Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.
High hopes were entertained in Poverty Bay in September, 1898, that the district was again about to enrich the world's storehouse of natural history by producing, on this occasion, a specimen of the fearsome reptilian monster referred to in Maori tradition as the kumi. A deaf and dumb Maori worker, who had been sent to remove the undergrowth from the base of a rata tree on Arowhana (the property of W. D. Lysnar), returned to the homestead in what appeared to be a very agitated state. By means of signs and sketches, he informed the manager that he had been disturbed by a reptile 6 feet long and a foot high. It had, he claimed, two pairs of legs, a large mouth and curved teeth.
Mr. Lysnar and a party set out at once from Gisborne with the object of taking the reptile alive. Their gear included several rolls of wire netting to make a fence around the tree. Even when “Dummy” informed the hunters that he had returned to the spot to recover his slasher their suspicions were not aroused. On the other hand, they were greatly encouraged when he indicated that the kumi had had the temerity to put its head out of a hole and stare at him! Members of the party were stationed with guns at vantage points, and, after a long wait, the tree was thoroughly examined, but all in vain.
The subject was discussed at meetings of several branches of the New Zealand Philosophical Institute. In general, the leading naturalists proved very sceptical. Interest in the matter quickly faded when Mr. H. Hill, of Napier, confessed that, during the previous year, he had been hoaxed by this self-same “Dummy,” who had guided him to a very remote spot in Poverty Bay where, he claimed, he had found an oil spring. When they reached it the spring had disappeared without leaving a single trace!
Tuamotu Island (near the north head of Poverty Bay) was one of several localities along the coasts of the North Island in which, according to the Maoris, a forest grew on the seabed. In 1877, Captain G. Mair was shown a piece of a so-called “sea-tree.” It had been obtained off Whale Island. The natives made fishing hooks from it. Whilst it was green it was easily bent; upon becoming dry it proved as hard as ebony. Pieces from the Three Kings Island and elsewhere were, in later years, sent to various museums.
A perfect specimen of a sea-tree was brought up from a depth of 50 fathoms by Mr. Zame whilst he was fishing off the Ariel Reef (near Poverty Bay) in July, 1943, Mr. A. J. Cox sent it to the Auckland Museum. Mr. A. W. B. Powell (assistant director) informed him that it was of especial interest because it was complete with holdfast and the page 373 boulder to which it was attached. The sea-tree, he explained, was not a vegetable growth, but was produced by a black coral known as anti-patharian. Dr. Oliver (director of the Dominion Museum) wrote to Mr. Cox stating that he would have liked to have had an opportunity to examine this live specimen, with its attached organisms. “Actually,” he added, “the ‘tree’ is the skeleton of an animal related to the sea anemone.”
Several peculiar fishes have been found in and around Poverty Bay. In May, 1886, a fish taken from the Taruheru River had horns like a snail and a fin which extended all along its back. A fish caught in Poverty Bay in June, 1899, was 3 feet long and 9 inches through. Its tail was like a shark's. In the dorsal fin there was a 6-inch spine. The snout had a flap an inch wide and three inches long. A frog fish, which had “legs” and a spike above the eyes, was secured in June, 1901. Whilst the Atlanta was off Portland Island in January, 1892, a flying fish 10½ inches long landed on the deck. In September, 1938, F. Faram caught a cone fish at Opoutama. It was about 4 inches long, resembled a schnapper, and was covered with hard, bony, pentagonal plates.
The largest fish ever caught at Gisborne was a sunfish (orthageriscus mola). Whilst some men were at work on the breakwater on 12 December, 1889, they saw it on the eastern side, about a quarter of a mile off. W. J. Fox and three of his mates rowed over to the spot, brought it to the surface again by dropping a plug of dynamite, and towed it to the breakwater. After it died, a worm (like a piece of narrow tape and several yards long) emerged from its mouth. The length of the sunfish from snout to tail was 9 feet 8 inches, and its depth, from tip to tip of fins, was 11 feet 6 inches. It was covered with small red insects, the flesh was like white India rubber, and the eye opened out to the size of a 56lb. shot. In October, 1938, a smaller specimen was hooked on a schnapper line off the Gisborne breakwater.
Thirteen rats which J. B. Lee caught at Waipiro Bay in May, 1918, were greyish-white on the back and paler underneath, the tail was as long as the head and body combined, and measured up to 5½ inches, and the ears were round and large. The description tallies with that given of the Maori rat by Hutton and Drummond in “The Animals of New Zealand” (1923).