Nina Leipold often sees killers on the beaches of Hilton Head Island.
She doesn’t usually approach them.
Like I said, they’re killers. You can never be sure how a killer will react when you point out that they’re presently in the act of killing.
But she did once.
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One particular killer seemed like she might be a friendly person otherwise.
“She looked nice,” Leipold said.
So Leipold bravely went up to her and politely told her that killing is illegal.
“Oh my goodness,” the woman said to Leipold. “Thank you for telling me.”
And the woman let her victim go.
She didn’t know that killing is illegal.
She also didn’t know she was killing.
“A lot of people don’t know,” Leipold said last week at the north-end Starbucks.
They don’t know that collecting and taking home live sand dollars from the beach is against Town of Hilton Head Island beach regulations. And they don’t know the difference between a live sand dollar and a dead one.
This ignorance weighs heavily on Leipold’s mind.
It has quite literally kept her up all night.
And it is the reason she wrote a children’s book in the hopes of reducing the number of sand dollars taken from beaches up and down the coast.
“Sammy the Sand Dollar” is the story of a sand dollar, as you might have guessed — that wears shoes and little white gloves, as any self-respecting cartoon animal would.
Sammy enjoys frolicking in the ocean with his friends, a dolphin and a starfish, until one day when he is unceremoniously yanked from his watery home by a woman who clearly thinks the beach is her own personal HomeGoods.
She wants to add Sammy to her home decor.
By killing him.
I mean, let’s be real.
“That has to be a miserable death,” Leipold said. “If I were a sand dollar, if I were to suffocate … they can’t do anything to save themselves.”
Leipold loves animals. But she especially loves the ones that live in the ocean.
She is even intrigued by the micro-organisms in a drop of ocean water.
“I’m such a nerd,” she said, after admitting she’s put some of Hilton Head’s slice of the Atlantic under her microscope just to see what was there.
Her lifelong dream was to become a dolphin trainer, which she did until she couldn’t stomach it anymore.
She didn’t like seeing dolphins suffer in any way while in captivity.
She had to figure out something else to do.
Two years ago, Leipold moved to Hilton Head with her boyfriend, Rick. She now gives dolphin tours through Palmetto Bay Watersports, and gets to enjoy the object of her childhood and academic obsessions in their natural habitat while teaching others to love them as much as she does.
The couple are frequent beach-walkers. It is during their walks that they regularly encounter people plucking Sammys from the water and tossing Sammys into buckets as if they were collecting boring old rocks that don’t wear shoes or little white gloves.
“For 2.5 million people,” Leipold said, referring to the number of summer tourists on the island, “(this area) only concerns them for week.”
She hopes her book, which is available at Palmetto Bay Watersports and through her website, www.ninaleipold.com, will expand their outlook in the same way hers was late last year.
On Dec. 5, Leipold watched “Racing Extinction,” an Academy Award- and Emmy-nominated documentary about an ongoing mass extinction of wildlife caused by humans.
“That night I couldn’t sleep,” she said.
She thought about what she had seen and decided that the sand dollar was in need of help locally.
It is at-risk and underserved. It is cute, but not sea turtle cute.
People who take sand dollars from the water are cruelly killing the creatures, and that’s unkind, of course, because they do feel pain. But they’re also preventing the sea urchin from serving its purpose in the ocean — as an algae eater, a deep-depth oxygen provider and as food for other fish.
The sand dollar snatchers are also keeping the sand dollars from making more sand dollars.
As they say, it takes money to earn money.
Leipold chose this sea animal not because she grew up clutching a sand dollar stuffed animal or because she enjoys their personalities (I wasn’t going to say it … but they have none, right? And that’s OK! I’m not judging it).
She chose the sand dollar out of a greater sense of purpose to the Earth and its inhabitants.
“You have to take action,” she said, “if you want something to happen.”
And so “Sam” was born.
It is the first of what she hopes will be a series of books teaching children, and the parents who read to them, about the importance of conservation and protecting wildlife.
It is her mission.
“I feel personally responsible,” she said.