Have you ever heard of a mythical amphibious mammal swimming in Lake Te Anau?
Stoats are infamous for the wrong reasons, but not so their cousin the otter. Although often considered a myth, there are some written accounts of Te Waitoreke or New Zealand Otter at Te Anau Public Library.
In ‘Our Southern Most Maoris’, written by Herries Beattie, I found references to a local otter/beaver-like creature that might be living or have existed in Fiordland. Beattie (bookkeeper, journalist and historian; Gore, 1881 – Timaru, 1972) wrote that a river in the Aparima catchment was named Waitoreke after the mysterious creature. Katimamoe elder Tuture Te Kene described to Beattie a pre-European animal as swift as a Totokipio (New Zealand dabchick grebe) or Upokororo (the now extinct New Zealand grayling fish the Upukerora River is named after). Beattie was told this creature was “like an eel in the water – quite at home” but assumed it was a water rat. Te Kene may have referred to an ancient creature from Hawai’iki but also described a pangolin-like river creature, called Takuma. Others have suggested a platypus-like creature would be likely, given our shared Gondwana history with Australia.
Some accounts speak of Waitoreke being kept as pets by Māori in olden times! In Māori, wai means water, while toreke in Ngai Tahu dialect means to disappear, which describes an otter well. All accounts I have found are from Ngai Tahu rōhe.
An article in the 'Western Star' newspaper (February 16th, 1878), describes a “cheerful and lively [creature] caught by Mr Stevens of Otaitai Bush in his rabbit traps” as an “ichneumon” (the ichneumon is a mythical beast that looks like an otter and was the enemy of the dragon). This animal had a beautiful silver colour and was double the size of a ferret but very similar in appearance. It became a pet at Clode’s Great Western Hotel and was visited “by a great many people”. Seventy years later, in 1949, Herries Beattie supposed the creature in question was a mongoose as C. Basstain of Dunrobin Station was said to have imported some for rabbit control.
Several of Captain Cook’s crew saw the Waitoreke at Pickersgill Harbour (Dusky Sound), as it is described by Cook himself in ‘A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Around the World, Vol 1’. There was a sighting of a mouse coloured animal, 60cm long but with short legs, also in 1956.
Of the eleven selected sightings, one was in Te Anau by Les Henderson and his wife in 1939. The most recent waitoreke sighting was in Fiordland in 1971.
We used to think New Zealand had always been a land of birds, bats and insects. However the latest evidence shows that, about 16-19 million years ago, there were two species of crocodiles as well as a terrestrial turtle and not one but two mysterious small land mammals. So is it possible that waitoreke / NZ otters really exist or have existed? I think you can do your own research. I like otters!
(Information compiled by Jasper, Y8 student at Fiordland College. Image from 'The Press', 26 Dec 2012)