The standard Saturday morning in Zealandia consists of rising before the sun to stroke some stingrays on the head, perhaps. After a short rest following our epic climb, we were feeling just supple enough to walk without wincing, so we made the short drive to Tatapouri to take a dip into the ocean shallows with our new flatmates (stingrays are flat. Get it?).
Our guide explained to us that we'd need to wear some very fetching waders for our sea-walk. We were also given some large bamboo sticks to aid stability when in the shallows as the tide is surprisingly strong. The overall effect is that the tour looks like a badly executed Gandalf-themed fancy dress party. The perfect attire greet some mystical creatures!
Entering the sea in a rather bizarre conga-line, we were almost immediately met with the intimidating sight of two yellow-tail kingfish. This large, subtropical species typically appears in depths of 40-150 feet but these particular over-friendly
characters have been following the stingrays into the shallows for food for a number of years. Kingfish can grow up to the size of a small adult human (50-60kg) and are extremely popular in fishing circles as a result of their gigantic size and gamey taste. Despite their apparent culinary popularity, these two showed no fear of humans and our guide warned us to keep our fingers tucked into a fist whilst in the water as kingfish are known to snack on unsuspecting human digits. The two we saw were (only!) 25-30kg, but they happily roughed up our rather unsteady group as we teetered in the shallows.
Soon after, the stingrays appeared. They glided over effortlessly - in stark contrast to the frantic kingfish. Watching their peaceful progress through the water, it's easy to see why the stingray holds such reverence in Maori folklore. Though naturally tranquil and curious beings, whai (stingray) are armed with a poisonous and potentially deadly barb, and are often depicted as Kaitiaki (guardians or protectors) by Maori.
In addition to their role as mythical guardians, stingrays are an important part of the creation story of Aoteoroa. It is said that Maui, the Polynesian demi-god, (as voiced by the Rock in Disney's controversial feature film, 'Moana'), wanted to go fishing with his older brothers. The brothers refused to take him, such is the treatment of younger siblings. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, Maui stowed away in the family canoe, only revealing himself when far out at sea. The brothers were suitably annoyed and in a bizarre twist to this otherwise mundane family story, Maui preceded to fish using a magic hook, fashioned from the jaw bone of his dead grandmother... Classic younger sibling behavior!
Using this enchanted equipment, Maui hauled out the enormous fish
that we now know as New Zealand's North Island.
In numerous versions of the story, the Te Ika-a-Māui (Maui's fish) is depicted as an Eagle-ray, and we can roughly make out the whai's shape in the modern-day map if we imagine the stingray is swimming downwards. The head lies at the south of the North Island (around Wellington) and the tail is the Northland region. The fins are Taranaki and the East Cape, and the Coromandel Peninsula is known as 'Te Tara o te Whai’, or 'the barb of the stingray'. Speaking of stingray barbs - by this point on the tour my internal monologue was entirely dedicated to repetition of the phrase "Don't mention Steve Irwin. Don't mention Steve Irwin."
Within seconds, someone had mentioned Steve Irwin. It wasn't me. Our guide explained that we needn't worry about these particular stingrays as they're essentially domesticated. Local humans have built relationships with them over a number of years, there is a mutual trust and they are unlikely to sting unless aggressively provoked. That helped to allay our fears. The comment "An eagle-ray's barb can cut through bone" had the opposite effect.
It's incredible how intelligent these elegant creatures are. They have electro-sensory organs that can detect a heartbeat. This highly sensitive software is primarily used for detecting prey hidden in the sand but we're told it also plays a part in their appearance in the tour
as they can sense the presence of a number of human pulses. We were amazed at how sentient these fish are - rays can even use their superpower to distinguish individual humans by their tone and rhythm, happily greeting individuals who they know whilst approaching those they don't with extreme caution.
With some encouragement from our guide, we each had the opportunity to stroke the stingrays - moving your hand towards them in a fist is essential otherwise the kingfish will strike. Then, with a flat hand, you can pet the stingray, avoiding the barb at the base of the tail (the Coromandel Peninsula when looking at a map). One of the reasons they like human contact is because a gentle pat helps to remove sand and dirt from the back of the ray. Apparently this feels nice for them. For the human, it feels rather like stroking a sandy wetsuit. We fed the stingray some barracuda meat whilst our guide explained to us that she is the oldest tour guide they have, at the ripe old age of 18. What a first job that would be! Slightly more interesting than my months spent working in a Little Chef...