As a tamaiti (boy), driving from Whanganui to Pīpīriki seemed to take forever.

As he drove my cousins and me up the awa (river), my dad would start telling us the story of a giant mako (shark) and a giant tuatara (reptile) that lived in the sea, in great harmony with each other.

They were the best of friends.

One day the other sea-dwelling creatures, roaring with anger, complained to Tangaroa, god of the sea, "Both Mako and Tuatara have eaten all the kai!" They demanded that Tangaroa sort this out, now.


Tangaroa called a hui and said to Mako and Tuatara, "One of you has to go live on the land."

Without hesitation, Tuatara replied, "I will live on the land because I have legs."

Tuatara and Mako said a sad farewell, knowing this would be the last time they would be together in the sea.

With a flick of his tail, Mako swam out into deep water. Tuatara swam towards the beach, and as he crawled out of the water, something magical happened. He began to shrink, to the size that he is now.

It is said that when the pūtātara (conch shell musical instrument) is played,

Mako and Tuatara are talking to each another, reminiscing about their old lives together.

The carved wooden mouthpiece represents the forest in which Tuatara now lives, while the shell signifies the infinity of the ocean where Mako swims.

This instrument is the connection between Tāne Mahuta (land) and Tangaroa (sea).


With these old stories, my dad, Wayne Hemahema Tamati, would remind us kids of our deep spiritual, physical and cultural ties with both land and sea.

Raised in Pīpīriki and educated in Hiruhārama (Jerusalem), Dad was of Te Ātihaunui-a-Pāpārangi, and knew his awa well, seeing first-hand the physical evidence that the meeting of sea and land had left millions of years before.

The tooth belonged to the largest known shark, Carcharodon megalodon, which lived from 16 to 2.5 million years ago. Photo / Whanganui Regional Museum Collection ref: 1800.175
The tooth belonged to the largest known shark, Carcharodon megalodon, which lived from 16 to 2.5 million years ago. Photo / Whanganui Regional Museum Collection ref: 1800.175

In the Whanganui Regional Museum collection is the huge tooth of the largest shark ever known.

Megalodon outranked the modern great white sharks in size, reaching up to 20 metres in length.

This huge tooth was discovered near Pīpīriki in the late 19th century and is estimated to be four to five million years old.

The old Māori stories, born by close observation of the natural world and the evidence of what was left behind, support modern geological science.

During a period of warmer climate 5.3 to 25 million years ago, the Whanganui Basin was completely submerged.

While megalodon pursued smaller whales and seals, beds of giant oysters built up their own massive reefs, and giant crabs scuttled about the ocean floor. Moreover, there's that huge tooth.

Tuatara are endemic to Aotearoa and are considered to be living fossils. The name means "peaks on the back" and refers to the erect crest of the males, running down their spines.

They are the largest reptile found here, feeding on invertebrates such as beetles, wētā, worms, millipedes and spiders, plus lizards, birds' eggs and chicks.

Tuatara are the only surviving members of the order Sphenodontia, which were plentiful during dinosaur days, about 200 million years ago.

From this order, only the tuatara survived, the rest becoming extinct about 60 million years ago.

Tuatara once lived all over Aotearoa but survive in the wild today only on offshore, predator-free islands. They are living evidence of life turning over and over for countless years.

*Taane Tamati is a member of the Visitor Services Team.