As a child growing up along the St. Croix River, Claire VanValkenburg spent a lot of time on, and under, the water.
"I remember spending as long as I could underwater exploring the sand, and exploring the weeds, trying to catch fish with my hands," VanValkenburg said.
Now a sophomore at University of Wisconsin-Madison, VanValkenburg has found her way back underwater with some new accessories - namely, a tail.
VanValkenburg now dons the persona of Mermaid Echo for her new business that works to both entertain and educate. Along with her "mertender" Kevin Chukel, VanValkenburg puts on the tail for birthday parties, fundraisers and any other events clients may request.
The idea started three years ago when VanValkenburg first tried out a monofin after getting bored with her usual swimming workout. She soon found versions designed to look like a mermaid's tail, which led her to an entire mermaid community that used their fins as a form of activism for ocean conservation.
"I was immediately inspired," VanValkenburg said. "It led me to want to do something with it."
Now VanValkenburg herself uses Mermaid Echo and her own tail to send a message about the importance of protecting water.
"Because mermaids are so mysterious and eclectic, people really want to pay attention to them," VanValkenburg said.
Children especially are drawn in by the tail, and VanValkenburg designs most of her events around the idea of "edutainment" as a way to keep kids interested as they learn. Her birthday parties include games, tricks, mermaid rides and a pledge for the kids to help protect water.
"I can use this magical figure to instill a sense of responsibility to care for our rivers and lakes and oceans on to the next generation," she said.
The cause is one that's important to her, as her years on the St. Croix River showed her firsthand the negative effect people can have on waterways.
"It always just crushed me whenever I found like a plastic bag or someone's bobby pin or beer can," VanValkenburg said.
VanValkenburg was also inspired to use the mermaid tail as a way to inspire women. Though the myth of mermaids started in the imagination of male sailors, her use of the persona as activism works to take back the idea of mermaids from the minds of men.
"It is my mission to reclaim the idea of a mermaid and ideally the idea of woman's body as her own," VanValkenburg said. "I want young girls to feel comfortable in their own skin."
The best part of the business for VanValkenburg is seeing the children's reaction to her in full costume, including makeup, seaweed watch cover, shell bra and of course, tail. The tail she uses is 30 pounds of medical-grade silicone that's handpainted and custom made.
"Seeing a child see me and their face just lights up," VanValkenburg said. "That's what it's all about for me is seeing the children inspired by this magic."
VanValkenburg will be hosting events through the summer months. For more information see her website http://mermaidecho.wordpress.com/.