The Chesapeake Mermaid is ready to build a new bridge.
Not a traffic-clogged span to beaches and boardwalk fries, but a link uniting citizens who want to help preserve the Chesapeake Bay and its inhabitants with the organizations who will benefit from their help.
Owings resident Angela Mitchell is the woman behind the fin. “Many people say, ‘I don’t know where to start, but I have these two hands and a Saturday morning,’” she said April 5.
She aims to make her website — chesapeakemermaid.com — a hub uniting citizens with effective ways to donate time and funds. The site features a master calendar with opportunities for volunteer work, presentations, classes and more. With more than 150 major rivers and streams flowing into the Chesapeake from parts of six states and the District of Columbia, there is always work to be done.
While opportunities to help exist, they can be hard to find or “fall short of their audience,” Mitchell said. If overly scientific, classes might only get on the radar of scientists, for example — even if other folks would happily attend.
As a volunteer at Baltimore’s National Aquarium and the Orphan Wildlife Rescue Center in Lusby, Mitchell experiences the man-made impacts on the bay and its creatures firsthand: everything from litter to scarring from run-ins with boats.
“People don’t necessarily see it, the damage — they don’t see where [trash] is going to wind up,” she said. Someone may think a single item of litter won’t cause harm, but the effects could be devastating. “That ‘one thing’ could be the one thing [an animal] encounters that ends their life,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell grew up in a crabbing family in New Castle, Del., situated right on the Delaware River. She remembers seeing the impact of an oil spill years ago. “Every time I go out, I have visions of those fish and birds [covered in oil] in my mind. I couldn’t do anything for them, but I can do something now,” she said.
After an 18-year career in animation and television left her “looking for more purpose,” she thought of an early passion: animal rescue. Seven years ago she created GuineaPigToday.com, a website with information on “modern life” with guinea pigs. Many resources about guinea pig care were decades old, Mitchell said; the site seeks to get companies, pet owners and rescues “on the same page.”
In a similar vein, the idea of creating the mermaid character to benefit the Chesapeake surfaced over the years. Mitchell even reserved her website’s URL years before doing anything with it.
But the Chesapeake Mermaid didn’t come together, she says, until she met Mermaid Alexis — a local entertainer and friend. “I’m following in her wake,” Mitchell said, “no pun intended.”
Appearing with Mermaid Alexis at events in one of her friend’s spare fins, Mitchell enjoyed entertaining others — but her altruistic Chesapeake Mermaid was still in the back of her mind.
She’s sandy, gritty, damp — a far cry from a “Glamour Shots”-style character swimming out of a Disney frame. There are no tiaras, no glitter. Mitchell’s creation? She’s a part of the bay.
Her 40-pound custom fin, a surprise from husband Chris, was inspired by the shortnose sturgeon, a bay inhabitant recognized as an endangered species since 1967. While a traditional mermaid tail has just two fins, Chris worked with a designer to pattern Mitchell’s after the sturgeon’s many fins.
The result is a beautiful, life-like creation Mitchell will don for appearances in exchange for a donation to animal rescue and conservation. Funds go directly to the National Aquarium, where she volunteers weekly.
The Chesapeake Mermaid doesn’t arrive for a simple photo op: Mitchell can swim in her tail with assistance getting in and out of the water. Her husband accompanies her as a “handler,” ensuring she doesn’t get overheated or locked in the sand.
As Mitchell reaches out to nonprofits, organizations and the public, she hopes the Chesapeake Mermaid will become a local ambassador: a “messenger of goodwill.”
“This isn’t about me,” noted Mitchell, explaining that anyone could be the Chesapeake Mermaid: a passionate supporter of the bay, vested in the home we share with many creatures in the hope of preserving its shores for generations.
Someday, she hopes to pass the torch to a new mermaid — unless, through conservation, we’re able to put her out of a job first.
“The bay will reach a point where it’s used up,” Mitchell said. “There are a lot of people like me who believe we live in the best place in the world.”
Why, she asked, wouldn’t we want to protect it?
When it comes to getting involved, you can start small and look locally. The Chesapeake Mermaid website has a calendar with opportunities to volunteer, attend presentations and more. Current initiatives to improve water quality include Project Clean Stream, a trash clean-up event coordinated by Alliance for the Bay. Learn more at cleanstream.allianceforthebay.org.
“You don’t have to commit long-term to volunteering,” said Mitchell. “People can have professional jobs and still help on the side. There’s just as much magic in that idea.
“My dream is that people don’t forget that this is our home,” she said. “The animals are bringing us that message. They can’t say it, so I will say it for them.”
Learn more about the Chesapeake Mermaid, including how you can get involved in cleanup and conservation, at www.chesapeakemermaid.com.