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Meet the mermaids trying to defend the coral reefs from climate change

Speaking up for the ocean is taking professional mermaids to the heart of Australia's fiercest political debate.

The tale of a woman who swaps her voice for legs might not always appear empowering. But the legacy of Disney’s Ariel has a new twist. Around the world young people are speaking up for the ocean by diving into it – as mermaids.

Recreational mermaiding has found its feet in recent years. Mass-produced tails are increasingly affordable, the dolphin kick is a great work-out, and MerCons (Mermaid Conventions) are on the rise. The appeal of fashion and free-diving are big parts of its attraction – but so is a love of fish, with some professionals putting conservation at the heart of their work.

This is particularly true in Australia, where climate change is decimating underwater life. Almost half of the Great Barrier Reef is thought to have died in the last 18 months. “I remember crying at how magical it was and how angry I was at what we were doing to it,” says Jessica Bell from Perth. “I just want to grab our government, shove their heads under there and say ‘Look at what we have, look at how special it is – can you see why we need to protect it at all costs!’"

Jess performs as a mermaid at the Aquarium of Western Australia, together with her friend Amelia Lassetter. The two met studying art at university, where they hand-crafted their first tail. Disney's Little Mermaid film was definitely an inspiration here, yet that is far from their whole story: “Don't get me wrong, we love Disney, but this is about so much more for us,” says Jess, “it is our livelihood. It is connected to our art, fitness and mental health; we connect with people from all over the world; we inspire children; we give the ocean a voice.”

The artists use their mermaid alter-egos to help children celebrate the sea and all things in it. That means wearing 15kg silicone tails that look like Anglefish (and feel like squid to touch). It means biodegradable glitter and learning to swim like a dolphin. But it also means blisters, back strain and chest infections. Holding your breath underwater can be life-threatening without proper instruction, and accidentally swallowing remains of the aquarium’s rotting fish-food is a hazard of the job. 

By far the most challenging part of their work, however, is spreading the word about the problems the oceans face. “Many people don’t know exactly what coral bleaching is, or that coral is a living animal, as opposed to a plant.” says Jess, “Others are unaware of what an important cornerstone of the ocean ecosystem coral reefs are – or simply don’t seem to care.”

In fact, talking about the reef’s destruction is taking the mermaids to the heart of Australia’s most polarised political issue: climate change.

The environmental minister Josh Frydenberg recently described Unesco's decision to leave the reef off its “In Danger” list as a “big win” for the centre-right Australian government. But environmentalists beg to differ, saying the plan downplays Australia's responsibility to cut its own CO2 emissions: “The political response to the enormous damage being done to the coral and the marine life on our Great Barrier Reef has been vastly inadequate and doesn’t reflect the urgent threat a warming planet poses to the ecosystem,” says Geoff Cousins, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Of primary concern are plans to dig Australia’s biggest ever coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. This scheme will see increased industrial traffic across the nearby reef and unleash decades of pollution. The result is a situation in which climate change has become so highly charged that “some organisations prefer not to talk about it,” says Josh Meadows from Environmental Justice Australia.

Where does this leave professional mermaids? The word mermaid is derived from the “mere” meaning water and “maid” meaning servant, explains Jess. “So we are like the guardian or servants of the ocean. We are literally half fish, half human; a bridge of understanding between land and sea.”

Balancing this impulse with the politics of their employers is not always easy. “There are some aquariums in the world that are extremely commercial and not interested in rocking the boat whatsoever,” says Jess. “Yet there are others that have really great conservation messages, such as the government-run Great Barrier Reef HQ.”

Some aquariums have also focused on cultivating an interest in how the oceans work at a young age – which is where mermaids can play a part. The challenge, Jess explains, is to explain climate change to kids without scaring them, boring them, or leaving them racked with guilt: “Younger children don’t understand climate change, but they do understand animals and plants and can be engaged by them."

This was the case for Amelia, Jess's fellow mermaid. As a child, she used to collect coral off the beach and think it was beautiful. Then one day her mother told her that what she had found was actually the skeleton of coral that used to be alive. "She was shocked," Jess says.

Thankfully their efforts, alongside those of the wider environmental community, are showing signs of success. A recent poll from the Climate Institute revealed that 66 per cent of Australians have a high level of concern about climate change, while the campaign against the Adani mine is fast becoming the environmental issue of the day.

There is of course still much more to be done, with the legal team at Environmental Justice Australia calling on the government to set even stronger goals to cut climate pollution and to stop supporting new mines. Yet however hard it can be, and however “trivial or childish” they may appear to some, the mermaids are resolved to continue their role. “Sometimes we feel helpless," Jess says. "But we always come full circle and are determined to do our part to help." 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.