From sunken wrecks to whaling communities, fishing families, rumrunning, tall ships, yacht racing and even the simple boats favored by clammers and oystermen over the decades, Long Island is famously rich when it comes to maritime lore and memorabilia. There are even tales of pirate treasure buried beneath our sands. Captain Kidd is believed to have hidden booty in Oyster Bay, Smithtown and Montauk and on Plum Island — none of which is known to have been recovered.


“Long Island’s maritime history certainly is bold and bountiful,” points out Arlene Klein, executive director of the East End Seaport Museum & Maritime Foundation. “But it’s also a dynamic, living history you can see evolving on a daily basis right in the nearest port or harbor.”

Indeed, that may be the case, especially on the East End where oyster farms are springing up faster than vineyards. But across Long Island commercial fishermen still endeavor to fill their nets, recreational anglers cast for fluke, stripers, porgy and the like, while clam diggers and baymen continue to work inshore waters even if their numbers are but a trace of the past. Sea Tow, the nationwide security plan for boaters, even has its national headquarters in Southold, while Stony Brook University has a serious marine program and Cornell University oversees a range of marine-related research on local waters.

While it’s still possible to witness Long Island’s maritime heritage on display in real time, it’s easier to grasp the big picture by soaking up the highly researched information presented at local maritime museums.


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Jackie Babyak, a 47-year-old teacher from Hauppauge, and her husband Steve are regulars at the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum with their son Sam, 6. “We enjoy checking out the whale boat,” she says. “We’ve seen scrimshaw, shark bones and whale oil, enjoyed a pirate festival and played old-time games like jacks, pickup sticks and Jacob’s ladder.”

Hands-on learning for kids is also the primary theme at the Maritime Explorium in Port Jefferson. “We feature a lot of interactive hands-on activities for parents and children, all with a nautical theme, says museum educator Carole VanDuyn. “We recently made model regatta-style sailboats fashioned after Olympic vessels and sailed them in rain gutters.”


If a true historical perspective is what you crave, it’s hard to beat The Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville. They have five exhibit buildings which include an extensive research library. “Many people come here to research their own books and projects, others simply love to immerse themselves in maritime history,” says executive director Terry Blitman. A new exhibit opening this month, “Mapping Long Island,” is based on the 1883 Beers Atlas maps that were among the first published for travel, vacation and selling real estate on Long Island. At that time, people were still coming out to the South Shore and South Fork by horse and carriage or railroad. “You can see the names of the property owners back then,” notes Blitman. Another exhibit examines the history of oystering on the Great South Bay along with the rise and decline of the clamming industry.


Besides the Long Island Maritime Museum, where maritime history buffs could spend days in research, the memorabilia in most other nautical museums can be viewed fully in an hour or two. Most museums also offer seminars and lecture series, kids programs and, in some cases, lighthouse tours, boat cruises and maritime-related events.

“History is always on display at Long Island’s maritime museums,” Klein says. “But our maritime heritage and culture is also still very much alive.”