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"Mermaids" Fight to Save Florida Roadside Attraction

Kimberly Ayers and Boyd Matson in Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida
National Geographic On Assignment
March 22, 2004
 
At a west Florida intersection, where the 21st century runs headlong
into 1947, is a roadside attraction that must be seen to be
believed. There are no Disney cartoon characters or underwater
mannequins, but living, breathing, bubble-blowing mermaids just an
hour drive north of Tampa.

Weeki Wachee Springs attracts tourists from around the world, and during its heyday attracted celebrities including Elvis Presley. But in recent times the park has fallen into disrepair and is faced with a few financial and political woes. Now the mermaids—new and old—are fighting to save what they say is a Florida landmark.


The mermaids are highly endangered. Fewer than 20 people in the country do this for a living, and all of them are right here at Weeki Wachee.

"We breathe underwater. That's what mermaids do," said Krista Lewis, a mermaid in training. "We're half fish, half human."

Weeki Wachee is a throwback to an era when vacations meant the parents packing up the car and heading out for a couple weeks for 3,000 (4,800 kilometers) of driving around the country. Roadside attractions were the only way to keep kids from having a backseat meltdown.

Weeki Wachee is a theater built into a natural spring—allowing the audience to walk into an underwater world without getting wet. With today's environmental laws, there will probably never be another place like it in the U.S.

A Unique Playground

Clad in their iridescent Lycra tails, the mermaids perform choreographed routines and stories and are sometimes joined by fish, turtles, and manatees—creatures that some say inspired the original mermaid legends.

"Sometimes I feel as if I might really be a mermaid. Some days are better than others, and you don't really feel like you need breaths as much as other times," Lewis said. "I love the swimming aspect … especially on sunny days, it's so beautiful. And knowing that people in there are watching you … sometimes you do feel as though it's like a real thing."

The geology of Florida makes Weeki Wachee a unique playground. The state is a patchwork of springs that discharge fresh water from underground aquifers. Weeki Wachee's springs pump out more than 60 million gallons (227 million liters) of water every day—that's 740 gallons (2,800 liters) per second. Diving down a little over a 100 feet (30 meters) into the throat of the spring is like trying to swim headfirst through a Jacuzzi jet.

Manatees and turtles were the only residents of Weeki Wachee until 1947, when an ex-Navy frogman named Newt Perry combined his military experience and a natural inventiveness to create Weeki Wachee's first underwater show.

Mermaid Recruits

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.

Mermaid Alumni

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 hard—just 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, whatever—we'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.

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Related Web Sites
National Geographic Channel
Weeki Wachee Springs
Flashback Photo: Florida Underwater Performers
 

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