Beyond the Tail
Inside the Mermaid Wonderland That Is Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs.
About 70 years ago, decades before Walt Disney World, back when bears and alligators roamed the roadsides and outnumbered humans in Florida, a budding underwater entrepreneur had a delightfully weird dream. The world that Newton Perry eventually conceived included a theater built into pristine and seemingly bottomless natural springs—Weeki Wachee, or “winding river” in the language of the Seminole Tribe, who first inhabited the land near Tampa, Florida. Here, dozens of women live out a real-world fairy tale, transforming themselves into sirens multiple times a day as the Weeki Wachee Mermaids.
For decades, the Mermaids have gamely smiled through the strong currents of the springs as they perform Hans Christian Andersen–themed shows and underwater picnics for sold-out audiences. Over the years, they have performed for everyone from Elvis Presley to the synchronized swimming heroine Esther Williams and have even been the subject of films (The Spring recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival). A local retired seamstress sews their tails—usually out of swim-friendly, lightweight Lycra-like material. Embellishments are kept to a minimum, out of consideration for the wildlife of the springs. Other tail designers (yes, it’s an entire industry) frequently loan elaborate pieces sculpted in neoprene or silicone in the hopes of being featured in a Weeki Wachee calendar or photo shoot—the submarine equivalent of a red carpet appearance.
“Diving underwater, breathing compressed air, performing in those currents, you truly have each other’s back,” says John Athanason, publicity director for Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Many of the “Currents” are college students or people working landlubber jobs; long after they hang up their fishtails, the bond formed here lingers into their lives ashore. For the last eight years, the Legendary Sirens, members of a volunteer group of mermaid alumni, have been returning to the waters to swim in sold-out reunion shows. They also serve as counselors in the Sirens of the Deep Mermaid Camp. The weekend-long inductions into mermaid life are offered to women 30 and up (a few sessions are open to would-be mermen, too): women harboring unfulfilled Esther Williams and Ariel and Splash dreams, best friends on Florida-bound bonding trips, and those who simply cannot resist the strange, canny lure of the life aquatic. There are souvenir photo shoots and underwater ballet lessons, with proceeds benefiting the Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
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