Billing herself as 'The California Mermaid,' Vira Burgerman of Guerneville has dozens of mermaid costumes, including this new one she'll wear to a Mermaidfest in Monte Rio Sunday, October 25.

Mermaid with a mission

Vira Burgerman sometimes has trouble moving about on dry land. You try walking on a mermaid's tail.

"You've got to slither," said Burgerman, a curly blonde, 43-year-old Guerneville hair stylist who transforms at will into a sea maiden with glimmering scales that extend from her waist down to a great, floppy tail. "You've basically got to slither."

Anyone can dress up as a half-woman, half-fish. Halloween's coming, after all. But Burgerman went to Sacramento and the secretary of state's office 13 years and registered as the only person legally entitled to call herself The California Mermaid.

She owns a world-class collection of about 60 colorful, tapered fish tails and eases into one for such occasions as the Bodega Bay Fisherman's Festival. The first time she made herself into a mermaid was for a blessing of the fishing fleet almost a quarter century ago.

"You can find me a lot of times at farmers' markets and that kind of thing," she said. She loves doing kids' parties, too, but her main venue for flaunting her fins is her own labor of love, Mermaidfest.

It's a celebration of Sonoma County's kinship with the sea and a call to respect and restore the North Coast's struggling fisheries. Burgerman has put on the one-day Mermaidfest most years since 1998, and she's already picked out the tail she'll wear at Mermaidfest '09 Oct. 25 at the Monte Rio Amphitheater.

Some mermaid fans

no doubt want to know what Burgerman wears on top, so let's dispense with that. "I normally wear a copper bra by Rick Topper, the wonderful Guerneville artist," she said.

"You've got to be presentable," she said. "I am the California Mermaid, so I keep all my performances kid-friendly."

She loves to get into the scales and the character, but,

as with a ranger who perspires within a Smokey Bear costume or a historical actor who imitates Lincoln, there's a purpose to the role-playing.

Burgerman fights back salty tears when she speaks about the Bodega Bay fishermen who've lost their livelihoods, or are in danger of losing them, to the decline in the fisheries.

"My horoscope told me not to be emotional. But every time I talk about it, it just kills me," she said.

Burgerman grew up on the Bodega Bay docks and on party boats, and she's watched the seagoing life go into decline. She said she was 5 when her father moved the family to the bay and took a job managing the Porto Bodega marina and trailer park.

At age 16 and 17 she was attending Tomales High and working as a deckhand on a Bodega Bay party boat.

"I helped people bait hooks and haul in their fish," Burgerman said. She came to revere the ocean, the fish and the hardy breed that toils to earn a living on a commercial fishing or party boat.

"I loved to talk to the fishermen on the docks," she said. "But they started disappearing because their fishery started declining."

When fishermen invited her more than two decades ago to take part in the Bodega Bay festival and blessing of the fleet, she decided to go dressed as a mermaid. What better way to display her affinity with the ocean and with marine life - and what could be more fun?

She recalls going to seamstress Carol Carpenter, a member of one of Bodega Bay's most prominent fishing families, for help creating a fabulous tail. She flicked it a time or two and discovered her water-world alter ego.

Burgerman since has designed other tails and had them made, and friends have brought her mermaid costumes they've found. She's also shared mermaid tales with Hollywood "Tail Man" Thom Shouse, who headed the design team that created the costume Daryl Hannah wore in the 1984 film "Splash." It was a cherished moment when Burgerman sought out Hannah at Santa Rosa's 2004 Health & Harmony Festival and shook a fellow mermaid's hand.

Although she won't wiggle into a favorite tail until shortly before Sunday's Mermaidfest (, Burgerman already is contemplating the metamorphosis. "Days before I'm the mermaid, I'm preparing to transform," she said.

She'll spend the day immersed in her aquatic role, greeting humans and urging them, for the good of all species, to work to restore the vitality of creeks and the Russian River. She knows from years of experience that after nine or 10 hours of slithering about in a getup designed for moving through the water world, part of her will be happy to be free of the mermaid tail.

At the same time, said the fish-woman, "I think I would love to live in it."

You can reach Staff Columnist Chris Smith at 521-5211 or

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