Merle Liivand (Estonia) is a competitive swimmer, model and aquapreneur. Most importantly though, she’s an eco mermaid!
On her 30th birthday, Merle swam 30 kilometres (18.6 miles) off Miami Beach, Florida, achieving the world record for the farthest swim with a monofin.
She swam without using her arms, propelling herself with just her mermaid-like fin, for a total of 9 hr 19 min.
Merle is a major advocate against marine pollution and uses her long-distance, open-water swims as a means to draw attention to this growing environmental issue.
When she saw how plastic pollution affected marine life and trapped them, she challenged herself to swim the same way as them. No arms, just one tailfin - what most marine life have when trying to escape a net or plastic bag.
“We looked at videos of how seals, dolphins, whales, sharks, or turtles will get stuck on fishing nets or plastic. They can’t use their fins and they can’t flip around and be happy animals" – Merle Liivand
Merle strongly believes that our oceans need more attention. During her visits to Key West, Florida over the years, she became alarmed at how quickly the coral reefs were dying.
The final straw for Merle was when she saw all the trash in the sea and on the beach during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It became the moment when she decided that she can no longer complain about the problem – she had to do something about it.
"There's too much trash on the beach. Pick up your trash!"
Merle often pulls plastic rubbish out of the sea during clean-up operations. Sadly, her efforts barely make a dent in the 8 million tonnes of plastic that end up in our oceans each year.
To raise awareness of the problem and effect greater change, Merle decided to break a record whilst wearing her monofin.
- In 2019, Merle first set the record with a 10 km (6.2 miles) monofin swim off Redondo Beach, California (time: 2 hr 54 min).
- In 2020, she performed a 20.6 km (12.8 miles) monofin swim off South Point Park Pier in Miami (time: 6 hr 8 min).
- 17 April 2021 marked the third time she set the record for the farthest swim with a monofin.
Because she was breaking a record to raise awareness about ocean pollution, it was important for Merle that she didn’t wear anything plastic. This was her main goal when finding a suitable fin.
"The technical aspect is really different than just being a professional swimmer," Merle said.
When swimming without a fin, if one of your limbs gets tired you can pick up the slack with another. You can’t do this when limiting yourself with a monofin.
However, the hardest challenge for Merle was the mental aspect. Swimming for over nine hours is extremely difficult in itself, let alone having to do it without using her arms or legs individually. Pushing through the pain for so long required great fortitude.
"Go for it and get it done; that was my main mental aspect on that day."
She was able to persevere by remembering the message she wanted to spread about saving the environment. Merle also kept in mind the hardship that sea creatures experience every day – her suffering was nothing compared to theirs.
Merle believes there are benefits to swimming and water therapy
As a child, Merle had some health issues which meant that her lungs weren’t working well. Her brother was born with hip dysplasia and she saw how water therapy made him stronger everyday. His condition inspired her to get into the water.
"Water can help you to become stronger and better. I mean, we [spend] 9 months anyway in our mother’s belly inside water. We really can keep developing our body thanks to water and water therapy."
At the age of 12, Merle suffered serious injuries to her head and neck after diving into a shallow pool.
"That little moment where I was really close to ending up in a wheelchair it became more clear that Paralympians in this world are amazing in the sense that they get up and they keep going even on the days when things are not perfect."
Merle is now involved with getting competitors ready for the Paralympics and she wants to encourage more people to get into swimming.
For her help with the clean up of our oceans, the Mayor of the City of Miami Beach named a day in her honour. Make sure to celebrate Merle Liivand Day each year on April 17 by picking up as much trash as possible!