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Cold Spring Harbor's whaling past comes to life in new exhibit

Nomi Dayan, executive director at The Whaling Museum

Nomi Dayan, executive director at The Whaling Museum and Education Center, left, leads a talk about whaling at the center in Cold Spring Harbor, Sept. 27, 2015. Credit: Ed Betz

More than a century ago Cold Spring Harbor was a whaling village with its own fleet of ships that sailed to every corner of the world.

The mammals they hunted shaped the lives of village residents, who used them to make everything from soap to corsets, to whale oil that illuminated their homes and lubricated industrial machines. In time the local whale population dropped and petroleum was discovered, leading to the industry's decline.

While whaling ships no longer dot Long Island's ports, visitors to Cold Spring Harbor's Whaling Museum got a chance Sunday to relive the village's maritime heritage.

"It's such a unique history," said Cindy Grimm, the museum's education manager. "The industry is gone and now it's just the history we have left."

In the new interactive exhibit, "If I Were a Whaler," residents and other visitors explored re-creations of a whaler's journey, from viewing an old-style general store to seeing their sparse sleeping quarters below deck. Children also had the opportunity to try their hand at nautical knots and woodwork crafts.

As part of the exhibit's opening Sunday, there also were historical stations demonstrating candle-making and weaving, and a few local vendors selling felt goods and wooden whale carvings. Visitors also heard sea shanties, upbeat work songs sailors would have enjoyed long ago.

A main attraction of the event was the museum's genuine 19th century whale boat, a canoe-like vessel that seated six. The museum's director, Nomi Doyan, dressed in an elaborate period costume, spoke of how sailors would have rowed such boats from whaling ships to hunt whales using harpoons.

Doyan also discussed the hardships of whaling, which she described as a "life of poverty and disease." Working and living conditions on whaling ships were harsh, and in their downtime sailors had little to do except carve whalebones into art with intricate designs. Many of the pieces, called scrimshaw, were displayed, along with thousands of other whaling artifacts.

Amanda Vengroff, 23, a museum volunteer from Centerport, said she designed many games in the exhibit, which had been in planning stages since March. Seeing her work finally pay off was very exciting, she said.

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