“How did you become a mermaid?” This is the question I get asked the most in my career. Everyone looks at my posts on Social Media and thinks that my job as a mermaid is to swim and frolic around Hilton Head Island, SC all day. It is also a common assumption that becoming a mermaid was my dream job, since a lot of people would love to do the same. The truth is that both of these presumptions are false in my case.
Growing up, I never even thought about becoming a professional mermaid. My goal in life from before I can remember was to work with dolphins. On my first day of preschool I took a plush dolphin with me because I was going to school to work with dolphins. I was determined, and nothing was ever going to stop me.
When I was in elementary school, all of my friends wanted to be like the Spice Girls, while I was the little nerdy kid in the corner who wanted to be like Ric O’Barry, who at that time I associated with being the trainer of Flipper.
During my second year of college, I got accepted into a marine mammal training internship! It was a huge moment for me - it was my dream coming true. I moved to an island in the Atlantic to work as a dolphin training intern. The word “excited” doesn’t even begin describe my true feelings at that time.
On my very first day on the job, all I wanted to do was get in that water with those dolphins, but of course I had to go through the proper learning channels and safety training before that happened. My anticipation of what would be covered in the initial training was different than what was actually covered. To my surprise, the training placed a primary focus on what we were and were not allowed to say to guests. For example, if a guest questioned any aspect of dolphin captivity and if the dolphins are happy, our answer was to be: “All of our dolphins love human interaction. In fact, they actually seek it out. They are very happy here.”
After this first day of “class” I was prepared for any questions anyone could throw at me. I was prepared to defend these dolphins being in captivity like my life depended on it, because this was my dream.
When it was finally my turn to lead an interaction program, I was teamed up with a dolphin named Lily who was 4 years old at the time. I got in the water with Lily and then the guests entered. I was very nervous since this was my first program. Usually when my nerves are working against me, my memory is the first thing to fail. I began to go through the five things that make a dolphin a mammal. I was pointing out the spots on Lily’s rostrum where they have tiny hair follicles when they are born, and then I drew a blank. I couldn’t even think of one good dolphin fact to tell these very nice, paying customers about this dolphin who was in front of me. I had Lily swim in front of them so they could pet her belly, and then when she passed by me she stopped and looked at me as if she was trying to figure me out. She knew something was wrong. She came over in front of the guests, which I did not ask her to do. This made me even more nervous because now not only was I forgetting what to say, but I also had no control over the dolphin who was working with me. Lily stopped right in front of a boy, who was probably around 12 years old. She looked right at him, and she made the most ridiculous sound I had ever heard a dolphin make. The guests laughed, and then I took her cue to talk about how dolphins don’t have vocal chords.
From that point on, I was almost always paired with Lily, and we were a great team! Through working with Lily I began to understand how intelligent these animals really are.
As time went on, my relationship with Lily grew, and we were like best friends. This led to me thinking about her perspective of life a lot. I would watch her swim around the pool in a circle over and over with the other dolphins, and knowing how smart she is, I found it difficult to believe that she was really happy. She and the other dolphins would float on the top of the water from time to time. I was trained on my first day to explain to people that this behavior was “how they slept” because every breath they take is a conscious effort, so they can’t sleep the same way we do. The closer I became to Lily the more obvious it was to me that they weren’t “sleeping”, rather they were literally bored out of their minds. They had nothing to do to keep them occupied, so they just floated.
Towards the end of the four month internship, I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up at night and kept thinking about Lily. I thought about how dolphins in the wild swim in straight lines for miles and miles and Lily never got to do that. I found myself facing a big fork in my perfect road. I could very easily lie to guests and make them believe that the dolphins were happy to be there; that was never an issue for me. However, I was having an incredibly difficult time lying to myself about the same thing. I found myself at a point where I had to make the decision when I returned home (Pennsylvania) from the internship whether or not to continue pursuing the career of which I had always dreamed.
I found myself again turning to my idol, Ric O’Barry. Yes, I had always idolized him before because he was the Flipper trainer, however he also left that life and became an activist against captivity. He worked in the industry much longer than I did so I figured if he could make the switch, so could I. On my last day, I said “good bye” to Lily, which was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I promised her I would do everything I could to get her out of that pool, and I meant it with my whole heart.
When I returned to Pennsylvania, I no longer pursued a career training dolphins. Instead, I found myself completely lost. I began training dogs, and I found that dogs are more difficult to train than dolphins. As it turns out, the smarter an animal is, the faster they pick up on things. I definitely didn’t have any dogs stepping in if I forgot what I was doing. Training dogs was fun, however it was not my passion. My passion was Lily.
Two years after I left the industry, Lily was moved with her sister to another facility. Three years after that, Lily was moved by herself to yet another facility. Now her family is scattered throughout three separate facilities, and Lily is surrounded by dolphins she doesn’t know.
I was lucky enough to be able to visit her seven years after we parted ways. This was the first time my partner, Rick, had ever met her, and to him one dolphin looks like every other dolphin. However, when we were visiting Lily, he was able to pick her out right away - she was the dolphin who was staring at me diligently and then began leaping out of the water with excitement. She remembered me.
Lily and I worked together a lot, but to be honest, I wasn’t expecting her to remember me when I saw her again. She has worked with a lot of humans in her life, some for years. She had only worked with me for 4 months, but she still remembered. This leads me to think that the bond we had was real, and while it was a major plus that her interactions with me almost always led to food, I strongly believe she genuinely liked me.
Rick and I started a mermaid business with the hopes of connecting people to the issues that our oceans face, one of which is marine mammal captivity. We found that people are able to easily relate to mermaids because they are half-human, yet exotic.
This is why I became a mermaid. I don’t do it to sit in a clam shell, pose for photos, and look pretty. I do it to educate people about ocean conservation and to give Lily’s story a platform where she can be heard. I now spend the majority of my time educating people about ocean conservation. The Mermaid of Hilton Head® is a conservation/education based business that offers “Turn into a Mermaid” photography sessions, conservational children’s books, Mermaid Swim School, and Mermaid Encounter Boat Tours where you can find a mermaid (me) swimming alongside wild dolphins. I swim up to the boat and talk to the passengers about ocean conservation. The message sticks with people because a wild mermaid is telling you why she and her dolphin friends prefer to be in the wild. It’s just way cooler to see mermaids and dolphins in the wild than in captivity, and once people are able understand this, they are less likely to purchase a ticket to a dolphin show or aquarium.
I intend to spread this message, with Lily as my inspiration, to a new generation so we can work together to make the world a much better place for all those who live here.