We’re not like other women;
We don’t have to clean an oven
And we never will grow old.
We’ve got the world by the tail!
–Weeki Wachee theme song
I wait in an underground theater, surrounded by little girls in Ariel T-shirts and their sunburnt dads. At the front of the room, children press against a row of backlit curtains. The doors close and the curtains draw up, revealing windows streaked with algae, beyond which six mermaids blow kisses in a turquoise spring. A song pipes into the theater—“We’ve got the world by the tail! We’ve got the world by the tail!”—and the mermaids flow into a choreographed ballet, their tails sweeping behind them, gauzy fins fluttering. They sip oxygen from rubber hoses to remain 20 feet below the surface for a half hour at a time, smiling as they undulate past the windows with their hair clouding behind them.
This is “The Little Mermaid” show at Weeki Wachee State Park in Weeki Wachee, Florida, where alluring women have performed as mermaids—they call themselves sirens—since 1947. It’s a throwback to the heyday of American tourism, when every family had a car and road tripping was the summer adventure of choice. In the early days, the sirens would stand along the highway to wave cars off the road and into the park as their predecessors had lured sailors to shore. They appeared in commercials and films and performed for Elvis. Today, the perpetually sold-out mermaid show draws more than 400,000 visitors a year.
Despite the park’s popularity, I didn’t know much about it—beyond the fact that women performed there as mermaids—until I began researching for a novel about a restless siren-turned-human. Equally dissatisfied with her human life, she takes over a failing mermaid burlesque. There, she establishes a kingdom in the likeness of her lost world, living as a siren and performing in a tank at the edge of the sea.
I had a plot and characters, but I was at a loss when it came to writing about what it would be like to sweep through the water with a tail. I could barely stay afloat as it was, despite growing up a mile from the Atlantic Ocean. So when I discovered on the park’s website that Weeki Wachee hosts an annual Sirens of the Deep Mermaid Camp to teach would-be mermaids how to swim—and dance!—in a tail, I knew I had to go. For research.
Enrollment is first come, first served, and there’s no waiting list. Women try for years to get into the two-day camp, to be trained by mermaids—called Legendary Sirens—who performed at Weeki Wachee in its golden age. On registration morning, I began calling at nine sharp, and pressed redial for the next five hours. My phone stopped recording the calls after 3:00 pm. I would later learn that there was only one operator.
I snagged one of the last spots in Siren Camp, and upon hanging up, I was overcome with panic. I’d just spent $450 to paddle around in a fake tail. Was this my version of a midlife crisis?
“The only city of live mermaids!,” Weeki Wachee, Florida, is also billed as one of the smallest cities in the US, with a population of 13 (it’s unclear how many residents are mermaids). Located in Hernando County an hour north of Tampa, Weeki Wachee was incorporated as a city in 1966 to generate exposure for the mermaid show. Its seal depicts two sirens executing an adagio pose, one arching up to hold the other aloft, her body a taut bow.
The 538-acre park—encompassing the spring and its white beach, a water park, and a river winding through lush jungle—is an oasis along the clogged artery of Route 19, a dismal stretch of chain restaurants, budget motels, and billboards for retirement communities. The highway hugs the park, which is promoted by a battered blue sign.
The parking lot is bounded by a row of plaster mermaids lounging in the shade of periwinkle umbrellas. Flags interspersed among the mermaids give the stretch of pavement an air of faded festivity. But when I arrived at 8:15 on Saturday morning, visitors were already lining up at the entrance of the park, although it wouldn’t open for another 45 minutes.
I found my fellow campers at a side gate, clustered around a “Siren Camp” sign. There were eight of us, ranging in age from 38 (I was the youngest) to 68; we hailed from Massachusetts, Ohio, Florida, Illinois, and Oregon. Two women, who had attended Siren Camp the previous year, carried their own tails in net backpacks, their hair festooned with starfish and seashell clips. They were also the only ones brave enough to wear bikinis (shells, of course). We had been instructed to arrive photo-ready in full makeup; we were all wearing bold lipstick and bathing suits we’d chosen to complement our tails.
