Perfiles en la Ciencia

Ramari Stewart: Whale expert, at the crossroads of science and tradition

Did you know that Māori people of New Zealand have always had a deep connection with whales? When Ramari Stewart was 10 years old, she rode a whale and swam with it for hours. Since then, she has dedicated her life to studying marine animals, balancing Western science with indigenous Māori knowledge. Stewart is the first woman and indigenous person to have a marine mammal species named after her.

Ko ahau te tohorā, te tohorā ko ahau

‘I am the whale, and the whale is me’ (ancient Māori saying)

One day, a girl of 10 was riding her horse in the surf when suddenly, a whale surfaced. The horse spooked and swam ashore, and the girl was left hanging onto the whale. She rode the whale and swam with it for hours as it foraged on small bait fish beyond the breakers.

If you assumed this was a tall tale, you’d be wrong. The up-close-and-personal whale encounter happened to Ramari Oliphant Stewart, currently in her seventies, who has dedicated her life to studying whales and preserving Māori traditions. Ramari herself is Māori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand – and at the time, she didn’t realize her whale-riding adventure was extraordinary. “I believed it was quite normal,” she says, “because I’d listened to so many stories about my Māori ancestors, and so at that age, I still believed it was nothing abnormal.”

To the Māori, whales are considered sacred, honored in songs and stories since ancient times. According to Māori legend, many centuries ago the great ancestor Paikea came to New Zealand from the Pacific Islands on the back of a whale. Many modern Māori claim to be descendants of Paikea, and there have been numerous stories of Māori “whale riders,” people with a special relationship to whales. Māori historian and cultural advisor Bradford Haami, who is Ramari’s nephew, explains that in the Māori world view, only exceptional people can ride whales: People cannot search out a whale to ride; rather, the creature must present itself to the person (Lowe, 2012).

Now a renowned tohunga tohorā, or whale expert, Ramari (Figure 1) says, “What inspired me was the fact that I very quickly learned that I was descended from whale riders and people who interacted with the sea.”

Figure 1: Ramari Oliphant Stewart, Māori tohunga tohorā (whale expert), 2020.

image ©Courtesy of Ramari Stewart. Photo by Grace Ormond.
Punto de Comprensión
Māori are ___________.


The original Māori people came to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia in double-hulled voyaging canoes and settled there between 1250 and 1350 (Warren et al., 2017; Wilson, 2005). But even before the main settlement period there were many earlier exploratory voyages to and from Aotearoa (New Zealand); Kupe, Maui, and Ui-te-Rangiora were among these early explorers, according to Māori oral history.

Over the centuries, the Māori developed a distinctive culture with their own customs and traditions. They survived by hunting, gathering, fishing, and cultivating crops, so a deep connection to the environment was necessary for survival. They call themselves “tangata whenua,” people of the land; the traditional practice of burying the whenua, a baby’s placenta, in ancestral land underscores this relationship.

A cornerstone of Māori tradition is stewardship or guardianship, centering around the responsibility and care for the environment. Just as the Māori see themselves as kaitiaki (guardians) of the Earth with an obligation to protect and preserve its resources for future generations, they view whales as protectors, guides, and guardians (Rodgers, 2017). Centuries before modern navigation equipment existed, Māori voyagers made long sea journeys between Polynesia and New Zealand (Figure 2), following the paths of migrating whales and often gaining their protection in rough seas.

Figure 2: Polynesian migration patterns.

image © CC BY 4.0 David Eccles

Even in modern times, Ramari has witnessed the protection of whales while at sea:

It’s an amazing experience to find yourself tucked inside a close formation of whales. What they do is break the sea and leave you feeling wonderfully protected.…These were the kaitiaki, or the guardians at sea. It was as if you were physically being carried on the backs of whales. (Webber, 1996)

Māori people accepted stranded whales as a gift from Tangaroa, the sea god. Whales provided meat for food; oil for preservation, paint, and medicine; teeth and bones for weapons and ornaments, (Figure 3); and ambergris (a waxy substance from sperm whale gut) for dental hygiene.

