Guerneville hairstylist employs alter ego to help save waterways

For centuries, mermaids have held a spot in the popular imagination. At once alluring and beautiful, the sea maidens believed to be spotted by sailors and explorers were thought to have divine powers.

With her long, blond locks and regal gold earrings and headdress, Vira Burgerman of Guerneville evokes the aura of a priestess as she makes appearances at events on the Russian River, smiling and splashing in a shimmering tail that captures the sunlight.

It's that aura that Burgerman channels into the environmental issues that she holds most dear: river stewardship and the health of the oceans and fisheries.

"You never know where I'll show up," Burgerman said. "If someone asks me, and it has an oceanic focus, I usually can't turn them down. I'm there."

The practical reason that Burgerman shows up at so many community events in her sea maiden attire is to draw attention to those causes. And she has set out with a new goal to encourage mermaid enthusiasts nationwide to follow in her splashy path.

At a national mermaid convention held recently in Orlando, Fla., Burgerman befriended several younger mermaids, adopted the persona of "Mer-Ma," and gave her proteges tips about how to draw attention to the environmental issues in their neighborhoods.

"They were like, 'Oh my God, we do have all this attention as mermaids. How can we use it for environmental awareness?' " Burgerman said. "I have this renewed energy around being a 'Mer-Ma' now and realizing I'm a teacher to these aspiring mermaids. Just think where you could take it."

Burgerman, 46, has been doing just that for years, organizing an annual Mermaidfest to raise money for the Community Clean Water Institute, and appearing at events such as Fishstock in Jenner, which raises money for creek restoration. Now, her mission is to convince other sea sirens to take on the cause of using their alternate personas to spread environmental awareness.

At the Orlando convention, called "MerPalooza," Burgerman was crowned "International Community Environmental Mermaid of the Year."

Burgerman also is working on curtailing invasive species in the waterways that degrade the fish habitat. Three years ago, on a stretch of the Russian River near her hair salon, Burgerman carefully dug long strands of ludwigia plants out of the water by the root, gathering the remains so the plants wouldn't take root downstream. Today, there's barely any presence of the plant on her stretch of the river, she said.

"I proved that this could be physically dealt with by hand. You don't need to spray chemicals."

Making her home in Wine Country, Burgerman has begun developing an environmental winery certification program that will offer a mermaid's stamp of approval to wineries that are fish-friendly.

"I was doing it to teach people, just like they ask if their fish is fresh, when they go to a wine tasting, ask, 'Is your wine fish friendly and sustainable?' " Burgerman said. "If they are, they'll be proud to brag about it."

As she relaxed poolside at the R3 Hotel in Guerneville, Burgerman's young mermaid friends in Los Angeles sent her text messages asking about environmental groups they'd like to contact, and she laughs, showing off photos of the young ladies in their shimmery tails and shell tops.

Burgerman grew up in Bodega Bay, working long, hard days on commercial fishing boats, where she often got hooks caught in her feet. Eventually, she decided to make a career as a hairdresser, and opened her own salon. Local fishermen asked her to dress as a mermaid for a fish festival, and her alter-ego was born.