Liz Farrell

Reports of mermaid sightings on Hilton Head Island turn out to be true ... sort of

Nina Leipold, author of “The Mermaid of Hilton Head,” poses on a Hilton Head Island beach.
Nina Leipold, author of “The Mermaid of Hilton Head,” poses on a Hilton Head Island beach. Island Life HH Photography

How the heck did she get up on those rocks?

That was my first question when I saw photos on Instagram of Nina Leipold lounging on a Hilton Head Island jetty in full mermaid tail.

Did someone carry her up there? Did she propel herself forward like a salmon until she was properly situated? Did she climb up there and then put on the tail, perilously shimmying on the jagged rocks as she made herself legless? Or was this a tide in, tide out situation?


Mermaid kisses and starfish wishes... #starfish #mermaid #mermaidofhiltonhead #hhi #hiltonhead

A photo posted by Mermaid of Hilton Head (@mermaidofhiltonhead) on

My second question was, Wait, why is she dressed like a mermaid?

I met Leipold last summer, around the time she published “Sammy the Sand Dollar.” She had written the book in the hopes of making visitors to our beaches aware that the sand dollars they were thoughtlessly throwing into buckets to take home as decorations were actually living, breathing creatures that should stay put.

Her book was well-received, very well-received, in fact.

And it kind of surprised her.

“When I found out that there were actually people who cared,” she said Tuesday, “I wanted to find more people (like that).”

So she set out to write a second book, “The Mermaid of Hilton Head,” which she illustrated while evacuated for Hurricane Matthew.

The second book carries with it the same message of conservation as her first. In this case, though, the protagonist is a mermaid who sees that the late-night lights of Hilton Head are causing confusion among the sea turtles. The mermaid takes matters into her own fins and at 10 p.m. each night yells “Lights out!” to beachfront properties.

It’s like “The Waltons” meets “Splash” meets “Summer Rental.”

Actually, it’s nothing like that. I just wanted to imagine the Waltons living under water with Daryl Hannah and John Candy for a minute.

Leipold, a former dolphin trainer, is already predisposed to loving this area. Which reminds me. I have some good local dolphin gossip.

After the hurricane, Stu the dolphin had a big scratch on him that has since healed. Leipold said he’s doing well and that she saw him bully a bird the other day.

A cormorant was sitting with a fish in its mouth. Just sitting there. Fish in mouth.

“I don’t know what he was doing,” Leipold said.

Stu saw his opportunity and bum-rushed the bird. The bird dropped the fish and flew away. And Stu had himself a little seafood snack.

Oh, Stu.

Leipold knows all this because she gives dolphin tours with Dolphin Seafari, now out of Shelter Cove because of hurricane damage to Palmetto Bay Marina. Starting this spring, she’ll be giving mermaid boat tours, which will teach kids about the area, its wildlife and ways to protect it.

“When you’re a mermaid,” she said, “(people) care what you have to say. Saying ‘don’t pick up sand dollars’ with a tail on gets a different reaction than if I say ‘don’t pick up sand dollars’ with regular legs on.”

When she’s not giving tours, you might see her on the beach at sunrise or sunset helping kids and adults live their mermaid dreams on camera.

She and her boyfriend, Rick Leipold — Nina uses his last name professionally — have been doing on-the-beach family portraits for a while. This year they’ve added Mermaid Portraits to the lineup.

“Kids light up,” Nina said, when they see the tails they can wear. “It makes me smile. They just get so excited.”

While Rick handles work behind the camera, Nina helps the mermaids get into and out of their tails.

She’s had lots of practice herself, after all. Her own tail is 30 pounds and made of silicone.

“It’s a good workout,” she said, likening it to putting on a wet suit.

But this was not the tail she was wearing that day in the photo with the rocks. That one was fabric. So her presence on the jetty wasn’t the result of mimicking a flopping salmon or waiting out the tide.

The story goes like this: She just put the tail on and then posed.

“I can get into it really easily,” she said.

Liz Farrell: 843-706-8140, @elizfarrell

“The Mermaid of Hilton Head”

Nina Leipold’s second children’s book is available locally at Island Child in The Village of Wexford on Hilton Head Island and online at