Figure 3: Māori woman (circa 1890-1920) wearing traditional clothing and ornaments.

image © Public domain

Others realized the value of whale resources too – and the whaling industry boomed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Commercial harvests for blubber oil, baleen, teeth, and ambergris resulted in the deaths of nearly three million whales worldwide (Cressey, 2015) and had a large impact on the Māori way of life. American and European whalers sailing to Polynesia and New Zealand for whale harvests introduced new trade opportunities, and some married into Māori families. Many Māori men became whalers as well. In fact, up to half the whalers at New Zealand shore stations were Māori in the late 19th century (Phillips, 2004).

The traditional relationship with the whale, their guardian species, was changing.

The devastation of whale populations

In the multimillion dollar whaling industry, resources from whales met the demand for numerous industrial products. Whale oil was used in soap, lamps (electricity was not common until the mid-20th century), lubrication of machinery, textiles, paint, varnish, and explosives. Baleen, a stiff keratin substance (like fingernails), forms a filter-feeding system in the mouths of right whales and other species. You can see the size of right whale baleen in Figure 4. This material was used to stiffen corsets, hoop skirts, collars, and hat brims as well as for fishing rods, venetian blinds, roofing material, umbrella ribs, riding crops, buggy whips, and springs, among other products.

Figure 4: Four Men Posing Under Baleen Hanging on the Deck of a Whaleship, undated, shows the size of right whale baleen, a keratin material in the upper jaws of filter-feeding whales.

image ©Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Since whale oil and baleen were the huge money-makers, the rest of the animal was simply discarded. This unsustainable practice stands in contrast to the traditional Māori treatment of beached whales, in which there was very little waste, and a single whale could provide as much as 10,000 kg (over 22,000 pounds) of meat (Rodgers, 2017).

Some whale species were hunted nearly to extinction during this time. Before the whaling industry took off full scale, the New Zealand southern right whale population numbered around 30,000 (28,800–47,100) by some estimates, but at their lowest point only 30 to 40 breeding females remained. Even the name “right whale” came from the whaling industry. In addition to their plentiful oil and blubber, they were slow, fed close to the surface, and floated when killed – hence they were the “right” species for whalers to target (Jackson et al., 2016). Although some whale populations have recovered, others have not fared so well. Like the New Zealand Southern right whale, North Atlantic right whales still count among the critically endangered. And sperm whales (Figure 5) may be at only one third of their pre-whaling number (WWF UK, 2020; NOAA, 31 May 2023).

Figure 5: A mother sperm whale and her calf. Sperm whales, the largest toothed predator on Earth, were a prime target for whalers. Adult male sperm whales reach 18 meters (close to 60 feet) in length.

image © CC BY-SA 2.0 Gabriel Barathieu

The world took note, and by 1925, the League of Nations recognized the need to curb whaling activities. In 1946, fifteen countries formed the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to prevent overhunting; today there are 88 member nations. In 1961, the World Wildlife Fund launched international “Save the Whales” campaigns. The U.S. officially outlawed whaling in 1971 and several countries followed suit, including New Zealand with the Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1978. Commercial whaling was banned internationally in 1986, although a few countries have taken exception and continue the practice (NOAA, 14 August 2023).

Punto de Comprensión
Right whales were hunted primarily for ________.

Age-old cultural practice deemed illegal

Harvesting resources from dead whales is an ancient Māori customary practice, accomplished with respect, gratitude, and skill. Working with whale carcasses requires strict safety protocols, as they begin to decompose quickly, posing a biohazard risk – even exploding. The practice of recovering whale resources was passed from generation to generation since ancient times. And Ramari Stewart became an expert, having learned from her elders.

