Our small hamlet of Islip has been outstanding in any number of ways. To begin with, it is old, and is the seat (where government offices are located) of Islip Township which dates back to the 1680's. The 1680's, imagine! But as well, it was known at one time for "the finest school in all of Suffolk County, it claimed the first municipal airport on Long Island, the first successful canning process for clams (Doxsee Clams were known throughout the world), had a fine horseracing track, and an outstanding business district on Main Street. And then, in 1935, came the whale shark.
That particular day, August 9, started out like any other day. The Schaper brothers, Arie and Nicholas, who owned the Sunrise Fish Company on Degnon Boulevard (across from the Middle School) left their fish camp near Captree Island with a small crew to check their fishing traps off Fire Island. They had no way of knowing that on this day, they would make history.
As they had done on so many other days and years of their lives, they passed through the Fire Island inlet into the Atlantic Ocean. There were four huge traps to be emptied. These were special traps called pound nets, and the Schapers had developed their own, particular version. These traps were designed to guide fish from larger chambers to a smaller "pound," or pocket, at the end. The first three traps were emptied in a routine way, but when the crew hoisted the fourth, they were astounded by what they saw. A huge creature, big enough to be a whale, but much like a shark, had caught itself in the trap! The shock, however, passed quickly. They set about the arduous task of trying to capture the fish, a feat that took many hours, and required every bit of the exceptional knowledge and fishing skills that these men possessed.
They finally succeeded in getting the whale shark back to the dock at the fish company in Islip. Word of the happening spread quickly. The Schaper brothers knew they had made the catch of their lives and were already planning to display the whale shark the next day, charging a small fee. That evening two men, E.W. Gudger and Harry C. Raven, specialists at the world-famous Museum of Natural History in New York City came out to see the phenomenon. Why all the excitement? There are plenty of reasons.
In the first place, the whale shark is very rare, especially this particular species, the rhineodon. Up to that time, only 80 (of all the different species combined) had ever been recorded, so any time one is caught, it's an event. Secondly, this one was the second largest ever found at 31 feet, 5 inches. The next amazing thing is that the whale shark is a fish of tropical (very warm) waters. No whale shark anywhere in the world had even come close to swimming this far north.
The whale shark made headlines in newspapers all over the place. Islip was once again "on the map" as the saying goes. Several days after the catch a millionaire, William K. Vanderbilt, made a legal agreement with the Schapers to take the skin of the whale shark for mounting by a taxidermist, and it was decided that the whale shark would be exhibited for one month in New York City. After that, Mr. Vanderbilt put the whale shark on display at his museum in Centerport, a village on Long Island's north shore. It was taken down for restoration work in 2006, but is now back on full display to the delight of the Vanderbilt Museum's many visitors.
(Original Research: Robert H.P. Finnegan - Synopsis: Nancy Porta Libert 2006)