Claire VanValkenburg, who surfaces in the St. Croix area often as Mermaid Echo, was crowned the 2021 Miss Mermaid Wisconsin by charity pageant Miss Mermaid USA.
She was selected for her leadership and activism, creativity and overall stewardship.
As Miss Mermaid Wisconsin, she’s using her mermaid persona to inspire support for the nonprofit St. Croix River Association, and represent the larger mission of activism and education.
Conservation and education have long been a focus for VanValkenburg who appears as Mermaid Echo at kids parties, library story times, local events and more to bring both education and wonder.
How long have you had the Mermaid Echo persona?
I launched the business in 2016, so five years of running the business, which is crazy to say. Before that I came up with this character that I had developed to be the steward for kids probably about two years prior. So I’ve been in the mermaid community for about eight years.
What is your main goal with Mermaid Echo?
My cause is childhood conservation education, and that has also been the goal of Mermaid Echo forever. I’m already working to lead the way to a solution for childhood conservation education by going to graduate school this fall or maybe next and doing research about the subject.
Children from marginalized backgrounds suffer from a disproportionate level of science literacy, and that emerges from a very young age. So if we can close the education gap and bring conservation to all children, I think we can fight ecological obstacles from the beginning.
This is a really important cause to me because children are today’s new scientists, but tomorrow’s climate activism leaders. There are only nine years left until global warming and climate change is irreversible. So I think that this cause is probably the most important cause to fixing or saving our earth because the children are the ones who are going to have to live here after we’re gone.
We can do all this work on a global giant scale, but if we bring it down to the kids level then we can really make sustainable changes for our futures
What do you think Mermaid Echo brings to education that might not be seen in other formats?
What I think is really unique about Mermaid Echo is memorability.
When you meet a mermaid, and you’re say 6 years old, you go through this emotional experience. What a mermaid is is, quite literally, the meeting between humans and aquatic ecosystems, half of a human and half of a fish. And because she has this voice to speak for her friends in the rivers or in the oceans, she becomes this really powerful embodiment of the aquatic ecosystem she lives in. I think that’s something that’s really unique and memorable from perhaps talking to a park ranger, which park rangers and wildlife ecologists are amazing, that’s what I do for my human job so not taking anything away from that at all. But I think what’s so unique or different about Mermaid Echo is the rarity of it, it’s kind of an enigma and it’s something children believe which is really fun.
They’ll listen to scientific teachers, what if that scientific teacher was also a mythical creature that connects with them and their inner childhood imagination? Kids are creative and imaginative and if you can get down on their level with education, I think it’s a lot more impactful.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Oh my gosh, the kids. Just meeting with the kids. Seeing the looks on their faces and knowing that what I’m saying to them, they are absorbing and listening to and interested and passionate about is something that’s just so powerful because I do education outside of the tail as well. I worked for YMCA Camp St. Croix and I taught sailing for years and about boating and about the river. What was so different about that is you always have the kids who are disinterested because it’s not novel to them, but I have never met a child as Mermaid Echo in the mermaid tail that is not interested. So it’s this really magical moment this is created when you put on this person because kids just grasp onto every single word. And that’s why I think it’s so powerful and we should be using this for activism.