It’s no fish tale to say many have come to Rockaway from elsewhere, reinvented themselves and found a home here.
Rockaway’s unofficial mascot Whaleamina started life in 1960 as Jonah’s Whale in the Central Park Children’s Zoo. Thousands of children have memories of walking through it to see the displays inside.
By the early 1990s, renovations were planned and the old whale was out. Rockaway Beach Civic Association member Sal Arena pushed to save it from the dump and bring it Rockaway. RBCA president Bobbi Hart spearheaded the move to a spot by the boardwalk across from Beach 94th Street in 1996.
A year later, the newly name Whaleamina was in sorry shape. A frequent target of vandals, half of its tail went missing, its structure was decaying. The homeless were frequently seen sleeping in its collapsing mouth, which was being held open by a garbage can.
RBCA engaged local artist and then Rockaway Artists Alliance president Geoff Rawling to paint a ‘Pinocchio being swallowed by the whale’ scene on the newly sealed up mouth. Though originally approached to take on the whale’s renovation, he noted he’d only be interested if he could get “colorful and creative” with it.
“They realized that the only way they would get me to fix her damaged exterior (was) to let me mosaic the whole thing,” he recalled. In doing so, Whaleamina, named from a winning contest entry, became a glittering, evolving work of art.
Friend and Rockaway Beach Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Liz Sulik encouraged him to seek project funding via a NYC Parks Foundation grant, which was matched by Arverne by the Sea. Rockaway folks adopted the new resident, donating time and materials to help. Many local schoolchildren have memories of painting and adorning the whale.
It became “an ongoing public artwork” for nearly 14 years.
Sadly, like so many things in Rockaway, in 2012 Hurricane Sandy swept Whalemina back out to sea. The only piece found was the tail.
But resilient as ever, she went on to star in a colorful children’s book about her life and adventures. “Whaleamina: The Rockaway Whale” was written by Laura Cryan and illustrated by Rawling.
And she inspired the artist and others to create a new ‘Whaleamina,’ as colorful as her predecessor and, built on a boat trailer, completely mobile. She has been a hit at many a local event, even being there rolling along to celebrate Rockaway’s graduates in a grand June car parade.
Not bad for a whale who came from afar to make a new life and find a new home, here in the heart of Rockaway.
By Dan Guarino
Photo by Dan Guarino.