No One Cared For My Environmental Activism—Until I Dressed Up As A Mermaid Every Day

The key to getting people to give a hoot, it turns out? Put on a shimmering tail.

September 29, 2017
The Chesapeake Mermaid teaches about environmental conservation.
Photograph courtesy of Chesapeake Mermaid

There are plenty of legends surrounding mermaids. First called “merfolk” by sailors and pirates, the half-human, half-marine animals were even described as early as The Thousand and One Nights as having “tails like fishes.” Hans Christian Anderson wrote his story The Little Mermaid, which nearly a century and a half later was turned into a beloved Disney movie. Mermaid crafts abound on Etsy and beyond—crocheted mermaid tail blankets, shiny, sequined pillows and signs displaying phrases like, “Seas the day.”

And then there’s a mermaid who spends her time in the waters of Chesapeake Bay between Maryland and Virginia, who swims straight from the ocean and up to surprised beachgoers, including many delighted children. We have no doubt that it would be fun to spend a day at the beach as a mermaid, but the “Chesapeake Mermaid” (who asked that we not use her civilian name in this article) has a mission to do more than entertain.

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The Chesapeake Mermaid swimming underwater.
Photograph courtesy of Chesapeake Mermaid

 

The Chesapeake Mermaid first donned a fishtail several years ago, when she grew frustrated with how hard it was to get people visiting the Bay to care about the environmental threats that imperiled it. "I knew people in organizations spending their Saturdays in tents with matching shirts, brochures and maybe even a live animal, but folks would walk by," she says. "When they did stop, it was scientists talking to scientists. I wanted to reach new audiences. People who truly didn’t know about our world.”  

Inspired in part by a friend, "Mermaid Alexis", who dressed up as a mermaid for parties, one day she decided to take the message of conservation to the shores of the bay—and to do it as a mermaid.

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“To my surprise, people stopped to listen to a mermaid. Kids climbed into my lap. They smiled! It grew from there.”

Today, the Chesapeake Mermaid is a regular, recognized fixture of the Chesapeake Bay region, sharing her unique approach to conservation through educational appearances, outreach, fundraising events and volunteering. Those volunteer projects alongside area organizations entail restoring oyster beds, rescuing sea turtles and building reefs.

One easy way to help with ocean clean-ups is to donate cat and dog fur (the quick video below shows you how) it's excellent for cleaning up oil spills! 

The image of a conservationist might be someone who dons flannel and waders. The Chesapeake Mermaid just happens to do it in a tail. We asked her to share her story with us and how she makes waves every day in and around the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The Chesapeake Mermaid splashing into the Chesapeake Bay.
Photograph courtesy of Chesapeake Mermaid

 

Rodale's Organic Life: To start, can you tell us about your conservation work?

Chesapeake Mermaid: I spend most of my time between Chesapeake Beach and the Choptank. But I travel a good deal for the work I do for the bay—from the Susquehanna to Virginia Beach and even Ocean City. Wildlife aren’t contained by state boundaries. I think of my home as the Chesapeake watershed, and that’s a pretty large area. I have a passion for wildlife, but I’m also an artist as well.

Why is this a passion of yours?

CM: I’ve seen [Chesapeake Bay] go through a lot of changes! I remember when the water was clearer and you could see the bottom and identify the fish and crabs. I remember when families could fish and swim along the banks and shores. We are trying to get back to that, but as you can imagine, it takes time and hard work.

What concerns are at the top of your list? How do you go about making an impact on the local environment and people alike?

CM: I’m passionate about volunteering, and I want to share my journey and encourage others to join. Storm water is an ongoing issue, [along with] updating infrastructure in the cities, finding alternatives to the way we currently work and develop the land and informing the public of what they can do to be local leaders themselves. I believe in the people. Small changes can make big waves. And then they’re more informed, with a firsthand perspective, when it comes to talking to and choosing leaders and laws.

In what ways do you encourage audiences to positively impact the Chesapeake Bay watershed?

CM: The core of what I do is meet people. I meet event organizers, scientists, watermen and volunteers. I’m a volunteer myself, so in addition to posting upcoming events and making appearances at the venues, I make videos of my volunteering so folks can see what is happening. This is what it’s like to clean a stream, build a reef or help a sea turtle. And anyone can do it! The opportunities are there, the world needs our help and some of these non-profits don’t have a lot of time to spread the word.

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How do you help local wildlife and sea animals?

CM:  In just the past four years, I have roughly 700 volunteer hours doing animal husbandry with local wildlife organizations. I clean enclosures, prepare diets and enrich the lives of animals.... Everything from sea turtles and seals to fawns and skunks. I used to be a night shift manager in the nursery preparing formulas, tube feeding and helping the baby animals go potty. They don’t do that on their own. It’s not glamorous. But the work is rewarding and terribly cute. And oysters are animals too! I’ve been working to help them most of all.

You even wrote a children’s book about oysters, right?

CM: My children’s book tells my story, which is also the geological history of the bay and the importance of oysters. I would love to do more! But from that, I was commissioned to create a life-size mermaid sculpture for a leading non-profit, and am discussing a coloring book with a local tourism board.

The Chesapeake Mermaid reading her book about oysters to two children.
Photograph courtesy of Chesapeake Mermaid

In the midst of these efforts you’re making, you’re now facing a challenge with your recent hearing loss. Can you tell us about that?

CM: In February of 2017, I had sudden, severe hearing loss. That means I woke up almost deaf. Doctors don’t know why, but believe it is somewhere between genetics and a bacterial infection. It occurred after a lot of swimming and diving in the bay, and after some friends I was swimming with were hospitalized for an illness they acquired in the water. I’ve had to learn to do everything again, but I’m not giving up. So I’m learning sign language and incorporating that into my shows. But I gain strength from the wildlife. We are all survivors touched by this world and impacted by each other. I don’t want anyone to fear the outdoors. It is where we are all united. I believe the changes I make to this world are bigger and better than any changes that can happen to me.

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What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishments as the Chesapeake Mermaid?

CM: The young children. Their smiles. Their ideas to save the world. Maybe it’s in solar, wind, a social movement or some new science. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter if they believe in mermaids, because I believe in them. I believe they will succeed.

The Chesapeake Mermaid.
Photograph courtesy of Chesapeake Mermaid

Anything else you’d like to share with Rodale’s Organic Life readers?

CM: Some in the science community have rolled their eyes at a mermaid presenting this information. And that’s fine, and it’s not for them. But it is working with an audience that I feel has value. In some ways, I feel like the mermaid nobody wanted, but I’m the mermaid they got. And I don’t plan on swimming away anytime soon.

To learn more about the Chesapeake Mermaid and her conservation efforts, visit her website at chesapeakemermaid.com

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