HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (WSAV) — Families enjoying a scenic boat ride off Hilton Head Island’s coast this summer might spot more than the sun’s reflection shimmering along the water’s surface.
With a flick of her sparkly turquoise-scaled tail, professional mermaid and ocean conservationist Nina Leipold aims to add a little magic and education to the lives of the children and parents who come visit her in her “natural habitat.”
Leipold, who co-founded the Mermaid of Hilton Head boat tours with her husband, Rick, spends her days hanging out with marine life near Hilton Head Harbor RV Resort and Marina, where the unique tours depart.
The couple started the business three years ago after observing tourists mistreating the local wildlife.
The root of the mistreatment is lack of education, according to Leipold.
“Every time we approached someone to try to educate them, they would become defensive, and it did more harm than good,” she told WSAV.com NOW.
“We wanted to come up with a fun way to educate people where they wouldn’t put up walls and be receptive to the information we were providing,” Leipold said.
The tour seeks to raise awareness about the threats facing the health of oceans and waterways while informing people of ways they can make a lasting difference.
Through the character of Mermaid Nina, Leipold brings to life a mythical creature that helps educate and inspire people to make small changes that keep the mermaid’s home — along with her marine life friends — healthy.
On the educational tour, the energetic Pinky Plankton and Sailor teach passengers about sand dollars, dolphins, sea turtles and how to help protect them.
“We find a lot of [sand dollars] along the beaches on Hilton Head,” Tour Captain and Assistant Director of Magic, Doreen Kuenzler, told WSAV.com NOW.
“If it’s brown, it’s still alive, and if it’s white, that means it has already passed along to the next universe, it’s safe to pick up and it is actually dead, so it’s okay,” said Kuenzler, who plays the role of Sailor during the tour.
She’s been the tour’s captain for the past year.
“They’re like a little vacuum cleaner that goes along the ocean floor cleaning up after other ocean life, and they’re very important to our ecosystem,” Kuenzler added.
Kids and parents also learn why it’s important to refill holes before leaving the beach to protect sea turtles and why certain chemicals in sunscreen can spell bad news for marine life.
Eventually, Mermaid Nina makes her grand appearance from the water to greet the passengers peering over the boat’s edge, educating them about her home and answering any questions the children have.
“I think it is super important to focus on kids because they are more receptive,” Leipold said.
“Grown-ups are already stuck in their ways, they are not interested in making changes and everything seems like a sales pitch to them, but with kids, they take the knowledge they’ve just learned to heart and implement it in their day-to-day [lives],” she added.
Leipold says many kids are enforcing new eco-rules on their parents and families, which she notes has proven far more effective than creating a tour focused on teaching adults about ocean conservation.
The knowledge that children absorb, Kuenzler says, tends to stick with them, allowing them to carry it with them as they grow.
“When you’re able to educate someone early on, they are able to pass that along,” Kuenzler said. “It’s so important that we take care of our ocean friends and our ocean to make it sustainable for them in the future, and for their kids in the future.”
“It’s kind of a sustainable message that will go on for years and years to come,” she said.
The crew is taking measures during the pandemic to protect tourgoers and mermaids alike, including limiting the boat’s capacity to allow for social distancing. Learn more here.