Ramari has gone to great lengths to study the marine life with which she feels a profound connection, traveling the world to accumulate both traditional and Western scientific knowledge. When she was in her twenties, her career as an intensive care nurse allowed her to travel to Polynesia and Australia in search of humpback whales (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), a species of baleen whale.

image © Public domain

When she returned to New Zealand, a group of indigenous locals – Ramari among them – responded to a mass pilot whale stranding. Prepared to harvest the remains of the large group of whales, they were instead met with heavy machinery at the scene to bury the whales. Authorities were responding to the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978 and barred everyone from getting near the whales. The new legislation meant that for the first time in her life, Ramari was forbidden access to any whales, living or dead, for traditional cultural use.

In an effort to protect whales, the Marine Mammals Protection Act regulated what could or could not be done with them – and in the process criminalized the Māori’s customary practice of recovering resources from beached whales. It was suddenly illegal to do anything with whales unless you had a permit (Tipa, 2014). So, Ramari knocked on the door of former Minister of Fisheries Duncan MacIntyre and asked for a marine mammal research permit.

Two years later, permit in hand, Ramari’s work as a card-carrying whale researcher began, as did her work to bring about a revival in applying indigenous knowledge and practices to document the relationship of whales to the environment and its people.

Ramari’s life as a whale researcher

In the late 1970s, Ramari built her own catamaran and spent three-and-a-half years studying a resident population of common dolphins from an uninhabited island called Moutohora (Whale Island) in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand (Figure 7). This was the first long-term dolphin study in New Zealand. Ramari says of those years, “I was a bit like Jane Goodall living with the apes.”

Figure 7: Moutohora, or Whale Island. Ramari Stewart conducted a three-and-a-half-year study of dolphins on this uninhabited island off the coast of New Zealand.

image © CC BY-SA 4.0 LawrieM

She also built her own house in a small village on a remote stretch of the South island’s Tasman Sea coastline while working as a science technician in the bush (Morris, 2020). In the late 1980s to early 1990s, she spent six years on deep water fishing vessels as a Scientific Observer. “Not only did I have a wonderful time observing all the marine birds and whales at sea,” she says, “but also with the fish they were catching, so I was finding new species or rare species.” She thrived on the experience because of “that inquiring sort of a mind, and I very quickly recognized anything that was unusual.”

Ramari’s keen observation and data collection skills have contributed to the body of scientific knowledge about marine mammals, and her inquisitive nature served as a catalyst for many new adventures. After learning that Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis, a species of baleen whale) wintered at sub-Antarctic Campbell Island, she took a job in 1982 as a cook and medic at a weather station there.

Remote, uninhabited Campbell Island is a rough four-day boat trip from Wellington, New Zealand (Figure 8). “In those days, women didn’t go to remote places with a dozen men for 12 months,” she says. “It was quite hard to convince the interview panel. But I did.” (Morris, 2020).

Figure 8: View of the summer landscape on Campbell Island.

image © Public domain

The demands of Ramari’s job left her little time to study whales, so she returned in the mid- 1990s, leading three scientific expeditions to Campbell Island. A small solitary tin hut in Northwest Bay with no insulation, electricity, or running water serviced the winter camp that the team called home during their stays (Davis, 1998).

A foot in two worlds

Ramari’s life has been a balancing act between the indigenous world she was born into and that of Western science. She grew up in Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, and is affiliated with the Ngāti Awa, Rongomaiwahine, and Ngāti Mahuta tribes. With an English mother and a Māori father, she has straddled two worlds throughout her life: living under the laws of the British Crown (New Zealand was a British colony) while living out Māori customs and having to reconcile Western science with Māori traditional knowledge.

She applied both Western scientific techniques and traditional Māori knowledge to study Southern right whales and other wildlife on Campbell Island, including albatrosses, sea lions, and yellow-eyed penguins. Western scientific techniques are characterized by recorded data and reproducible results, and while on Campbell Island, she took meticulous notes and counted individuals, carefully coordinating with her team to avoid double counts. When weather permitted, they went out in two 3-meter (9.8-foot) boats to observe and photograph the whales at close range. (You can read about the importance of descriptive records in building scientific knowledge in our module Description in Scientific Research.)

