In Maori mythology, taniwha are beings that live in deep pools in rivers, dark caves, or in the sea, especially in places where there are dangerous currents. Taniwha appear in many forms. In the ocean they can be seen as whales and sharks or great monsters with razor sharp spines and fish scales. In some traditions they are seen as dangerous, predatory beings, who kidnap women to have as wives and eat humans. Others were kaitiaki, or protectors of the Maori peoples. These ones were respected, and people who passed by their habitats would leave an offering.
There are many traditional stories:
Te Tau-a-Porirua was a taniwha from Heretaunga , said to live on the Ruataniwha plains. A chief named Tara was responsible for capturing this taniwha, which had killed many people. Tara made a giant eel pot, put in 200 dogs as bait and set the pot in the Roto-a-Tara lake. Lured by the dogs, the taniwha entered the trap. Tara then dragged the creature ashore and killed it. When it was cut open, more than 200 victims were found inside. They were buried, and the taniwha was eaten by Tara and his people.
However some stories were more recent:
In the 1870s, Mohi Tūrei, an elder of Ngāti Porou, sent a letter in to the Māori language newspaper Te Waka Maori o Niu Tirani. He described the case of a girl who was said to have been killed by a taniwha.On 20 December 1876, four girls were swimming in a waterhole at Waipapa. This spot was said to be the home of a taniwha named Tāminamina. While three of the girls began to bathe, the fourth, Mereana, swam to the other side of the waterhole, climbed out onto the rocks, and began sucking nectar from the red flowers of the sacred rātā tree. Suddenly, she slipped back into the water. Her friend Rāhera tried to grab her, but failed. The two other girls screamed, because they saw the water whirling near where she had fallen, and knew it to be the taniwha named Tāminamina who had got their friend.Rāhera dived to find her, but could not. Rāhera swam to shallow waters and then saw the water was rising into waves. Days later Mereana was found, back on the rock where she had slipped. But when a group came to get her body, she had once again disappeared. An elder believed she had been taken by the taniwha as punishment for sucking the flowers of the sacred rātā tree.
The belief in these creatures is so real that in 2002, Ngāti Naho, a Māori tribe from the Meremere district, successfully ensured that part of the country's major highway, State Highway 1, be re-routed in order to protect the abode of their legendary protector. This taniwha was said to have the appearance of large white eel, and Ngāti Naho argued that it must not be removed but rather move on of its own accord; to remove the taniwha would be to invite trouble. Newspaper article from 2002:
So real are these creatures in some people’s minds that an American TV crew went searching for them.It is possible that there were or possibly still are real creatures living in deep pools etc that are called taniwha but are known creatures such as large eels or large fish. It is certainly a wonderful tradition and begs the question did large unknown(to us) creatures once exist that the Maori recognised and called taniwha.