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South Coast photo exhibition brings mermaid legend to life

KCLU News Photo
Photographer Ralph Clevenger with one of his photographs featured in a new Santa Barbara Maritime Museum exhibition.

Santa Barbara exhibition kicks off with in-person mermaid appearances.

They’ve been a part of ocean folklore for thousands of years.

Mermaids have been the stuff of myth, and legends.

Now, a photographic exhibition in Santa Barbara is feeding the fantasy, featuring images of mermaids.

"Well, I was teaching this underwater photo class," said Ralph Clevenger, who's a well known Santa Barbara photographer who taught at Brooks Institute, and UC Santa Barbara for years.

He says it morphed from a class where they would shoot natural things like fish to more practical commercial applications. "So I needed models...mermaids," said Clevenger.

One of his students said she had a friend who was a mermaid, which opened the door.

The just opened exhibition at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum features photos of 16 mermaids taken by Clevenger, and some of his friends and former students.

We walk over to one of Clevenger’s photographs, which features a mermaid who looks like she is sleeping in a plant bed on the ocean.

Photo by Ralph Clevenger
Ralph Clevenger's photograph of a sleeping mermaid was shot in the Santa Barbara Channel.

"This was taken out here, in the Channel Islands," said Clevenger. "I would go out first, and swim around, and find appropriate backdrops," he said.

"We would go back out with the model," he continued. "I gave her a mask, and showed her what I wanted her to do. The concept was you were swimming along, and you come across a sleeping mermaid."

He says it wasn't easy for the model. She had to do four dives before they got the shot.

But. it’s one thing to see a photo of a mermaid, and it’s another to meet one. Kaia Kabiak has been a mermaid for more than a decade.

"While in college, my girlfriends and I started a non-profit called 'Save The Mermaids'. We were doing environmental and education based work with kids and adults," said Kabiak. "We were trying to bridge the gap between science and fantasy to get people excited about working on the ocean...things like plastic pollution."

It led to her becoming a mermaid, a job which took her around the world for photo shoots.

Maritime Museum officials say they are excited to be presenting “Mermaids-Myths and Legends.” It’s actually opening more than a year later than originally planned, because of the pandemic.

Museum Executive Director Greg Gorga says the exhibition’s opening weekend celebration also includes the chance to meet some mermaids on Saturday.

They'll be on a boat out in the harbor, and people can also sign up through the museum's website to take photos with them.

Clevenger says it’s fun to be able to bring a bit of folklore to life, Or, is it folklore? He says some people believe they exist.

Photo by Ralph Clevenger
Photograph Ralph Clevenger says this is one of the favorite mermaid phtos he shot over the years.

“Mermaids: Visualizing the Myths and Legends" runs through April 22 at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.