We were paired up and placed with a Legendary Siren for the duration of the weekend. My fellow camper, Heidi—a 46-year-old federal employee from Ohio with tattoos and a shy smile—and I were placed with Rita King, who had first performed at Weeki Wachee in the 1960s. Short and muscular, with thick black hair and homemade Native American earrings, 73-year-old Rita exuded compact power. She strode off across the park, and Heidi and I trotted to keep up with her, panting a little.
Rita grew up in the area, swimming in freshwater lime rock mines. She’d become a siren at 18.
“If you’re a little girl growing up around here, you’re going to want to be a mermaid,” she said, as we followed a path through a lawn where Weeki Wachee’s four resident peacocks strutted in the shade of the palm trees.
Rita led us to the Newton Perry Underwater Mermaid Theatre where the mermaids perform three times a day before the row of underwater windows. While most of the building—which is built into the spring’s limestone wall—is submerged, the theater’s iconic roof rises above the surface; its arc of white half-barrel panels is designed to resemble a clamshell.
We approached from the land-bound side, where the entrance is dominated by a massive wave-shaped sign with three-dimensional starfish, seaweed, and an oyster shell complete with a basketball-size pearl. Rita led us through an employee gate guarded by a sign that read “Underwater Theatre Staff Only” and into a courtyard. There, the campers and counselors convened on an open-air wooden platform. A chalkboard against the far wall welcomed us to the “Siren Sorority.”
The sirens invited the campers to select bling—Mardi Gras beads, fake pearls—for our necks and wrists from a row of hooks. When we were sufficiently adorned, the sirens guided us to the benches along the sides of the platform for our tail fitting. Thick nylon sheathes layered with turquoise Lycra, these were well-loved, hard-working tails. We wedged swim fins into the flukes to give our feet purchase and lend our tails their structure.
Rita showed me how to cram my feet inside the fluke where the stocking is tightest and maneuver them into the swim fins. My ankle bones ground together as she tugged the tail up my calves, knees, and—particularly tricky—my thighs. It’s meant to be a tight fit; I would soon discover that a tail full of air can really slow you down.
I had deliberated over my bathing suit, subjecting myself to the fluorescent glare of a Target dressing room for more than an hour until I’d landed on one with a ruched front to hide (with debatable success) the belly roll that’s plagued me since my toddler was born. Rita tucked the roll into the tail’s waistband. This was a humbling start to Siren Camp.
“I’m very worried this is going to feel like Spanx,” Heidi said as Rita tugged the fabric up her hips and stretched the seam over her waist. “Life is too short to wear shape-wear.”
The snug fabric was surprisingly comfortable, and I felt almost elegant—until I had to move. Rita helped me hop backward, the siren’s preferred mode of land travel, and hoist myself onto the bench draped in shimmering fabric below the Siren Sorority sign.
My tail shimmering in the Florida sun, I perched on the edge of the bench and faced the camera. I’d ordered the photo package as evidence of my sirenhood—and to dazzle my three-year-old daughter, who’d just discovered Ariel. I wanted to model a version of motherhood that isn’t all sacrifice; for her to see me pursuing my own interests and trying new things, even if they scared me, like being photographed in a bathing suit.
Here’s how you pose like a siren: arch your back, thrust your breasts forward, press your toes down and spread your feet to streamline the tail and maximize its grace—and smile. Heaving my half-bound body left, right, up, down, I posed seated with my hands folded in my lap, seductively on my side, and on my belly with my tail flipped up behind me. In the midst of my shoot, trying to coax my lips into a sailor-baiting smile, I began to give into Siren Camp’s cheesy glamor.
We hopped down a metal gangplank to a canvas-cloaked raft tethered along the side of the spring. There, we sat along the edge and flipped our tails into the water. I tightened my swim mask and gathered my breath. The spring lapped at my tail. A few yards away, the surface fizzed, disrupting the current. “That’s where the water comes up from the earth, feeding the spring,” Rita told me.
While the spring is mostly shallow with smooth white sand, the area where we were about to swim—where the mermaids perform before the theater windows—is a rocky landscape descending 80 feet below my tail. And I was scared of a pool’s deep end.