But Ramari also relies on traditional knowledge and skills to observe animals. Her elders mentored her in mātauranga Māori, traditional Māori knowledge of the natural world. She also has a deep knowledge of medicinal plants and of connecting with the land and animals. She explains:

It is about developing your senses, and your ability to perceive your environment and survive in it – but most importantly, your ability to be part of that environment, not separate from it. It promoted in me a profound sense of kinship with the environment. I regard all life as my tuakana, my elders.

On Campbell Island, she conducted a census of one of the most endangered species of sea lion: Hooker’s sea lions (Figure 9), now called New Zealand sea lions. But she first needed to be “accepted as a guest,” so she put her lifetime of traditional learning to work (Webber, 1996). Māori people were traditionally hunter-gatherers and gardeners, and her family depended on these skills to survive. Relying on ancient Māori skills, Ramari has an uncanny ability to find the animals in rugged terrain. When taking a census of sea lions on Campbell Island, she spent many hours sitting and listening, crawling around under the dense scrub, and climbing high peaks – work suited only to the physically fit and very patient!

Figure 9: While studying Hooker’s sea lions (Phocarctos hookeri), an endangered species, Ramari came to know their individual personalities.

image © CC BY 2.0 Katja Shulz

She was able to approach the animals on the island at surprisingly close range. “All animals are individuals, and some are real characters,” she says. She came to recognize their distinct behaviors and personalities. The sea lions accepted her – she knew which ones were curious and playful and which were stubborn and ill-tempered.

As a hunter-gather, you needed to understand your environment, what made it work, how you fit in. And to be a successful hunter, you really had to understand your quarry. You had to think like them. I’m still a hunter – without a gun. (Ramari Stewart in Webber, 1996)

In a 2020 interview on Te Ao Māori News, Ramari said, “It’s not been easy walking in two worlds. Western science has struggled to understand indigenous thinking around mātauranga Māori.”

But actually, mātauranga Māori – traditional Māori knowledge – has much in common with Western science. Both approaches require observation, research, asking questions, and making connections. “Our ancestors had to do it all the time,” Ramari says. (You can read more about the processes involved in building knowledge and making discoveries in our module The Nature of Scientific Knowledge.)

She perceives the main difference as one of focus. Ramari (Figure 10) sees herself as a naturalist in harmony with her traditional Māori roots, using indigenous knowledge to explore the relationship of marine creatures in the environment: “As a naturalist, you see the environment as a whole, whereas a scientist tends to specialize in one particular species or subject” (Te Ao Māori News, 2020).

Figure 10: Ramari Stewart in the field.

image ©Courtesy of Ramari Stewart. Photo by Qianne Matata-Sipu, NUKU Stories of 100 Indigenous women.
Punto de Comprensión
Traditional Māori knowledge and Western science have some aspects in common.

Restoring tribal rights

Many modern Māori have lost the connection to the environment that once was vital to their very survival, in no small part due to the Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1978. Having been denied access to marine mammals for cultural use, the interconnectedness of the Māori to whales became tenuous.

The Act was challenged on grounds that it violated the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document. The treaty, signed in 1840, was an agreement between the British Crown and Māori chiefs (Figure 11) that affirms the use of marine mammal resources as an important traditional right. Along with the Conservation Act of 1987, the treaty recognizes the cultural, spiritual, historical, and traditional association of Māori people with marine mammals and grants them permission to carry out traditional practices with these animals (Ministry for Culture, 2017; Tipa, 2014).

Figure 11: Depiction of signing the Treaty of Waitingi in 1840, which brought New Zealand and the Māori into the British Empire.

image © CC BY-SA 2.0 Archives New Zealand

Finally, in 1998, tribal rights to the carcasses of beached whales were largely restored (Gillespie, 1999, in Rodgers, 2017). But for 20 years the Māori were barred from harvesting whales, so traditional whale recovery was at the brink of becoming a lost indigenous practice.

