By Dan Guarino
The crowds applauded and cheered as the colorful cavalcade of the Poseidon Parade marched down the Boardwalk on Saturday, September 16. Those cheers rose to a roar as there for the first time, triumphantly leading way, came the swirling visage and dazzling smile of Rockaway’s whale, Whalemina!
She had come a long way to get there. It is no fish tale to say that, like many, Whalemina came to Rockaway from elsewhere, reinvented herself and found a home here.
Originally known as Jonah’s Whale, Rockaway’s future unofficial mascot started life in 1961 as part of the Central Park Children’s Zoo. Barbara Jo DiGangi Kelly recalls, “I loved visiting her at the zoo as a kid!” Back then thousands of children walked through to see the displays inside. “I was in the whale as a kid in Central Park,” remembers Lou Pastina. Tom McCabe, who lived in Manhattan at time, adds, “I remember inside the whale’s mouth there was a fish tank.”
But with 1990’s renovations, the whale and other attractions were scheduled for the scrap heap. It was the late Sal Arena who saved it. Artist and former Rockaway Artists Alliance President Geoff Rawling says, “Sal was on the Rockaway Beach Civic Association. He saw the whale in Central Park, saw they were getting rid of it and said ‘That needs to be in Rockway.’”
The RBCA, with President Bobbi Hart, and Community Board 14 agreed.
Going from one NYC Parks property to another in 1996, Rawling notes, once negotiated, “was easy. They literally came and dropped it by the beach” along Shore Front Parkway by Beach 94 Street.
The great whale even got a new name, Whalemina. Rawling notes, “Liz Sulik was head of the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce at the time. There was a contest to name the whale. It was Deidre Galvin who was a little girl and she picked the name and she won the contest.”
“It’s true!” Galvin remembers. She still has the contest sweatshirt emblazoned with “Rockaway- A Whale of a Town,” awarded from the RBCA as she recalls, and “pictures from the ceremony. The certificate however might have drowned in Sandy.” Though “Rockawhale” was submitted by many, Galvin recalls “It was me and another little girl from Far Rockaway” who both picked “Whalemina” and won.
But the whale’s arrival was not without problems. By 1997, the New York Times reported it was falling apart, with its sagging mouth held open by a trash can, its tail lopped off and the homeless sleeping inside her.
“The structure was wood with chicken wire covered by some kind of cement,” Rawling says. The move from Manhattan had accelerated cracking that started well before.
At first, RBCA simply wanted to preserve it as it. I wanted to do something creative with it. Finally, they fixed the mouth and said, ‘Maybe you could do something with that. So I painted the scene of Pinocchio, getting swallowed by the whale. It kept being vandalized. So they said, ‘Geoff, what do you want to do?’”
With funding and/or support from RBCA, Arverne by the Sea, the Chamber of Commerce, NYC Parks and the Rockaway Artists Alliance, “It became an ongoing project. Every summer we would do a little more.”
With images of “the sun as one eye, the moon as the other and the ocean and the bay and all the creatures between” and using a heavy flexible latex roofing compound, he created a dazzling mosaic overlay. Embracing “their” whale, Rockaway residents pitched in to help, or they’d “leave buckets of stuff, plates, ceramics, stained glass.”
RAA educator Marina Callaghan, who states she also came up with the contest name for “Whalemina,” notes “Geoff masterminded the brilliant renovation. Many artists helped, including Esther Grillo and Kalin Callaghan, along with many neighborhood children who delighted in being part of it.”
Whalemina’s second act opening was celebrated with schoolchildren making music and Rawling dressed as Captain Ahab.
Kelli Ann Leary, remembering her then 2-and 4-year-old sons, says, “As we drove over the bridge each morning…both boys would say in unison, ‘Good morning, Whalemina!’ and wave to her.”
“My kids did this too!” adds Kim Tritschler.
George Pizzo notes, “Whalemina was an icon of Rockaway, like the Unisphere is to Queens.”
But Whalemina’s summers ran out in 2012. On October 29 she was swept away by Hurricane Sandy’s crashing tides. A few remnants were found as far away as Beach 92 Street and the Bay. But the rest was gone.
Almost immediately residents were asking Rawling, “Where’s the whale? We need the whale.” Though moved to the Bronx post-Sandy, ideas for a new Whalemina began to take shape.
To raise funds, he and writer Laura Cryan produced “Whalemina: The Rockaway Whale,” a colorful children’s book. Additionally, Belle Harbor resident Billy Taylor left $10,000 in his will for a new whale.
“First we had a huge inflatable whale. Then I got a boat and trailer” to build a new design of wood, metal, wire mesh, spray foam and fiberglass on. Going to Hunts Point Collison, which fabricates specialty augmentation for commercial vehicles, like Coca-Cola, he thought, “the guy would think I was completely nuts. But they loved it. He had like 100 guys who built it, they loved it. They had never done anything that crazy.”
Whalemina’s journey over the Whitestone Bridge was epic as stalled traffic led people out of their cars to take pictures of this “psychedelic whale” passing through.
Since her return Whalemina has won Best Float at Brooklyn’s Mermaid Parade, made many Rockaway event appearances, including at the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and ridden on Shore Front Parkway alongside the annual Poseidon Parade. Until now.
Though previous years’ discussions hadn’t worked out, Rawling says NYC Parks Rockaway Supervisor Eric Petersen “called and said, ‘Can we get the whale onto boardwalk?’”
A September 14 “test-drive” proved successful. On the big day, Rawling himself took the wheel, leading the parade, guiding the “new” whale through wildly cheering Rockaway crowds.
Whalemina had arrived home, once again, in style.