Sacred parts of a 16m sperm whale which died stranded on a Northern Hawke's Bay beach will return to the sea to be cleaned, before being given to local iwi.

The male whale washed up at Mahia Beach on Friday night, died from natural causes the following morning, and was buried by Sunday evening. It was thought to be quite old.

Before it was buried, local iwi removed its jaw bone and "very worn" teeth. Whales are sacred to Maori and for centuries their teeth and bones have been used by Maori for carving. Historically the whale's oil and meat were also used.

Rongomaiwahine kaumatua Arthur Williams presided over the "big process" - one of hundreds he has been involved with since learning the practice from his grandfather when he was 10.


"There is a correct way of carrying out this act, from the karakia performed, to how the body parts are removed. This is done to "appease the gods" - specifically Tangaroa, the god of the sea - and to make sure the carcass suffered as little damage as possible", he said.

Traditionally, stranded whales would be named by local iwi, he said, a process which could sometimes take several days. Whales which were to be consumed would not be named, as "you do not eat your tipuna [ancestors]".

It took Mr Williams a day to decide on the name for this whale - Tu Amo Kotahi - which meant "one standing proud".

When removed, iwi discovered this whale's jaw bone had not been very big: "it was quite damaged. It looked like it had been in a battle at some point in its life".

The broken jaw could have been the reason for the whale's smaller size, Mr Williams said. Although estimated to weigh about 40 tons, it was described as "skinny" for a sperm whale.

After the bone and teeth were removed, all parts of the whale were buried in an 8m deep grave in the sand dunes, so that "the tapu went with it".

The items were now in the care of the Department of Conservation (DoC), which would place them back in the ocean in a cage to be cleaned by marine life.

"They will come back in six to eight weeks perfectly clean," Mr Williams said. Rongomaiwahine would received the items, then decided where they went - potentially to one of the marae.

The 78-year-old said this practice had been in his whanau for generations, and he grew up learning the lessons so he could undertake the mahi (work) when it was his turn.

This included learning about the area where this whale had been beached. DoC has said the area was known for beachings, though scientists weren't completely sure why.

Mr Williams said the area was known as a place which whales - often sick, or females with their young - used to swim through to get to the other side of Mahia - back when the peninsula was an island.

In February, a pygmy sperm whale was also stranded on Mahia Beach. It was rescued by holiday-makers, who refloated it and pushed it out to sea.