With trailers out for Disney’s upcoming live-action version of The Little Mermaid, it feels like everyone has those alluring fishy females on the brain. Chesapeake Country is no different and you don’t have to look very far to find hints and whispers of mermaids in the Bay.
In “Damsels of the Deep”, a community lecture in North Beach, Md., sponsored by Bayside History Museum, Calvert Library, and the John Hanson Chapter NSDAR, Dr. Ralph Eshelman shared both the science and the folklore behind mermaid stories throughout history. Eshelman, who served as the first director of Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, is a specialist in polar exploration, geology, vertebrate paleontology, military and maritime history. On a recent February night, a crowd gathered at North Beach Town Hall to hear his tales of mermaids through the ages—from Odysseus to Pliny the Elder to St. Brendan to Christopher Columbus to Henry Hudson and beyond.
Closer to home, Captain John Smith wrote in 1607 about seeing a mermaid off the shores of Maryland and Virginia, describing her appearance thus: “Large eyes, rather too round, a finely shaped nose, a little too short, well-formed ears, rather too long, and her long green hair imparted to her an original character by no means unattractive.” Despite his rather unflattering impression of the mermaid, however, Smith goes on to note “the first effects of love” that the sighting stirred within him.
“John had definitely been at sea for a long time,” quipped Eshelman, who believes the theory that Smith saw a sirenian mammal like a manatee or dugong. The Chesapeake, though not typically home to sirenians, is no stranger to them either. Manatees have been spotted in the area as recently as July 2011, when a Florida sea cow dubbed Chessie was photographed swimming near Flag Harbor Yacht Haven in St. Leonard, Md. (Eshelman’s complete lecture is available to watch on the Bayside History Museum’s YouTube channel.)
Not too far away from Town Hall sits the stoic wood sculpture Pearl, the “mistress of the Chesapeake” and mermaid guardian of North Beach’s Sunrise Garden. Pearl, a life-size creation by artist Larry Ringgold of Turtle Point Driftwood Studios, has been looking out over the Bay since the park’s construction in 2015. Ringgold, a Chesapeake Bay area native, has been using driftwood in his work for 12 years after seeing so much of it left on beaches following Hurricanes Isabel and Sandy. Nearly 99 percent of the wood that he uses is found along the shores of the Chesapeake watershed. “Mermaids can be a challenging subject with driftwood,” Ringgold says. “First you need a core piece, then a great belly button helps.” See more of his works at turtlepointdriftwood.com and in local galleries and events like the annual Easton Waterfowl Festival and Annmarie Sculpture Garden’s Artsfest.
Artsfest happens to be one of many places where visitors can meet a mermaid up close and in person. “Mermaids are split between worlds,” says the Chesapeake Mermaid, resplendent in her long golden fins. “The Chesapeake Mermaid is deaf. She went deaf late in life so she’s not fluent in sign language or other things the public might expect from someone who is deaf. But it’s just another way she invites us on her journey of learning and understanding the world around us.” The Chesapeake Mermaid seeks to deepen the public’s understanding of the world around them as well, inspired to action after realizing how many local children couldn’t identify the plants and animals in their backyards. In addition to having written and published three picture books (with a fourth on the way this year), the Chesapeake Mermaid regularly takes her team on the road to schools, parks, museums, and festivals in a quest to share the wonders of the water with the land-dwellers she meets. “The Chesapeake Bay is our home. It always has been and we hope it always will be,” she says. “We want to share our love for this wonderful place with the world, and through that learning and exploration find ways to give back, protect it, and pass all we love to future generations.”
Her next public appearance will be at the Marshy Point Spring Festival in Middle River on April 15; the complete schedule can be found at chesapeakemermaid.com.
Can’t make it to Middle River to see the Chesapeake Mermaid? Try your luck spotting other mermaids and mermen at the second annual Mermaid Palooza in Pasadena, Md., on April 2 at Sand & Silo Marketplace. Shoppers will find tons of ocean and mermaid-themed goods to choose from while aspiring mer-persons compete in a costume contest for the honor of being crowned Miss Pasadena Mermaid.
For those who can’t get enough of the mermaid lifestyle, point your fins to the Berlin Mermaid Museum. A newer museum and the first of its kind in the world, it opened on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 2020 to give visitors a whimsical place to explore all things mermaid. The museum opens for the season on April 1 for those clamoring to see mermaid-shaped Cheetos and pose for finned photo ops.
Have you spotted any mermaids lately? Let us know on social media!