UWM Freshwater Sciences grad student makes a splash in the world of aquatic education

Pierce VanValkenburg grew up on the St. Croix River, which flows along the border of Wisconsin and Minnesota and down into the Mississippi. Since a young age, VanValkenburg’s life has been centered around water. Springs and summers were full of boating with family, swimming and watching sunfish the way other kids watched TV.

“We spent more time on or under the water than we did on land,” VanValkenburg said. “My mom always said, ‘You grew up in the back of the boat.’”

The world below the surface of the water — the plants, the wildlife and the silence — intrigued VanValkenburg. They would tie their feet together with rope and then put on a pair of their grandma’s old scuba flippers, pretending to be a mermaid as they swam in the lake to see how long they could hold their breath underwater.

“That’s what sparked my interest and passion for caring for freshwater ecosystems: spending time in and around the water ever since I can remember,” VanValkenburg said. “I really can’t be away from water now. The more my life progresses, the more I’m looking for ways to just constantly be in, or on, or under the water.”

Deepening knowledge as Freshwater student

They have  managed to do just that by spending much of their time in or talking about the water. Now a UW-Milwaukee Freshwater Sciences graduate student, VanValkenburg teaches children about freshwater systems and conservation while performing as Mermaid Echo, who is Wisconsin’s first aquarium performer.

VanValkenburg — who earned a BA in journalism and communications from UW-Madison — started graduate school at UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences in Fall 2022 to deepen their knowledge to better educate the kids.

Mermaid Echo has performed across the Midwest as well as in California, Mexico and Ireland.

Since 2016, they started dressing as a mermaid — complete with an aqua colored, rubber monofin and flawlessly applied makeup — to work at kids’ birthday parties. Mermaid Echo is a science communicator and teaches young people about aquatic ecosystems, specifically freshwater ones, and environmentalism.

Birthday parties were Mermaid Echo’s bread and butter in the beginning, VanValkenburg said.

Ironically, VanValkenburg’s favorite Disney princess was Belle, not Ariel from “The Little Mermaid.”

Discovering mermaiding

VanValkenburg discovered monofin swimming in 2012 following a leg injury because it was a good full-body workout and physical therapy exercise. That is how they found and fell in love with the mermaiding community.

“The mermaiding community is a group of people dedicated to protecting our water systems and making life a little more magical,” VanValkenburg said, who is passionately involved in the community they describe as one that is not completely understood by outsiders.

VanValkenburg started the Mermaid Scholar School, the Midwest’s first mermaid school. Students get to swim with mermaid tails and learn about another one of VanValkenburg’s passions: water safety. Mermaid Echo is the state’s first Professional Association of Diving Instructors’ mermaid instructor.

Then, as word spread across the Midwest, and VanValkenburg understood the true potential of Mermaid Echo to get children passionate about the planet and conservation.

Popular at Discovery World

While they have performed all over, Mermaid Echo’s biggest educational performances are done in collaboration with Milwaukee’s Discovery World. In August 2021, Discovery World Director of Public Experiences Shannon Atwood got a call from the volunteer coordinator about Mermaid Echo.

“Of course, my ears perked up because it’s not every day you get a call about a mermaid,” Atwood said. “I liked how dedicated to environmental science VanValkenburg was and how they would want to try out performing for the community. Over time, we kind developed a different way of delivering the performance. It’s a visual spectacle, and it’s really cool to see.”

Mermaid Echo has regularly appeared at Discovery World since 2021,  Atwood said.

VanValkenburg writes scripts for the performance based on a theme picked out in collaboration with Discovery coordinators. Previous shows have been about the history and limnology of Lake Michigan, sturgeon, microplastics and more.

“While I am writing the lesson, I make sure to include the Mermaid Promise,” VanValkenburg said, “which is when the kids agree to help protect our freshwater friends like Echo from pollution by sharing the information they learn with others.”

Mermaid as Santa

VanValkenburg’s favorite show was the one about sturgeon, which they describe as a fascinating and resilient fish found in the Great Lakes.

“The species itself, in the capacity that it exists today, has been around basically exactly the same since the dinosaurs were here,” VanValkenburg said.

While in the water, Mermaid Echo teaches kids about the show’s topic, plays trivia and interacts with them through the glass. Mermaid Echo even dressed up like Santa for a holiday show and used a lightsaber during a sci-fi-themed performance. VanValkenburg holds their breath for large stretches of time during the performance, occasionally taking a quick break to resurface for oxygen.

Discovery World aquarist Alexis Froidcoeur helps VanValkenburg with the shows, reading the scripts and leading the crowd from the outside of the tank. Froidcoeur, whose childhood dream was to work in an aquarium, loves teaching the kids about marine life and being a part of the shows.

“The kids are so adorable getting to be able to go and talk with mermaid after the shows,” Froidcoeur said. “During the show, I really try to interact with the kids a lot and get them to say things about Lake Michigan or if they have questions about mermaids.”

Performances are popular

Mermaid Echo’s performances are always a big hit with the kids. People will show up to the aquarium an hour before the show starts, filling the space as much as the fire code will allow, Froidcoeur said.

In the future, VanValkenburg hopes to continue expanding Mermaid Echo’s educational performances and additional ventures. They are not quite sure where the future will take them, but they know they are on the right path and making a difference.

“One of the most powerful parts of my work is the rare occasion I hear back from parents who tell me how my lessons have impacted their kids,” VanValkenburg said. “Recently, I got a facetious email from a parent I met in 2016 who said they are still being annoyed by their kid about my message to reduce single use waste. They wrote in an email that, ‘Every time we take my kid to Target or the grocery store, they are demanding we bring our reusable bags.’ It’s a such a powerful feeling to know that you have had a long-lasting effect on a child. So much so that this family has new habits to reduce single use waste thanks to one of my lesson plans.”

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