Interview with a Mermaid
By Alanna Conley
On a chilly afternoon in early fall, a mermaid swims in Lake Mendota. Suddenly, a boat approaches, frightening her into hiding.
Holding her breath, she pops up just as the boat passes. A young man notices her as she brings her long tail to the surface of the water. His jaw drops and he mouths some profanity as the boat skims past.
This is not a tale of a sailor and a siren. The boat is no old wooden vessel, but a sleek Wisconsin crew boat. The mermaid is no siren either, just Claire VanValkenburg, having some fun while she trains after class.
VanValkenburg is a sophomore studying journalism at UW-Madison. In her free time, she is training to become a professional mermaid who teaches children about the importance of ocean conservation.
“I’m passionate about saving the oceans and rivers and the only way to spread that passion is telling other people, especially children because they are the next generation,” said VanValkenburg. “I could major in wildlife conservation or marine biology, but I’m really bad at science. So, the logical thing was to become a mermaid. “
VanValkenburg’s “mermaiding” began as a way to exercise. After several severe joint injuries from gymnastics, she was searching for fun new ways to swim laps. That is when she discovered monofins, a type of flipper that conjoins your feet and legs. While searching, VanValkenburg found a monofin shaped like a mermaid fluke.
“I just thought it was so cool,” said VanValkenburg. “Black Friday came and I binge bought it. From there on out, I found the community and got involved.”
That community lives mainly online, through forums and chat rooms like the Mernetwork.com. Here, mermaid enthusiasts can connect, ask questions and share advice about tails, swimming technique and ocean conservation. VanValkenburg or Mermaid Echo said the community has been incredibly welcoming and helpful.
“People will find my Instagram and they’ll comment, ‘Love your tail, love your design,’ and that’s just really heartwarming. The community is really supportive,” said VanValkenburg. “That’s the crazy thing, you can’t not be supportive of other people who are passionate about it.”
Although VanValkenburg has never met another mermaid in person, she has accrued a substantial following online. Her most popular video, “Introducing Mermaid Echo,” has nearly 2,000 views. As her online following grows, VanValkenburg is poised to launch her business this summer.
Her business is modeled off of her biggest idol Canadian mermaid Raina, who also promotes conservation. VanValkenburg is looking mainly to be hired for birthday parties, entertaining kids with tricks in the water and stories about ocean conservation. Ocean conservation is huge in the mermaid community and VanValkenburg hopes to share this message with the children she encounters.
“It’s magic and it’s fantastical, the idea of a mermaid talking to you about ocean conservation,” said VanValkenburg. “Kids are going to be like ‘Wow, a zoologist told me this yesterday, but a mermaid is telling me now and it affects her life directly! I’ve got to save her!’ It’s so much more meaningful if it’s coming from something that they see in their dreams.”
VanValkenburg also uses her “mermaiding” to promote women’s rights. As a freshman, she organized a demonstration against sexual assault, drawing a crowd of around 500. After that, VanValkenburg wondered what else she could accomplish. Although activism in the mermaid community is mostly centered around conservation, VanValkenburg hopes to add women’s rights to the narrative.
“I want to reclaim mermaids as strong independent women,” said VanValkenburg. “That’s probably a really radical idea, because the concept of mermaids is sexualized from where it began. I want to reclaim mermaids as women who are successful, can own businesses and save the oceans if they want.”
Taking time off from her business to focus on school has been hard, said VanValkenburg, but the skills she has acquired in the Journalism School have helped her brand and market herself. This summer, she already has two gigs lined up, both at the White Lake Beach Resort in Montello, Wisconsin. When discussing the opportunity to practice mermaiding professionally, VanValkenburg cannot contain her excitement.
“I might have a really lofty idea of life and I might always have my head in the clouds but that doesn’t mean I can’t be successful,” said VanValkenburg. “You follow your craziest dreams and you have no idea where they will lead you.”