Whale stranding capital

New Zealand has the dubious distinction of being the whale stranding capital of the world. Although the exact cause is unknown, the phenomenon is due in part to the wide range of whale species found off the New Zealand coast. Further, climate change has had a major impact on the marine environment, just as it has on other ecosystems that plants and animals depend on. With warmer water temperatures, food sources move to shallower water, which can lead to the beaching of whales (Lu, 2022). (You can read about the effect of climate change on a different species in our Animal Ecology and Biodiversity II: Change modules.)

In 2014, a family of 40 pilot whales was stranded in Ohiwa, New Zealand, and sadly perished. The local iwi (Māori tribal members) secured the remains, and Ramari oversaw the year-long operation to prepare the skulls for research. The marae, a traditional gathering place (Figure 12), was converted to a research lab where iwi Māori and scientists came together to measure and record the data from each skull. This type of data collection is critical to understanding species and their habitat, food sources, range, migration, and threats (see our Data Analysis and Interpretation module.).

Figure 12: A Māori marae, or community gathering place.

image © CC BY-SA 4.0 Stuartyeates

Ramari’s role in the whale place

By leading the recovery of the pilot whale skulls, Ramari has helped her people reconnect with their customary whale practices. The Māori researchers gained significant knowledge as the kaitiaki (guardians) of this stranding event. Ramari says of the undertaking: “It’s brought this place alive. It’s the whale place now. It just gives us back our empathy with the whale, which we lost.”

In recent years, indigenous Māori knowledge has been a growing part of conservation practices in New Zealand, and Ramari’s contributions have not gone unnoticed. In 2020, she was honored with the New Zealand Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II to “recognize outstanding service to the Crown and people of New Zealand” for services to Māori culture and wildlife conservation and research (Figure 13). And in 2022, Ramari was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science degree by the University of Auckland, New Zealand, with whom she has partnered in research for more than three decades.

Figure 13: Ramari Stewart was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit as part of the 2020 Birthday Honors of Queen Elizabeth II. The award recognized Ramari’s indigenous whale research.

image © CC BY 4.0 New Zealand Government, Office of the Governor-General

But her greatest honor has resulted from a lifetime of observing, studying, respecting, recording, utilizing, and communing with whales: She identified a new species of whale.

Ramari's beaked whale

Besides being her given name, “Ramari” means “that which is associated with an unusual event” in the Māori language, so it is fitting that the naturalist who has devoted her life to the study of whales and has a deep cultural and spiritual connection to them came upon a species of whale that has rarely been glimpsed by humans.

The ocean, as mysterious as it is deep, is described as Earth’s “last major ecological frontier” (Carroll et al., 2021). The sea constitutes nine-tenths of Earth’s habitable space, and a quarter million known species call it home. However, much marine biodiversity is yet to be discovered. And when a pregnant beaked whale washed up dead on the west coast of South Island, New Zealand, Ramari realized it was something she had never seen before, a previously unrecognized species.

Little is known about beaked whales, who prefer to stay offshore in the vicinity of deepwater canyons. Some species of beaked whale are known only from a few partial skeletons. The whale that had washed up on South Island was first believed to be a True’s beaked whale (named after Frederick True, who described the species in 1913 after one was stranded in North Carolina, U.S.). But, Ramari noted, “When the whale turned up, I knew it was something different. I hadn’t seen it before. I just kept the pressure on with the Department of Conservation that this whale is special” (Hall, 2021).

Ramari did the painstaking work of recovering and preparing the whale’s skeleton, which along with its fetus is now at the national Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington (Figure 14).

Figure 14: Ramari Stewart holding the prepared skull of Ramari’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon eueu).

image ©Image courtesy of Ramari Stewart. Photo by Tanya Cumberland.

