MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – At a marina in Copenhagen, there’s a world-famous statue of a little mermaid. Here in South Florida, we have a real-life one, and she’s on a quest to save our ocean.
“As a mermaid, I want to bring awareness that Biscayne Bay is dying,” Merle Liivand said.
Liivand, 31, is an Estonian competitive swimmer who came to South Florida 11 years ago to train for the Olympics.
In fact, in 2016, she was at the Olympic trials in Rio de Janeiro when she was shocked to see all the trash washing up on the Brazilian coastline.
“And that was really my wake-up call,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh no, I need to do something. I can’t be just the athlete who swims and takes from the sports. I need to do something to give back.’”
And so she came back to South Florida and a mission was born.
“What else mermaids should be doing than saving the ocean?” Liivand said.
Liivand sets world records by swimming long distances wearing her mermaid monofin, but without using her arms -- an extraordinary feat of strength and endurance -- and all of it is to call attention to what we’re doing to our ocean and all of the marine being impacted.
“I swim without using my arms because that’s what the animals are feeling, Liivand said, “they’re helpless because we have been trashing their environment.”
Her latest record was set just last month in Biscayne Bay. Right through ground zero of the 2020 fish kill, Liivand swam 26.2 miles in just over 11 hours.
But the marathon swim only underscored the urgency of it all.
“While I was swimming, I was picking up trash, and not (a) little -- a lot,” Liivand said.
In fact, she showed it to us, taking us back to the trashiest spots she encountered on her world-breaking swim, like the shores of Albert Pallot Park and the Julia Tuttle Causeway.
“And there was all the Styrofoam, what you see right there, but they were all covered here that I had (an) even hard time to swim through. This was all covered in plastic. Covered with plastic,” she said.
Still weeks later, floating debris is everywhere.
“It makes me feel angry. It makes me feel sad. And some days I even cry about it,” Liivand said.
It was Liivand’s fourth world record -- her third was set last year on her 30th birthday when she swam 30 kilometers in the open ocean off South Beach in just nine hours and 19 minutes.
“It was hard because I swim against the current and it was 23 knots of wind coming against me,” she said.
The feat and Liivvand’s important mission even caught the attention of Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, who proclaimed April 17 Merle Liivand Day, but the mermaid had only one message to share.
“Every morning I come to swim and I see trash everywhere,” she said. “I found sunglasses, I found -- mostly I found all the plastic bottles and Walmart plastic bags.”
“I think people don’t have any idea what is happening,” she added.
And so, Liivand vows to just keep swimming to wake people up, hoping one day we’ll listen to the mermaid: Our ocean needs help and it’s not just her mission, it’s all of ours.
“If a little mermaid can make a difference in Miami, then everybody can make a difference in the world,” she said.
Merle hasn’t said yet what her next record-breaking swim will be, only that it will happen as long as there’s trash polluting our seas.
Her passion, fierce dedication, and athleticism are even more impressive when you consider she was once an 11-year-old girl with an auto-immune disease and collapsed lungs who dreamed of being an ocean hero.