What Do Merfolk Notice on Land?

by Priya Chand

Merfolk stories are like first contact stories. It’s cliché to say the ocean is an alien world, but it’s certainly different. I think this aspect is fascinating to explore, especially because land and sea are interconnected, making these differences not only interesting but personal.

So, when merfolk visit land, what might they notice?

My goal isn’t to be proscriptive, but to provide tools to answer this question. To keep it simple, I’m focusing on the modern-day epipelagic ocean, within 200 meters of the surface, shallow enough for sunlight.1 For context, recreational diving is within 40 meters, while the open ocean can be thousands of meters deep. Giant tubeworms, anyone? These stationary creatures and their symbiotic bacteria live on sulfuric fissures in the Earth’s undersea crust.

I can’t imagine a modern merperson being unaware of humans. We are impossible to avoid: tourism, (over)fishing; drilling, offshore wind, cables, military maneuvers; our vampiric love of horseshoe crabs (we use their sky-blue blood to test vaccines); garbage. Our ships once plopped ballast water into unsuspecting ports, introducing species that can become invasive, decimating native wildlife; we still travel with hitchhikers.2 When hunting krill, whales go longer routes to avoid our traffic, noise and pollution.3 We’ve changed so many rivers (damming, agriculture, not drinking sewage4), there’s a turtle somewhere telling its skeptical great-great-grandkids about how nice the Mississippi delta once was. First contact is a limited comparison; we’ve been exploiting the oceans for centuries.

That said, air and water are fundamentally different. Unless your landfolk are birds, movement is now two-dimensional. Would merfolk catch aerial movement a human would miss, or be frustrated by obstacles they can’t vertically traverse?

Then there’s breathing. Do your merfolk sigh? How do they feel about land odors? (Fish and aquatic mammals can smell underwater.5) Do they like humid days, or prefer forests because of the transpiration?

Next, weather. Imagine a merperson’s face when one day is a sunny 25℃ and the next day (or hour) is a sodden 13℃. I think they’d look like a transplant from relatively season-free Southern California. I won’t address claims that I’m projecting here, thank you.

While air points and laughs when you (okay, I) fall down, water is supportive. If you’re negatively buoyant, you’ll sink, but fish can generally control their buoyancy. Meanwhile, humans trend positively buoyant in saltwater: we float. While we’re impacted by surface movement—tides and waves—we are less attentive to underwater currents.

I was swimming off the Waikiki shoreline when a wild honu appeared! But don’t break out the Pokéballs: Hawaii’s native turtles are insufficiently wary of us, so it’s rightly illegal to touch them. Instead, I followed it, maintaining my distance.

As I tried flopping my limbs to match its flippers, I realized we were in a ribbon of cooler water sandwiched between the sun-warmed surface and the algae-covered reefs. The turtle’s movements, and by extension my own, were optimized for riding this faster-moving water, which I’d never done before. Not that air doesn’t have currents, but my lack of wings makes them somewhat inaccessible.

Eventually I realized my (human) friend wouldn’t appreciate “the sea turtle made me do it” as an excuse for being late, so I flopped back into the waiting grasp of my land nemesis, gravity. (My sea nemesis is kelp. It’s nice to walk around and not be randomly tangled in a slimy upjumped protist masquerading as a plant. Note this is mainly a Pacific Ocean problem.)

Ocean currents are physics in action. As water warms, it rises, releasing heat back into the air, causing it to cool and sink again. Over geological time—tens and hundreds of thousands of years—Earth’s wobbles and orbit help cause ice ages (Milankovitch cycles, named after Milutin Milanković). There are also milder millennial oscillations.6 We study these through ice cores and other geology; how long-lived are your merfolk’s records?

By raising Earth’s average temperature really, really fast, humans have fucked up this process. One of the ocean’s globe-spanning “conveyor belts” has slowed rapidly since industrialization, which is expected to screw up ocean life as well as weather on land, e.g. more intense hurricane seasons.7

The warmer the air, the warmer the water, as deep as it goes.8 Like other substances, water expands as it warms, causing the sea level to rise. What happens when low-lying cities are flooded? What ends up in the water that was never supposed to reach it? Would merfolk enjoy wading through Venice, or be horrified at what’s leaching into the Adriatic?9

I doubt merfolk would be shocked by our copious land litter. Plastic’s been found in the Mariana Trench, at a depth no human has ever been (we sent a robot).10 There is now so much plastic in the ocean that it’s blowing back onto land.11 Fish and seabirds mistake plastic for food, causing starvation12 on top of developmental and reproductive disruption;13 meanwhile, their actual food is dying. Imagine our cereal crops, including livestock feed, were vanishing, and you’ll begin to understand how serious the disappearance of plankton, the teeny base of the oceanic food web, is.14

Why are the plankton going?

Global warming is, fundamentally, a problem of misplaced carbon.15 The Earth’s average temperature is skyrocketing because we’re pumping gases, especially carbon dioxide, into our gaseous atmosphere. Some of it dissolves in the ocean, acidifying the water.