Further study by a team of researchers at Auckland University verified what Ramari knew from her long experience with whales: that it was indeed something special. The university researchers took skull measurements and performed genetic testing. Both methods established that Ramari’s beaked whale was not a subspecies of the North Atlantic beaked whale but rather a distinct Southern hemisphere species. Measurements showed that male and female Ramari’s beaked whales are of similar size, while male True’s beaked whales are larger than the females. Further, the two species have distinguishing skull and jaw features. A genetic analysis of mitochondrial DNA then confirmed that they were different species that diverged approximately two million years ago (Carroll et al., 2021). (You can learn more about species biodiversity in our module Biodiversity I: Patterning).

The scientific community agreed that this newly discovered whale species should be named “Ramari’s beaked whale” (Mesoplodon eueu) after Ramari Stewart (Figure 15). She is the first woman as well as the first indigenous person to have a marine mammal species named in her honor.

Figure 15: Ramari’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon eueu), a newly discovered species named after Ramari Stewart.

image © CC BY-SA 4.0 Vivian Ward
Punto de Comprensión
“Ramari’s beaked whale” is another name for “True’s beaked whale.”

Keeping tradition alive

An important part of Māori survival and culture long centered on the recovery and use of stranded whales. Ramari is called in to strandings as the foremost expert on preparing whale bones for research, museums, and traditional Māori use (Figure 16). Her knowledge of whales comes not only from scientific study and observation but from stories, songs, participation in whale strandings, and teachings passed down orally by elders through many generations.

Figure 16: Ramari Stewart is called to whale strandings as the foremost expert in the recovery of beached whales.

image ©Courtesy of Ramari Stewart. Department of Conservation photo.

Ramari is dedicated to keeping traditional knowledge alive so it doesn’t die with older generations. She works to increase awareness of traditional ways and to reintroduce and reinforce the traditional bonds with whales: “Besides helping Māori to recover a resource, the main thing is to try and restore some of our traditions with the whales,” Ramari told New Zealand Geographic magazine (Morris, 2020).

It has been a long and not always smooth road, as she expressed in a 2022 speech when she received her doctorate from the University of Auckland:

To be honest, the marginalization of people’s response to you because you are different made me what I am, and I’m very proud of it. And I’m very proud to leave a legacy that will hopefully encourage other young Māori to think about it. Our ancestors were great researchers. And their knowledge – we’ve lost so much of it, but it will live on if we can uphold the practices. (“Whaea Ramari,” 2022)

Bringing perspectives together

Today, traditional indigenous knowledge is increasingly accepted as valuable, and incorporated into scientific and conservation practices. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation must now consult Māori tribal leaders in planning and decision-making (Tipa, 2014). The Māori people also benefit when scientists form relationships with Iwi communities and tie research to the experiences of the people. When science applies existing knowledge and keeps traditional practices in place, knowledge of the natural world grows. New Zealand ethnobiologist and conservation biologist Priscilla M. Wehi says, “I think the beauty of mātauranga is that it’s another way, a very powerful way, of linking people to places, to practices, and to a deeper understanding of the world that we live in” (Turnbull, 2020).

Today there is greater recognition of the importance of collaboration to ensure the protection and respect of traditional knowledge and culture. Ramari said in a 2021 University of Auckland interview,

It's wonderful that Western science is starting to recognize that mātauranga Māori is equally as great as Western science and the two can work together. Rather than just bridging a relationship and taking knowledge from Indigenous practitioners, it is better that we both sit at the table.

This is true not only of the Māori people in New Zealand. Around the world, indigenous traditions are informing the world of science in many areas, from plant medicine deep in the Amazon rainforest to sustainable food harvesting in the Pacific Northwest to archaeological finds in the U.S. and Canada. (Read more about cooperative partnerships between scientists and indigenous tribes in our module Craig Lee: Ice Patch Archaeologist.) Scientists and indigenous knowledge holders now sit at the table together, acknowledging the value of working together to further our understanding of the natural world.

Bonnie Denmark “Ramari Stewart” Visionlearning Vol. SCIRE-3 (8), 2024.


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