What happened to the big whale at the Central Park Children’s Zoo?

If you were young in New York City in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s, then you probably remember the thrill of visiting Jonah’s Whale at the Children’s Zoo in Central Park, with that smiling open mouth you could practically walk into.

Jonah’s Whale had been part of the Children’s Zoo since its 1961 opening, according to The New York Times. But this star zoo attraction got the boot in the mid-1990s, after the zoo fell into disrepair and the whale was “derided as kitsch,” as the Times put it.

“A new generation of sober-minded zookeepers, trained to re-create natural habitats, questioned its educational value,” the Times wrote. “And critics wondered whether a sculpture depicting the biblical tale of Jonah, who spent three nights in the belly of a whale, was appropriate in a public park.”

In the mid-1990s, Jonah’s Whale was carted away to the Rockaways, where it was supposed to live in a happy retirement. But apparently the whale was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, per a 2014 article in Rockawave, which covered an attempt to raise money to rebuild it.

The fate of Whalemina, as the whale was renamed in the Rockaways, isn’t clear. But Baby Boomer and Gen X New Yorkers surely are hoping that this zoo icon is safe and in one piece again somewhere.

[Top image: eBay; second image: NYC Parks]

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12 Responses to “What happened to the big whale at the Central Park Children’s Zoo?”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    It’s a whale of a tale….

  2. David Handelman Says:

    I have a picture my grandmother took of me in 1966 sitting calmly inside the whale’s mouth (and another on the bow of Noah’s Ark, from your Ebay photo) I recall there being some kind of fish tank on the wall inside the whale.
    I hadn’t realized it was only built in 1961 (the year of my birth).
    It is visible over the wall behind Jane Fonda waiting for a bus in the silly 1963 movie “Sunday in New York,” which is also notable Ephemera wise for the fact that the traffic on Fifth Avenue is two-way.

  3. Shayne Davidson Says:

    I lived in NYC in the 1970s and somehow missed this whale! Darn!

  4. aspicco Says:

    As a kid, I thought the whale was stupid. It was a zoo, not an amusement park, and not serious enough. (I was waaaay too serious a kid.)

  5. echaney Says:

    I moved here in 1997, too late to see the whale, but this brought back fond memories of a Little Golden children’s book from 1963, A Visit to the Children’s Zoo by Barbara Shook Hazen. The whale with the fish tank inside is featured.

  6. Carol Ann Siciliano Says:

    Thank you for this piece! In the early 1970s, my mom — a fashion designer near E. 32nd Street — would take us to the City for the day, give us each a nickel for a pretzel and a dime for the Children’s Zoo, and send us up Fifth Avenue so she could get some work done. I would be about 12 and my sister 10. She’d tell us to meet her at B. Altman’s top-floor Charleston Gardens restaurant for lunch. I remember the Whale vividly, along with the Old Woman’s Shoe. The whole morning would be magical!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      A visit to the Children’s Zoo and lunch at B. Altman’s—that’s a magical New York day for a kid. If a parent tried that with their 10 and 12 year old today, they’d be arrested and publicly shamed!

  7. MM Says:

    wow! I loved that part of the park so much. I insisted it was Pinnochio inside the whale.

  8. inknewyork Says:

    The Central Park Children’s Zoo whale wasn’t meant to represent the whale that swallowed Jonah, it was PINOCCIO!

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