‘Mermaid’ Uses Her Passion to Teach Stewardship of R.I.’s Oceans
October 21, 2023
When she was young, Jessie Jewels imagined herself a mermaid, moving effortlessly beneath the waves, hair billowing in the current as she played with her ocean friends. But too soon she outgrew her imaginary mermaid tail and contented herself — at least for a while — with exploring the sea on two legs.
“But I’ve always been a fish,” she said.
Jewels is a free diver certified by the National Association of Underwater Instructors, a SCUBA diver, a kayaker, and a Save The Bay beach captain, a role that tasks her with organizing beach cleanups. And in 2021, she revisited the ocean of her childhood imagination when the siren song of mermaiding reached her ears.
“I found out there’s a culture of mermaids and mermen and mertheys who approach mermaiding as a hobby and athletic sport, and it called to me,” said Jewel, who willingly succumbed to temptation and donned — or grew, as she’d say — a tail of her own.
She slowly became more immersed in the culture and decided to test her skills by entering the Miss Mermaid USA pageant, which is similar to Miss USA, but with a twist. “You wear the dresses and do all the glam and answer all the questions, but we also do underwater modeling and swimming to show our grace, poise, and distance abilities,” she said.
Breath holding is also part of the competition and Jewel can hold hers for 2 minutes, which may sound like a lot to a landlubber, but is a mere fraction of what some professional aquarium mermaids can do.
Jewels won the Miss Mermaid USA state competition in 2021, 2022, and 2023. She uses her platform to advocate for the importance of clean waterways and draw attention to her work with Save The Bay.
“I am constantly on Narragansett Bay, and I have seen how things have changed,” she said. “There is a lot of debris floating on the surface, and underwater, there’s a big problem with algae and bacteria, exacerbated by overfishing. I’m in that water, so I see the problems. We’re losing our wild places.”
She also believes in keeping Rhode Island waters accessible, a value she shares with Save The Bay.
“It’s hard for people to launch their kayaks in some places,” she said. “I want everyone to safely enjoy Narragansett Bay.”
Jewels weaves her values into all of her work. When Mermaid Jessie Jewels appears at children’s birthday parties, she encourages them to be stewards of the sea and protect aquatic life. She’s also a mixed-media artist, and a portion of every piece of mermaid-related art she sells goes to Save The Bay.
July Lewis, Save The Bay volunteer and internship manager, knows intimately how much her organization relies on community activists like Jewels. “As a Save The Bay beach captain, Jessie always brings something special to the cleanups she leads. We appreciate both her volunteer time and her enthusiasm for keeping local waters clean,” Lewis said.
For those who want to join the merfolk community, Jewels hosts mermaid makeovers and photo shoots at her art studio, but she recommends that anyone who wants to learn to swim like a mermaid take a swimming class with a focus on safety. And she stresses the importance of always having a swim buddy.
“Because of currents and tides it’s dangerous to be in the ocean with a tail unless you’re really strong,” she said.
And Jewels is really strong, partly due to her months of training last year that led her to the merlympics — an athletic competition for mermaids. The competition requires athletes to don their tails and swim lengths in a pool and navigate an underwater obstacle course. Out of 400 competitors, Jewels was one of the top 10.
“It was a very, very challenging competition, but super fun,” she said.