Lake Wakatipu: The Taniwha & The Lake That Breathes

A Giant at the Bottom of the Lake

The deep, sparkling water of Lake Wakatipu framed by mighty snow-capped mountains is the jewel of the iconic Queenstown landscape. A spectacle any time of day or night, Lake Wakatipu holds a special place in the hearts of those who live here today and for the local iwi, Ngai Tahu, who consider it a sacred part of their ancestral heritage. But Lake Wakatipu is also a scientific phenomenon. Known as the ‘lake that breathes’, Lake Wakatipu features its very own ‘tide’, despite being landlocked. So, what is the answer to the breathing lake and what does a terrible giant have to do with it?

Taniwha Carving Queenstown Apartments Accommodation Maori History

At 84 km (50 miles) long and up to 5 km (3 miles) wide, Lake Wakatipu is New Zealand’s third-largest lake. At its deepest point, it is around 380 metres (1,250ft) deep. That’s deeper than Auckland’s Sky Tower is tall.

The cold, deep waters sit at a constant 11 – 13. C (52 – 55.F) all year round making it a chilly but fun watersports destination. Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout and Quinnat Salmon are not put off by the temperatures however and call the cold waters home. While locals - old and young alike, appreciate the lake in summer - it can prove to be on the icy side for our visitors!  If the lake doesn't appeal for swimming, there are plenty of options for getting out and exploring Lake Wakatipu including scenic cruises, jet boating, fishing tours and recreational boating and waterskiing.

Several rivers and streams feed Lake Wakatipu, including the glacial-fed Dart and Rees Rivers near Glenorchy at the head of the lake. The lake is drained by one river, the Kawarau River.


Around 15,000 years ago, New Zealand was in an ice age and a huge glacier travelled from the north-west, carving out the lake bed as it moved. You can still see the glacial striations on the mountains that flank the lake and picture the icy behemoth gouging its way through the landscape. A relatively thin lake, Lake Wakatipu is particularly striking because of the towering mountains that run directly down to the water.

The ‘tidal’ activity of Lake Wakatipu has puzzled scientists for years. The water level rises and falls about 20cm every 27 minutes or so. The lake is not considered big enough to be tidal, and the movement is too fast to be tidal activity.

For the answer, we must rely on Maori legend to explain this puzzling phenomenon as well as the lake’s unusual ‘S’ shape.


Many years ago there was a chief who had a very beautiful daughter called Manata. Many young men wanted to marry her, including a young warrior, Matakauri, who was Manata's sweetheart. Manata's father, however, would not let the couple marry as he thought Matakauri was unworthy.

Legend of Manata

One day a terrible taniwha (giant) named Matau came and stole Manata. The chief was heartbroken and said that anyone who rescued his daughter could marry her. Even the strongest of the young warriors quailed at the prospect of fighting the taniwha, however Matakauri's love was strong and he set out in search of the taniwha. After finding Matau in the mountains he observed that whenever a nor'wester blew, the taniwha went to sleep. While Matau slept Matakauri crept close and found Manata but she was tied to the taniwha with a strong cord. Manata then sobbed bitterly and so great was her love for Matakauri that when the tears fell on the cord the love in them dissolved it.

Together the pair fled and as promised the chief allowed the couple to marry.

Matau, however, was still resident in the mountains and Matakauri decided to deal with him once and for all. He waited until there was a strong nor'west wind and the taniwha was asleep and then set alight the bracken bed that Matau was sleeping on. Flames surrounded Matau and the fat from his burning body made the flames even more fierce, burning a hole deep in the ground. The fire also melted the snow on the hills and water poured in filling up the hole left by Matau's burnt body. If you look at the outline of Lake Wakatipu you can see that it resembles the shape of a person lying down, the 'hollow of a giant'

Wakatipu landsat

The only part of the Taniwha's body that didn't burn was his heart, which continues to beat to this day, causing the tide to rise and fall in synchronised rhythm.

Myth reproduced courtesy of Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd


A slightly less interesting explanation is that the lake is a seiche. A seiche is a standing wave and is caused when restrained parts of the lake are affected by wind and atmospheric changes.

But one day, we may find that beating heart of the giant and prove the scientists wrong!


Art Credits:

Taniwha by savagewerx on DeviantArt