (2008, 170) writes, Kahutia-te-rangi is ‘like Ulysses’. Some stories recite that Kahutia-te-rangi came to Aoetearoa, a beautiful and abundant place, and there he changed the land and took a new name, Paikea (Ihimaera 2008,169). 

As I learned while undertaking my doctoral research on the Ancient Andean religion, some cultures are polyphasic (Dunbar 2015). This means that they view reality as multi-dimensional. Certain places and realms exist within or outside of our mundane world.  While reading the book, I began to realise just how complex the Māori worldview is. Ihimaera (2008, 173) highlights the sophisticated and intricate nature of Māori myths and stories, writing that they:

‘are multilayered, complex, extraordinary and transcendent. They occupy a place between the real and the unreal, the natural and the supernaturalthe world you can believe in and the world you are told not to believe in.’ 

Whale Rider  is a portal into this liminal world. It asks the reader to step out of their known world and enter one where Nature is sacred, and imbued with mythical and ancestral beings, who play an active role in our world. In my opinion, this is one of the book’s greatest gifts.

Kahu’s Gift

Kahu is a special and inspiring character. She encourages young people, especially girls, to be courageous. She shows that when we follow our purpose with love and conviction, we can overcome barriers and open doors of possibility.

Whale Rider was made into a film in 2002. The book is published by Penguin and available from major retailers.

Meanwhile, if you are a nature lover and especially love whales, I invite you to join me for a free online creative adventure. We will be painting orcas, also known as killer whales.


Dunbar, L.A. 2015. The Taki and Metamorphosis of Tanta Karwa. PhD Dissertation, Australian National University.

Ihimaera, W. 2008. Whale Rider. Penguin.

Kiriona, R. 2008. Queen’s birthday Honours 2004: Witi Ihimaera, New Zealand Herald https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/iqueens-birthday-honours-2004i-witi-ihimaera/KUSUGDESBYH3MC4BON532I6H5E/, Accessed 28 January 2021.

Disclosure: Some of the links are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.


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