New whale species gifted name of Mātauranga Māori whale expert

By Tumamao Harawira

Whales are usually named after men, particularly western scientists but that tradition is about to change, as a newly discovered species of whale will carry an Indigenous Māori women’s name.

“When Nihongore turned up I knew it was something different. I hadn't seen it before," Ngāti Awa descendant Ramari Stewart says. "I just kept the pressure on with the Department of Conservation that this whale is special. I recovered the whole skeleton at my home at South Western, Okarito and 12 months later I took it to Te Papa Tongarewa Museum,” she says.

Stewart is a world-leading whale expert, raised by her elders in the traditional knowledge of the sea. She was also made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her work. She worked with researcher Dr Emma Carrol to identify the new species.

“What we have is genetic and morphological evidence that True's beaked whales from the southern hemisphere are a distinct species and, with a new species, comes a new name.

Ramari's Beaked Whale

"We really wanted to connect this new species with the peoples of the southern hemisphere and in particular, the people who are connected or inhabit lands where important specimens have been drawn,”  University of Auckland researcher Dr Carroll says

In Aotearoa researchers approached Mātauranga Māori cultural advisor Brad Haami.

“Everyone felt that Ramari who really identified the species and did all the hard work to find it and prepare it for identification, that her name should be placed on it to recognise her work. But also it's a female whale and it also will be the first time that an indigenous woman has had a name attached to a marine mammal species,” Haami says.

In South Africa researchers were guided by the Khoisan council and from the Khwedam language, the name big fish was chosen as the scientific name Mesoplodon eu'eu.

“It's wonderful that western science is starting to recognise that Mātauranga Māori, which is indigenous knowledge, is equally as great as western science and the two can work together but rather than bridge that relationship and keep taking from indigenous practitioners and taking their knowledge, it is better that we sit at the table and make a contribution there,” Stewart says.

Ramari's Beaked Whale is now connected forever by name with Ramari Stewart.