Mei Whaitiri is the model for the frequently visited statue Pania of the Reef on Napier's Marine Parade.
She was 13 when she posed. In the past 70 years, Mei has wondered what it would be like to go out to sea and sail over Pania's Reef.
Thanks to 97.5 the Breeze Hawke's Bay and Te Herenga Waka o Ahuriri (Napier Port), Aunty Mei's wish came true and on Friday, June 18, she sailed out.
Radio announcers for 97.5 the Breeze Hawke's Bay, Justin and Sarah, made the call one day and asked Mei how she felt about sharing her Pania model story with radio listeners.
The 83-year-old was a little hesitant at first, but she said yes and it's been a rather awesome ride with little gem experiences along the way.
Te Kaha Hawaikirangi of Te Herenga Waka o Ahuriri (Napier Port) responded to a request from an announcement he heard on the radio.
In the interview with Aunty Mei, she mentioned her wish to go out on the reef, so Breeze announcers put it out there and Te Kaha answered the call.
Pictured is the crew of te waka also named Pania, with Mei tucked in the middle. They're holding a wooden plaque with the picture of the Pania's reef in which they are also sailing on.
Aunty Mei was in awe at her experience.
"I'm chuffed to have been able to go out to sea with these people.
"I didn't realise how long the reef was. It felt like we almost went to Wairoa," shed Mei.
"When I heard that the opportunity was here, I was ready to invite my whānau to come with me, but it was meant to be an intimate experience as only a handful of us could step aboard Pania.
"I loved the experience and I also loved seeing all the crayfish pots out there," she said.
A 1.5 metre statue of Pania was unveiled at Napier's Marine Parade on June 10, 1954, and has since been one of the most visited attractions in Napier City.
The statue was commissioned by members of the Thirty Thousand Club after the Anglican Bishop of Aotearoa, Frederick Augustus Bennett, related the legend of Pania to them.
Several students from Hukarere Girls' College were photographed as models for the statue, and eventually, Mei Irihapiti Robin (now Mei Whaitiri), was selected.
Pania was a beautiful maiden who lived in the sea. By daylight she swam about with other sea creatures but after sunset would go to a stream that ran into the bay where the city of Napier now sits.
Karitoki, the handsome son of a Māori chief, met Pania at this stream. He had never seen someone so beautiful and instantly fell in love. Pania fell in love also, and they pledged their lives to each other and were secretly married.
Pania and Karitoki went to his whare (house), and at sunrise Pania prepared to leave but Karitoki tried to stop her. She explained that as a creature of the ocean, when the sirens of the sea called her each morning, she could not survive if she did not go to them. She promised to return every evening and their marriage continued on that basis.
Karitoki boasted to his friends about his beautiful wife, but no one believed him because they had never seen her. Frustrated by this, Karitoki consulted a kaumātua (wise elder).
The kaumātua told Karitoki that being a sea creature, Pania would not be allowed to return to the sea if she swallowed cooked food.
That night, as Pania slept, Karitoki took a morsel of cooked food and put it in Pania's mouth. As he did so, Ruru the morepork (owl) called a loud warning and Pania awoke.
Horrified that Karitoki had put her life in jeopardy, Pania fled to the sea. Her people came to the surface and drew her down into the depths. Karitoki never saw her again.
When people now look deep into the water over the reef, some say they can see Pania with arms outstretched, appealing to her former lover. It is unknown whether she is imploring him to explain his treachery, or expressing her continuing love.
The sea off Napier is now protected by Moremore, the son of Pania and Karitoki.
He is the kaitiaki (guardian) of the area, a taniwha (spirit) who often disguises himself as a shark, a stingray or an octopus.