Real-life mermaid teaches kids about conservancy


Mermaids are the stuff of legends - intriguing, magical and mysterious - and one has been spotted in local waters.

This particular mermaid, however, breaks with the traditional mermaid behavior of staying hidden. In fact, it's her goal to be seen and, more importantly, to be heard.

Nina Liepold, aka the Mermaid of Hilton Head, uses the allure, glamor and fantasy about mermaids to teach ocean conservancy to children. In addition to speaking at schools, Liepold also hosts seasonal mermaid boat tours that mesmerize children.

She can hold her breath for more than three minutes as she deep-dives, swims to the boat and appears. "Then I talk to them and tell them how important it is to keep the ocean clean," she explained.

Liepold also is a conservationist who decided at the age of four to be a dolphin trainer. She grew up in land-locked Johnstown, Pa., with no access to an ocean, but during a family vacation she saw dolphins performing. She was inspired to become a trainer.

Growing up, she practically lived in a pool and discovered that she loved being underwater more than swimming. She practiced breath training and diving, earned scuba certification and became a strong swimmer. "There is no formal training to become a dolphin trainer," Liepold said. "You have to figure it out yourself and get the necessary training."

Her determination paid off and she was hired as a dolphin trainer in Bermuda. "It was a dream job," she said. "It had ocean water, a beautiful location, and it offered housing."

But the job was short-lived. "Once I was on the inside and saw what it's really like behind the scenes, I quit and became an anti-captivity activist," she said.

"Ocean conservancy has always been important to me," Liepold said. "I decided to use mermaid allure to teach ocean conservancy by connecting the two. So, I wrote my first children's book about sand dollars."

Her second book was about turtles, and her third, "The Mermaid of Hilton Head," was published recently.

"I focus on inspiring small changes today that result in improvement for years," she said. "I focus on issues like eliminating plastic bags and straws that end up in the ocean, filling up big holes in the sand before leaving the beach because baby turtles get stuck in them, and how lights on the beach are a hazard to turtles."

It's working, too. Liepold heard from the mother of a 6-year-old girl from Chicago who met the Mermaid of Hilton Head on vacation. On a trip to Costa Rica afterward, the girl saw people taking sand dollars, the mother reported, so she spent her time on the beach teaching them about sand dollars.

"I was thrilled," Liepold said.

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Edwina Hoyle is a freelance writer in Bluffton.

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