Ihimaera published “The Whale Rider” in 1978 to critical acclaim. He wrote it in the earlier portion of his writing career, having only penned three other novels prior to it. In the introduction to the book, he explains his inspiration: his two young daughters came back from vacation complaining about how the heroes in all the stories they knew were male, and the females were always helplessly crying to be rescued. Presumably, then, a major motivation in writing this story was to provide his children, and a young audience, with a tale where the female character is not only strong, independent, and heroic, but also struggles against the same prejudices Ihimaera's two daughters recognized.
The book was well received and has been republished several times; it eventually won the New Zealand Booksellers’ Choice Award and was brought to the film screen in 2002. The film, of the same name, was directed by Niki Caro and shot on location in Whangara. The budget of the film was in the millions of dollars, and various important New Zealand film funds were involved in its production. The film also received critical acclaim, winning several awards and receiving nominations in numerous fields.