For centuries, the myth of the mermaid—alternately an alluring siren who bewitches men and then sends them to their deaths and a singing collector of shipwreck debris—has floated across the oceans of the world, but now, a new kind of mermaid is swimming the waters of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina (one of our Happiest Seaside Towns of 2017!). And this mermaid is as real as they get.
The Mermaid of Hilton Head Island isn’t trying to lure you into the water—she just wants you to treat it (and its shores) right during your visit. That’s the goal of founder and part-time mermaid Nina Leipold, a trained free diver and former dolphin trainer who uses her persona as a mythical creature that’s part-woman and part-fish to educate visitors to Hilton Head on the proper way to treat its wildlife. With tidbits like reminding guests to the area to turn lights off at night so as not to confuse the area’s sea turtles and an explanation of the consequences of collecting live sand dollars, the mermaid offers both an entertaining run-in with a legendary creature and conservation education.
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Leipold also has two books currently out, with another on the way, that address the same topics. Her second, The Mermaid of Hilton Head, features the mermaid herself with tips on how to treat Hilton Head’s waters, resources, and wildlife respectfully.
You can see the mermaid in person on a tour with Dolphin Seafari, an area tour operator, that puts the mermaid on the boat with passengers so she can answer any questions and talk about the importance of protecting the area’s sea creatures. The mermaid also makes appearances at events and parties, touting her support of protecting nature wherever she goes.
For the true mermaid fanatics, there’s even the option to become a mermaid: The “Become a Mermaid” experience can be 20 minutes or an hour, with a tail-fitting, appropriately aquatic accessories like fishing nets and sea shells, and a photo shoot on the beach by Island Life HH Photography. Your child’s—or your—session can be enhanced with a shoot at sunrise or with a boat tour to a secluded location for the transformation and shoot.
All images by Rick Leipold of Island Life HH Photography.