When Merle Liivand first started swimming with a monofin to help with her breaststroke practice, she never could have imagined it would one day lead her to becoming a Guinness World record holder – and an eco-friendly ‘mermaid.’
The monofin the 32-year-old frequently wears binds her feet together to form one fin and is shaped in such a way that, if seen in the fog, it might just convince an old sea captain that mermaids were real.
In April, the Estonian native set a new world record for the furthest swim while wearing a monofin – swimming 31.3 miles around Biscayne Bay, Miami, in 14 hours and 15 minutes.
But Liivand doesn’t just break records – when she’s swimming these marathon distances, the Estonian also collects any trash she encounters, motivated by a desire to clean up the world’s oceans and to raise awareness of how water pollution is threatening her sport and the planet.
During her most recent record-breaking swim, she collected 35 pounds of trash in total.
Becoming ‘Merle the mermaid’
Suffering from a number of health problems as a child, Liivand was “always being told that I should quit swimming.”
She ignored that advice and now boasts an impressive array of medals which includes three Baltic championships, two Florida winter championships and two silver medals in world ice swimming, along with other achievements.
Growing up, breaststroke was her discipline of choice but her first contact with a monofin came while training in her home nation.
“My coach had an idea that swimming has to be a lot like a dolphin or fish movement, and our coach actually always gave us eight times, 25 meters underwater with the monofin,” she explained.
The Tallinn-born competitor moved to the US in 2011 and, as she tired of only competing in breaststroke, started doing triathlons and then tried open water swimming.
In 2014, she set up her own ‘Mermaid’ school, with the aim of teaching children the basic principles of swimming while also giving them the opportunity to learn with the monofin.
“It’s really different because you have to really trust your core and engage with your own core and hips,” she said of learning to swim with the unique equipment.
“I always tell people it’s not about putting a mermaid tail on and becoming a mermaid. You have to come to the class and do the whole process of learning to swim dolphin kick.”
A greater cause
It was while training as an open water swimmer that she became troubled at the amount of trash she was encountering.
“It really started bothering me that I have to stop constantly to pick up trash and that made me realize, if open water is my new sport, how in the world are we going to keep going like that? Soon, I’m going to swallow the trash or the microplastics,” she said.
Her true epiphany came at the 2016 Rio Olympics: an event marred by issues over water quality due to the visible sewage and debris in Guanabara Bay where the sailing competitions took place.
Pollution in the area was so extreme that scientists from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro discovered viruses and drug-resistant super bugs in waters in which the athletes competed.
After seeing first-hand the scale of water pollution, Liivand was determined to take on a fight tougher than any competitor.
“I was like, ‘Oh no, I have to do something,’” she said. “’I can’t be just fighting for my athletic goals when I might be losing sport to trash,’ and that was really the biggest wakeup call in my life.”
According to UNESCO, there are currently around 50-75 trillion pieces of plastic and microplastics – which are tiny plastic particles – that can take between 500 and 1,000 years to degrade.
The world’s oceans are polluted by this ‘plastic smog’ made up of an estimated 171 trillion plastic particles – if gathered this ‘smog’ would weigh 2.3 million tons.
In 2022, a new study published in Environmental International confirmed that microplastics had been found in human blood for the first time.
The researchers found quantifiable levels of plastics in over three-quarters of blood samples in the study – in half of the samples, PET plastic was found which is used in the production of plastic bottles.
This type of plastic could have entered the bloodstream through various ways such as air, water, food or personal care products.
“I have a belief that, during the pandemic, we created another pandemic … because it is a plastic pandemic that’s happening,” Liivand said with visible and audible disappointment.
“It’s affecting our sport, it’s affecting sport venues, it’s affecting athlete health.”
A Bolt from the blue
Determined to make a splash in the world of environmental awareness, Liivand received a spark of inspiration from Olympic legend Usain Bolt.
The Jamaican sprint icon recognized Liivand for her open-water swimming exploits and mermaid school but confused the two. The eight-time Olympic gold medalist then suggested that she should be a competitive mermaid swimmer and should swim around Jamaica.
The conversation, and idea born from it, would bother Liivand until another seminal trip to help with testing potential routes and venues ahead of Los Angeles 2028 Summer Olympics.
“It was like, here we are, testing waters, but we still don’t address that open water sport is in real danger because of pollution,” she said.
Challenges, chicken soup and not so friendly fish
After that, Liivand decided to set up the first of what would become five world-record trash collecting monofin swims – her latest being the 30-mile effort in Miami. Swimming for so long presents a multitude of challenges beyond just cleaning the oceans.
Guinness World Records rules state that she is not allowed to go on or hang from any vehicle during the swim, nor is she permitted to use her arms to help propel herself forward.
She must also eat while in the water, something she likens to eating like an otter. She must also carry her trash bag, which can become a significant hindrance.
“I think I get so zoned out of keeping a high pace because my heart rate is usually 170, 180, for hours,” Liivand said. “I didn’t eat much that day,” she said, speaking about her diet during the latest challenge. “But I always have chicken soup and baby food.”
In a grueling 14-hour swim, at times, Liivand will have to swim against the current. It’s at those moments when she enters what she calls the “survival zone.”
“That’s the moment when I should be eating, but I just cannot,” she said. “I am more like: ‘Hey, I have to push through another mile. Another mile.”
The potential threat of sharks or crocodiles lurking in the murky Miami depths also preyed on her mind.
“You can see over the bay how lots of tails are moving around and you are like: ‘Okay, so today is not the day to kill me.’”
Liivand says “there is a little bit of Hollywood interest now towards what I do” and is also hoping she might be joined by a celebrity swimming companion on her next trip.
“I’m going to try to find a celebrity who wants to do it with me. I’m really trying to get Richard Branson to come… So, hopefully, word gets out,” she said.
The recent cancelation of a test event in Paris’ River Seine ahead of the 2024 Olympics underlines that, despite Liivand’s increasingly ambitious efforts, the problem remains as serious as when she started.
While she acknowledges there is no easy solution to such a widespread and ingrained problem, she believes change is within reach, if humanity wants it.
“It’s too easy to say it is impossible. There is no money in sustainability, but there are ways, if you want to find it, find the will to make it happen,” she concluded.