In 1947 the United States looked like a bit of a different place than it is today. The average cost of a new house was $6,600. The CIA was just opening its doors. And mermaids were living in Florida.
Thirty-five mermaids could be seen performing eight 30-minute underwater shows daily at the Newton Perry Underwater Theater in Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida (outside of Tampa). By the 1960s, the Weeki Wachee mermaids' popularity had grown so much their audience swelled to between 500,000 and 1 million tourists each year, including famous visitors Elvis Presley and Don Knotts.
Twenty-first century Weeki Wachee mermaids aren't the popular attraction they were several decades ago, but they continue to impress their audiences with underwater shows. Those include a ballet adaptation of "The Little Mermaid" in addition to a variety show showcasing synchronized-swimming routines and underwater feats, performed for about 250,000 annual visitors [source: Sole-Smith, Schiller]. Can you drink a soda under water? These mermaids can.
The Weeki Wachee mermaids aren't the only enchanted ladies of the sea. In addition to performing in shows or at resorts and special events around the world, professional mermaids also perform at birthday parties and other celebrations, in swimming pools and tanks. They're seen on the beach and at Hollywood parties, corporate events and modeling shoots.
Being a professional mermaid is a real job, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of people are called to the part through modeling or acting. But, while it's work for all who do it, mermaiding is also a lifestyle for many. The women – and men – who are drawn to such work often talk about how they were fated to shimmy into that tail.
Ah, yes, the tail. That's kind of the hallmark of the mermaid, isn't it? And no professional mermaid would appear without hers. Tails need to look good, but they also need to be functional because they're used for propulsion and speed in the water. One of the most well-known professional mermaids, Hannah Fraser, fashioned her first tail from an orange plastic tablecloth packed with pillow stuffing; things have changed since she was 9 years old, thankfully. Hannah now has several mermaid tails, some of her own creation – such as one built from polyurethane board, and some professionally tailored. And, yes, there is an orange one in her collection. (It's an orange-and-white Koi tail, but this grown-up version doesn't have the pillow stuffing.)
Tails not only vary in color and decoration, but also in function. Some are designed specifically to help propel a mermaid's body through the water, while others may be better suited for underwater acrobatics. Some, such as the one Lady Gaga wore as her alter ego Yuri in 2011, are perhaps best suited for posing, modeling and music videos. Professionally made tails, such as those made by a tailor or special-effects artist, are custom made of materials such as high-grade silicone, urethane, latex rubber and spandex – and it wouldn't be unusual to see detailed work such as hand-sewn scales. And they have a price tag to match: Custom tails cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
As you may imagine, regardless of a mermaid's grace underwater, the change from two legs to one is bound to be most awkward out of water. Depending on the event, some choose to be carried to their performance area rather than be seen without their fins on, while other women prefer to slip into their tail nearby and shimmy.
And that's not where the awkwardness ends: Mermaid tails also weigh more than you might imagine. Whether a DIY or a custom piece, most tails weigh in between 15 and 35 pounds (6.8 and 15.9 kilograms) or more, requiring even skilled swimmers to be in good athletic condition and to practice their underwater moves. Not only is swimming with a tail different than with two legs (just try swimming with your legs together and see for yourself), swimming with that extra weight can change your balance and buoyancy in the water. It's a rare woman who is graceful the first time she swims with her fins on, but with practice, professional mermaids gracefully – and seemingly effortlessly – glide through the water.
Being a professional mermaid isn't all about swimming, although that's obviously a big part of the job. Every mermaid must be comfortable swimming, well, like a mermaid. That rules out the basic front crawl, breast and butterfly strokes. Professional mermaids swim in a style nicknamed the "Mermaid Crawl" (imagine waving from a parade float; it's not dissimilar). Additionally, those who choose mermaiding commonly have a background in water sports such as swimming, freediving or surfing, and some mermaids enhance their skills with classes and dive certification. Training may include practicing breath control and breath holding; cardiovascular workouts, such as aerobics and dance, to develop strong lungs and core strength; and yoga, deep breathing and breathing techniques.
Linden Wolbert, for example, is a former competitive swimmer and scuba diver who is able to hold her breath for five minutes. (For comparison, the record for the longest breath held under water is an amazing 20 minutes, 22 seconds, or basically the length of your average weeknight sitcom, while most of us can't hold our breath for longer than about 30 seconds, at least not comfortably) [sources: Newcomb, Palmer].
In 2005, Wolbert left her office job and took to diving full time – first open-water diving, then freediving. And then in 2006 she took the plunge and became a professional mermaid [source: Mermaids in Motion]. As a free diver, Wolbert has dived to 115 feet (35 meters) and back to the surface on just one breath. For those who don't know just how impressive that is, consider this: In 1949 scientists were convinced that dives below 100 feet (30.5 meters) would be fatal for human lungs. Today, divers have pushed the limits down deeper than that estimation, diving as deep as 700-plus feet (213 meters) [sources: Worrell, Mermaids in Motion].
