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Mermaids Are For Real
Victoria has longed to be a mermaid for her entire 30 years. Her favorite childhood movies were “The Little Mermaid” and “Splash”. But life intervened; she joined the U.S. Army, served in Iraq and Afghanistan; and seven months ago became pregnant with a girl she has already named Ava.
But the 12-year military vet never gave up her childhood dream, and just a couple of weeks ago, it came true at west-central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, known as the “City of Mermaids”.
“I’ve wanted to be a mermaid forever,” Victoria said. “I’m over so many moons!”
And Victoria wasn’t the only one. Seven others became sirens of the deep that weekend at the park’s monthly mermaid camp, sold out since late January. With guidance from a handful of senior mermaids, one of whom has been performing shows in the underwater theater since the 1950s, the campers learned how to swim wearing Spandex tails fitted with fins in the cool, deep, gin-clear spring. The technique is known as a the ‘mermaid crawl’– “like a dolphin kick: your whole body has to move in one continuous unit,” explained camper Reese, who in real life works in the admissions office at the University of Tampa.
Reese and the other campers practiced underwater pirouettes, the ‘back dolphin’– a backward circular dive; and other ballet moves. They did photo and video shoots– including sessions with a visiting photographer from Vogue magazine.
Most importantly, they learned how to smile underwater– an important skill for mermaids.
“Hold air in your lungs so you don’t puff out your cheeks,” said camper Dawn, a swim instructor and youthful-looking grandma from Ocala who counted the adventure as a lifelong bucket list check-off.
For two whole days, the would-be sirens dived, danced, and played in the 72-degree water during intermissions in the four daily performances of “The Little Mermaid” by the full-time staffers. But unlike the performers, the campers did not get to breathe from the array of air hoses scattered around the spring. That would require SCUBA certification and extra training that could take months. Instead they practiced their dance moves with and without snorkel masks, fins and tails while holding their breath–never having to dive more than about 15 feet deep and always under the watchful eyes of the senior mermaid coaches.
Several discovered that swimming with a tail is not that easy.
“I have a whole new respect for mermaids,” said Dawn. “This is not a cake walk.”
Camper Allison had the ‘mermaid crawl” — tail and all–pretty much down pat. That’s probably because it was the Eugene, Oregon hospice nurse’s third stint at the camp.
“My goal is to come back with my daughters when they turn 30,” she said. “That water…..the water calls you back. It comes from the center of the Earth. It’s so healing.”
The mermaid coaches– Bev, Becky, Vicki, Rita, and Cheryl–nodded in agreement at Allison’s comment. Ranging in age from 62 to 77 and swimming shows from the late 1950s to the 1980s to today, they volunteer at the monthly mermaid camps because they can’t stay out of Weeki Wachee Spring for very long.
“Not only were we mermaids then, we are mermaids now– no matter how big or small or young or old,” said Becky, a respiratory therapist. “To get back in the water after all these years is one of the highlights of my life.”
Vicki, petite and attractive at 77, swam her first show in 1957 and performed for Elvis (no last name necessary) in the 60s. Like her colleagues, she still appears in mermaid reunion shows at the park.
“I’m going to celebrate the 60th anniversary of swimming my first show in July,” she declared. “My goal is to swim till I’m at least 80. Once a mermaid, always a mermaid.”
One of Florida’s oldest attractions (and perhaps its smallest city with a population of four and a mermaid as mayor), Weeki Wachee Springs (weekiwachee.com) was developed by veteran U.S. Navy diver Newton Perry in 1947. A state park since 2008, it will celebrate its 70th anniversary with special mermaid reunion shows and galas Sept. 9-10. Mermaid camps are sold out through 2017, but a new schedule will appear on the website in late January 2018. For more information, call 352-592-5656.