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.
The California Mermaid
"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.