Whales | Tohorā

Explore the amazing world of whales, through a unique blend of science and storytelling.

This exhibition draws on one of the largest whale collections in the world – at Te Papa, New Zealand. See enormous skeletons, explore whaling history, build a dolphin and more.

Whale People

Humans have revered whales, hunted them, and explored their astounding adaptations to life in the sea.

Meet some of the people whose lives have been inextricably linked with whales – from legendary South Pacific whale riders to whale scientists and former whaling families.

Pātaka and the story of Tinirau and the whale
Some patterns on pātaka probably have their origins in the story of the chief Tinirau and his pet whale Tutunui.

Pātaka Taonga
Discover the treasures stored in the pātaka taonga.

Whale land
Māori sometimes remembered significant events and stories about whales by naming islands and landforms after them.

Whale riders
Discover some of the rich whale-riding traditions of Māori culture.

Whaling, then and now
Māori and other South Pacific harvested food and materials from whales that occasionally stranded on their shores.

Installation shot of the exhibition space, featuring models, skeletons, and TV screen


Whales | Tohorā at Te Papa, 2007. Te Papa

Whale Lab

Whales made their move towards living in the sea about 50 million years ago. They evolved to exploit this watery environment, developing streamlined bodies, remarkable feeding methods, and, for toothed whales, the ability to ‘see’ with sound.

Plunge into the world of whales. Discover how their bodies work and explore their extraordinary lifestyles – from some of the smallest dolphins to the mightiest creature on Earth.

Whales evolved through many changes in climate, land mass, and oceans to become the extraordinary creatures seen today.

Using terms such as ‘whales’, ‘dolphins’, and ‘porpoises’ can be misleading when people want a clear picture of how whales are related. But what exactly is the difference?

Whale sounds
The ability to produce and perceive sound is important for whales - to navigate, find food, and communicate.

Discover the difference between baleen whales (Mysticetes) and toothed whales (Odontocetes)...

Watch any whale in motion - such as a dolphin riding a boat's bow wave - and you'll notice that whales are superb swimmers.

Whales are mammals and have many of the features and systems of mammal anatomy.

Sperm whale skeletons
Sperm whales are the most widespread of whale species and two of them have made their way to the exhibition.

Whales mate underwater, while either stationary or swimming. Like most other large animals, whales have a low birth rate.

Whales in the wild
Whales are reknowned for the spectacular behaviour they exhibit at the water's surface. But they spend most of their time below the surface, hidden from view.


Whales strand for various reasons. Illness and old age can play a part, as can extreme weather and the make-up of coastlines. Human-made pollution, mishaps with ships and fishing gear can all result in strandings.

How people respond also varies. For some, stranded whales are gifts from the sea. For others, it is a rare opportunity to study these creatures. And many people want to help save them.

People look at the Whales exhibition


Whales | Tohorā at Te Papa, 2007. Te Papa

International touring schedule

Please check venue website for confirmed dates.

Hosting enquiries

Liz Hay, Manager Business & Market Development
Email: lizh@tepapa.govt.nz