Early performances ranged from feeding fish to drinking from a soda bottle to performing with a submerged circus. It was an underwater novelty designed to bring the crowds in off the highway.
"U.S. 19 was just a two lane highway then, very few cars going by. So when we weren't in a show, we'd run out to the road in our bathing suits and we'd beckon them in," said Mary Darlington Fletcher, one of the original mermaids from the 1940s. "So we put on a show for two people in a car. It didn't matter. We didn't need a real good excuse for an audience."
As the performances became more sophisticated, Weeki Wachee's fame grew and so did the crowds. At its height, during the 1960s, the mermaids performed ten shows a day.
Many of the mermaids were first introduced to Weeki Wachee as audience members themselves, just taking a break from the highway. They fell in love with a fantasy on the other side of the glass.
"When I was three years old, I came to the park for the first time. I can remember coming. I fell in love with the mermaids, the bubbles, the spring, everything. I just loved it," said Amy Fobell. At 16, she signed on as a lifeguard at the water park next door. At 18, she auditioned for the underwater show. Now she's living her dream.
"Everybody who leaves for another job wants to keep one foot in the door so they can come back," said John Summers, Weeki Wachee's only merman.
To experience the freedom of staying underwater without scuba requires learning how to breathe using an air hose. Without masks, mermaids learn to take gulps of air from the hose, balancing the pressure on their ears and sinuses while being buffeted by a 12-mile-an-hour (19-kilometer-an-hour) current.
"Breathing off the air hose is really, really hardjust to keep in mind not to breathe in your nose when you're in the water. But after a couple of times you learn your lesson," mermaid Sativa Smith said. The temptation is to take big gulps of air, but that leads to rising and falling very quickly because air increases buoyancy. The trick, the mermaids say, is to maintain neutral buoyancy so that one can hover in place. Letting go of the air hose is the hardest part. It takes most people months of training before they are ready for the show.
"It was very hard in the beginning when I would drop my hose and do a ballet move and then go down and pick up my hose. It was scary," Lewis said.
So just how long can a mermaid hold her breath?
"When I swam in the '60s and '70s and we timed each other, I got a 4:15 [4 minutes, 15 seconds] one time. Yeah, I was really proud of that. But the record is 6:10," said Barbara Wynns, a mermaid alumnus.
Eventually Weeki Wachee became old news. The novelty wore off, and it no longer attracted headlines, investors, or crowds. Many people at Weeki Wachee are worried that the park will soon shut down, a victim of changing times and local politics. But some former mermaids, rather than soaking in a hot tub in a retirement home, have squeezed back into their sequins to breathe life back into the park.
"Wrinkles, cellulite, chubby, whateverwe're ready to go," Wynns said.
Unfortunately the mermaid fantasy is an incurable disease, according to Susie Pennoyer, a senior mermaid who started performing monthly alumni shows in 1997 to help revive interest in the park. "It just keeps us healthy, it keeps us vitalized. It's a stress relief. Once a mermaid, always a mermaid."
For more on mermaids, tune in to National Geographic On Assignment. The show airs Tuesday, March 23, at 7 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT in the United States and is available only on the National Geographic Channel.
Got a high-speed connection? Watch National Geographic On Assignment video clips in streaming video.
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