Professional Mermaids as Eco-activists
Mermaid popularity ebbs and flows through the years, but the job also fluctuates from week to week. While it's estimated that the average salary for a professional mermaid in the U.S. is $47,000, professional mermaids may work an irregular, event-to-event basis, with rates varying from the odd hourly appearance at a few birthday parties to an extended tour through a premiere resort [source: Simply Hired]. In 2013, for example, mermaids performing at Weeki Wachee earned between $10 and $13 an hour for their performances [source: Sole-Smith].
But salary isn't what motivates most mermaids; many professional mermaids consider themselves ambassadors of the ocean. When their underwater performance and eco-activism spirit combine, mermaids bring us a unique form of "edutainment." Professional mermaid Linden Wolbert, for example, produces a series called "Mermaid Minute," an educational program aimed at teaching kids about how the ocean works and how to protect our waters and the creatures who call them home.
There is no formal training needed to become a professional mermaid, although some types of mermaiding may require special certifications, such as dive certification, or special insurance, such as performers insurance (for mermaids who work as independent contractors). Additionally, some professional mermaids are opening academies and camps to help fulfill the dreams of those wishing to try mermaiding themselves.
In 2011, Katrin Felton, a certified freediver and scuba and skin diving instructor began educating her dive students about marine conservation, and she transformed into her alter ego Mermaid Kat. A year later Kat opened a mermaid academy, a traveling workshop of sorts. Launched in Phuket, Thailand, her academy has also trained mermaids in Indonesia and the Philippines. Here, aspiring mermaids learn the tricks of King Triton's daughters, from how to freedive to how to be a successful underwater model. In addition, mer-students also learn the importance of eco-activism and the significance of the health and diversity of our oceans.
Author's Note: How Professional Mermaids Work
There's a big drawback to the professional mermaid lifestyle, and perhaps not what you would first guess: cold water. The human body is most comfortable in water that's about 84 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit (28.9 to 30 degrees Celsius). Bermuda's average ocean water temperature may come close to those temperatures during the summertime, but that's not the case for many popular swim spots. Coastal water temperatures in San Diego, California – considered one of the best, if not the best, places for a mermaid to live -- never gets much warmer than 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius).
More Great Links
- Gray, Emma. "Linden Wolbert, Mermaid, Shares The Key To Being A Professional 'Mermaid To The Stars' (PHOTOS)." April 5, 2013. (Jan. 4, 2015) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/03/linden-wolbert-mermaid_n_3009244.html
- Hannah Mermaid. (Jan. 4, 2015) http://www.hannahfraser.com/mermaid/
- Mermaid Kat. (Jan. 4, 2015) http://underwatermodel.info/come-to-mermaid-kats-mermaid-academy/
- Mermaids in Motion. (Jan. 4, 2015) http://www.mermaidsinmotion.com/
- National Oceanographic Data Center (NODC). "Water Temperature Table of All Coastal Regions." (Jan. 4, 2015) http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/dsdt/cwtg/all_meanT.html
- Newcomb, Tim. "German Diver Sets Breath-Holding Record: 22 Minutes, 22 Seconds." Time. June 5, 2012. (Jan. 4, 2015) http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/06/05/german-diver-sets-breath-holding-record-22-minutes-22-seconds
- Nickum, Ryan. "13 Best U.S. Cities for Mermaids to Live." Estately Blog. July 23, 2013. (Jan. 4, 2015) http://blog.estately.com/2013/07/13-best-u-s-cities-for-mermaids-to-live/
- Palmer, Brian. "How Long Can You Hold Your Breath?" Slate. Nov. 13, 2013. (Jan. 4, 2015) http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2013/11/nicholas_mevoli_freediving_death_what_happens_to_people_who_practice_holding.html
- Parkes, Gwen. "For the Love of Water: A Real-Life Mermaid." Aol. July 9, 2010. (Jan. 4, 2015) http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2010/07/09/mermaid-padi/
- Schiller, Jakob. "Professional Mermaids Are Lost Treasure of Florida Park." Wired. April 20, 2012. (Jan. 4, 2015) http://www.wired.com/2012/04/professional-mermaids-are-lost-treasure-of-florida-park/
- SimplyHired. "Average Professional Mermaid Salaries." (Jan. 4, 2015) http://www.simplyhired.com/salaries-k-professional-mermaid-jobs.html
- Sole-Smith, Virginia. "The Last Mermaid Show." The New York Times. July 5, 2013. (Jan. 4, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/magazine/the-last-mermaid-show.html
- Spitznagel, Eric. "Odd Jobs: Professional Mermaid." BloombergBusinessweek. April 3, 2012. (Jan. 4, 2015) http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-04-03/odd-jobs-professional-mermaid
- The People's History. "The Year 1947." (Jan. 4, 2015) http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/1947.html
- United States Water Fitness Association (USWFA). "Suggested Swimming Pool Temperatures." (Jan. 4, 2015) http://www.uswfa.com/suggested_pool_temps.asp
- Worrall, Simon. "Free Diving World Record Will Soon Be Pushed to 1,000 Feet, Author Says." National Geographic. Aug. 10, 2014. (Jan. 4, 2015) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140810-free-diving-sperm-whales-jules-verne-reunion-booktalk