Imagine living on Venus. While the oceans aren’t quite flesh-dissolving, organisms like coral and plankton, already battered by rising temperatures, are also sensitive to acidification.16 How would a merperson feel breathing relatively clean air? How would they react to cars and gas stations and fossil fuel plants, if they understood the connection?

It’s not all doom and gloom. Humans are trying. Cleanups are underway; conservation has helped species rebound.17 Restaurants are helping mitigate invasive lionfish in the Caribbean.18 People are finally attentive to Indigenous fishing practices, which are not only sustainable but even improve population health.19 Some corals are adapting to changing habitats,20 while other species are evolving faster than we’d expected.21

Maybe your merfolk are working behind the scenes to make it happen!


  1. “Open Ocean.” n.d. Oceana. Accessed April 14, 2021. https://oceana.org/marine-life/marine-science-and-ecosystems/open-ocean.
  2. Anthony, Leslie. 2017. The Aliens Among Us. Yale University Press.
  3. Bedriñana-Romano, Luis, Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete, Francisco A. Viddi, Devin Johnson, Alexandre N. Zerbini, Juan Morales, Bruce Mate, and Daniel M. Palacios. 2021. “Defining Priority Areas for Blue Whale Conservation and Investigating Overlap with Vessel Traffic in Chilean Patagonia, Using a Fast-Fitting Movement Model.” Scientific Reports 11 (1): 2709. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-82220-5.
  4. “How Chicago Reversed Its River: An Animated History | The Chicago Tour with Geoffrey Baer.” 2017. WTTW Chicago. November 16, 2017. https://interactive.wttw.com/chicago-river-tour/how-chicago-reversed-river-animated.
  5. “The Scent of Water.” 2019. BioGraphic (blog). December 10, 2019. https://www.biographic.com/the-scent-of-water/.
  6. Alley, Richard B. 2002. The Two-Mile Time Machine. Princeton University Press.
  7. Williams, Shawna. 2021. “Atlantic Circulation Weakest in More Than a Millennium: Study.” The Scientist Magazine®. February 26, 2021. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/atlantic-circulation-weakest-in-more-than-a-millennium-study-68497.
  8. Holden, Emily. 2020. “Temperatures of Deepest Ocean Rising Quicker than Previously Thought.” The Guardian. October 14, 2020. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/oct/14/enormous-amount-of-heat-even-deepest-ocean-is-warming-study.
  9. Poggioli, Sylvia. 2019. “With Waters Rising And Its Population Falling, What Is Venice’s Future?” NPR.Org. November 30, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/11/30/783360543/with-waters-rising-and-its-population-falling-what-is-venices-future.
  10. “Plastic in Mariana Trench | Science On a Sphere.” n.d. Accessed April 14, 2021. https://sos.noaa.gov/education/phenomenon-based-learning/plastic-in-mariana-trench/.
  11. Simon, Matt. 2021. “Plastic Is Falling From the Sky. But Where’s It Coming From?” Wired, April 13, 2021. https://www.wired.com/story/plastic-is-falling-from-the-sky/.
  12. Parker, Laura. 2016. “Animals Eat Ocean Plastic Because It Smells Like Food.” Science. November 9, 2016. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/animals-eat-ocean-plastic-because-of-smell-dms-algae-seabirds-fish.
  13. Grossman, Elizabeth. 2009. Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry. Shearwater.
  14. Morello, Lauren. 2010. “Phytoplankton Population Drops 40 Percent Since 1950.” Scientific American. July 29, 2010. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/phytoplankton-population/.
  15. McDonough, William. 2016. “Carbon Is Not the Enemy.” Nature News 539 (7629): 349. https://doi.org/10.1038/539349a.
  16.  “Ocean Acidification.” n.d. Https://Www.Whoi.Edu/ (blog). Accessed April 14, 2021. https://www.whoi.edu/know-your-ocean/ocean-topics/ocean-chemistry/ocean-acidification/.
  17. Kelsey, Elin. 2016. “The Rise of Ocean Optimism.” Hakai Magazine. June 8, 2016. https://www.hakaimagazine.com/features/rise-ocean-optimism/.
  18. Shemkus, Sarah. 2016. “Invasive Lionfish Coming to a Menu Near You.” Civil Eats. April 7, 2016. https://civileats.com/2016/04/07/invasive-lionfish-coming-to-a-menu-near-you/.
  19. Atlas, William I, Natalie C Ban, Jonathan W Moore, Adrian M Tuohy, Spencer Greening, Andrea J Reid, Nicole Morven, et al. 2021. “Indigenous Systems of Management for Culturally and Ecologically Resilient Pacific Salmon (Oncorhynchus Spp.) Fisheries.” BioScience 71 (2): 186–204. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biaa144.
  20. Stokstad, Erik. 2020. “In Surprising Sign of Resilience, Some Corals Can Survive Long Heat Waves.” Science, December. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abg0666.
  21. (Bitter et al. 2019)

© Copyright Priya Chand

Priya Chand developed a love of all things ocean while growing up in Southern California. Her life goal is to stick her feet in every named body of saltwater (admittedly undecided on the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans). Find more of her work at priyachandwrites.wordpress.com.

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