The Oceanarium is the National Aquarium of New Zealand's main exhibit tank. Living inside is effectively a replica of the marine environment that inhabits the adjacent Hawke Bay, whose waters lap the shore just 100m from the aquarium.
The National Aquarium's Oceanarium measures 24m long, 30m wide and 3m deep. It contains 1.5 million litres of seawater, which is constantly being exchanged with water pumped from the nearby Hawke Bay. There are over 1,500 fish in the Oceanarium in two compartments.
Māori spiritual concepts and tribal history are an important part of New Zealand’s cultural history and education. As you come eye-to-eye with the many strange and wonderful creatures that live in the National Aquarium of New Zealand's Oceanarium, your experience will involve you in an enthralling, captivating Māori legend.
Pania of the Reef – The Spiritual Connection
With respect to Hawke Bay, Māori legend tells the story of Pania of the Reef. The story is one of proud ancestry that traces the evolution of New Zealand’s Māori people and their special bond and respect for the ocean.
The story of the National Aquarium's Oceanarium starts with Tangaroa and his spiritual connection to Napier (Ahuriri) through Pania of the Reef. Tangaroa is one of the offspring of Ranginui (Sky Father) and Papatuanuku (Earth Mother) – Māori mythology's primordial parents. Tangaroa is God of the Ocean and all things that live in the sea are his children.
Tangaroa's waves crash on the shore, he keeps fishermen’s boats safe on the sea. He ensures the children of the sea (the fish and other aquatic life that reside underwater in Hawke Bay, and are replicated in the Oceanarium) are kept safe and the laws of the ocean are followed by all. He is guardian or poutiriao of Hinemoana, the ocean.
Pania is one of Tangaroa’s sea people, a beautiful sea-maiden who swam daily to the Napier shore at the setting of the sun to drink the clean, freshwater from a spring at the northern end of Napier’s Marine Parade. Everyday, she would return to her sea people before sunrise. While on shore she would hide herself in a clump of flax beside the spring.
One evening, a Māori chief called Karitoki came to drink at the spring and found Pania resting in the flax. He took her home and they became man and wife. Every evening at sunset she would come back to her husband. Every morning before sunrise Pania would return to her sea people.
Pania and Karitoki had a son called Moremore. But Pania was eventually drawn back to her sea people, taking Moremore with her. Karitoki's heart was broken. When Pania eventually passed away, the sea people are said to have petrified her body into the reef off Napier’s breakwater, now known as Pania Reef.
Moremore is said to have been turned into a taniwha and lived in the waters around the reef off Hukarere Point at the entrance to Napier’s inner harbour. Moremore functioned as a kaitiaki, or protector of the Māori people while they gathered their kaimoana (food).
Today, divers and fishermen still claim to be able to see the shape of Pania lying under the surface, her arms out-stretched towards the lover she reluctantly left on shore. Her glorious long, dark hair drifts like seaweed with the current.
Pania of the Reef is commemorated in a bronze statue on Marine Parade, in song, literature and most prominently, in the minds of Māori people.