By Nina Leipold, Contributor
Have you ever been out on a boat and seen a dolphin come right up to you or another boat and thought: “How cute is he?” Or have you ever walked on the beach, found a sand dollar, and taken it home with you because it would make the perfect seaside addition to the centerpiece on your dining room table? It turns out that these are common Hilton Head Island temptations, but as a mermaid, I have learned to look at these common allurements from a different perspective.
As I continue to spend more and more time in or on the water and on the beaches of Hilton Head, I am lucky enough to observe these animals in their natural environment and learn their behaviors. It is quite often I see dolphins begging boats for food which is not only bad for their health but it also puts them at risk of getting hit by boat propellers. Parallel to this issue I have also unfortunately seen many horrible dorsal fin injuries. I worked closely with dolphins in the past and have been getting to know our local dolphins, and it is obvious to me that they are very smart animals. This being said, the circumstances beg the question: If they weren’t being fed by boaters, would we see a significant decrease in dorsal fin injuries? They can swim up to 25 miles per hour and know to get out of the way of boats, therefore it becomes my conclusion that the begging and these injuries go hand in hand.
It is also not uncommon to see people (especially in the summer months) carrying handfuls and even buckets full of living sand dollars. One can only assume they didn’t put them in the bucket only to put them back into the ocean. These massive sand dollar slaughters happen every year and no one seems to bat an eye. “They’re just sand dollars.” They may be “just sand dollars” however they are an important part of our ecosystem and if they are gone, or if their population is depleted enough, it begins to affect other species, which turns into a ripple effect. Yes, it may take years for us to begin to see our environment being diminished from the lack of what happens to be a crucial member of our ecosystem, but it will happen, and the future of our environment could potentially suffer an innumerable amount of disadvantages.
Hilton Head Island is a unique vacation spot that people love to visit year after year because of its gorgeous beaches, its unique environment, and of course, its wildlife. If the wildlife disappears, the allure of Hilton Head goes with it. Luckily, there is a simple solution to prevent this problem: Be aware of your environment and be respectful of mine. It is my job as a mermaid to protect my ocean home and the beaches that accompany it which I have been accomplishing through education. I have three children’s books out currently: Sammy the Sand Dollar, Mermaid of Hilton Head, and Mermaid of Hilton Head: Dolphin Seafari. All of the books serve the purpose to spread awareness and education about conservation as well as create an interest.
Being respectful of our ecosystem doesn’t just mean stopping feeding our dolphins. It includes turning off your lights if you are beachfront after 10 pm between May and October. It includes picking up litter on the beach – not sand dollars. The most important thing you can do to help is to educate. Most of the tourists who are extirpating our ecological community don’t even know they are doing it. Spreading awareness could be the most essential weapon in defending our natural surroundings and keeping our beautiful island as resplendent as ever.