Until this moment, I had been apprehensive, but unafraid. Now I seriously questioned the wisdom of this venture. As one by one the campers slid off the raft and into the spring, my breath began to thicken. But there was no turning back.
I slapped into the water and shot down further than I expected. My eyes screwed shut, I paddled desperately for the surface and broke through with my teeth clacking, to grasp the lifeguard rescue tube Rita held out to me. I clung to it, gasping for breath.
Each instructor carried a tube long enough for two sirens-in-training. Rita, who at 73 is in better shape than I was in my twenties, towed Heidi and me around the spring with effortless grace. At her peak, she said, she could swim for four minutes without taking a breath. At 74 degrees, the water was only cold for a minute or so, until my body acclimated. An insistent current drew us along. I dunked my head and peered through my mask.
I was facing the theater, whose windows started 20 feet below where we paddled. The area that served as the sirens’ stage was a terrain of sand and rock, furred with vivid green weeds that glowed as the sun slanted through the waves and deepened into shades of rust under the cover of clouds. Arm-length silver tarpon swept below our tails, and turtles paddled away from us with surprising grace. Striped bass circled an algae-cloaked stone sculpture of a youth, the prince in The Little Mermaid show. Spotted sunfish passed through an airlock used for costume changes; the ’60s-era sci-fi dome was planted amidst the rocks like a relic of an abandoned space-age exploration. (Manatees also frequent the springs, although I was not lucky enough to see one.)
The water was so clear that I could see even deeper beyond the performance area, 80 feet down to the vent where the water is forced up from the aquifer, an underground water reserve stored in a shelf of porous limestone. One of the most productive on the planet, this aquifer pumps up to 132 million gallons into the spring every 24 hours. Nicknamed “the black hole,” the vent is rumored to have no end. It descends into a lattice of limestone caves explored to a depth of 117 feet by fearless divers who squeezed into crevices so narrow they had to push their oxygen tanks in front of them. In the early days, before the safety regulations tightened, the sirens had incorporated the vent into their routines, diving down into the black hole against the current—defying death for their audience.
Once a rubbish-filled swimming pit off a dirt road, Weeki Wachee Spring was transformed by the post-World War II tourism culture of the 1940s. The auto industry was booming, cars were affordable, and families began taking road trips on America’s new highway system. With its long, straight stretches of uninterrupted coastal beauty, Florida became a vacation destination.
As roadside attractions like mini-golf, zoos, and dolphin shows sprang up along the major highways, Newton Perry, a former Navy frogman, envisioned a new kind of attraction. In 1947, he cleaned the spring, constructed a submerged 18-seat theater into its limestone wall, and recruited high school girls to perform there. He trained them to demonstrate ordinary activities underwater, like typing, painting, eating bananas, and drinking bottles of Grapette. (Soda was too effervescent and would cause, as the Arcadia Publishing book Weeki Wachee Springs, describes it, “mermaid bloat.”)
The Aquabelles (the mermaid tails came later) lined up along the road to wave cars into the spring, billed as “nature’s giant fish bowl.” As the shows expanded in scope and spectacle, Perry hid rubber hoses in the spring’s rocks and scenery, allowing the Aquabelles to take sips of oxygen and remain fully submerged throughout the performances.
Perry taught them how to modify their depth by filling their lungs to rise and expelling the air to sink. They also used the hoses to create curtains of bubbles to transition between scenes. The bubbles attracted fish, which the Aquabelles incorporated into their performances, feeding them by hand. They did not, however, encourage the occasional alligators that crashed their shows.
The productions became more technically complex to include ballets adapted from synchronized swimming, featuring techniques like the “Ferris wheel,” in which three Aquabelles grasped one another’s heads between their ankles and revolved in a marvel of grace. The adagio pose became synonymous with Weeki Wachee. The image of one Aquabelle raising another aloft appeared in newsreels, film shorts, print, and on the park signs—and was replicated in a fountain statue that still stands in the park entrance.
The tails were introduced in the mid-40s, and the spring went Hollywood when Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949) were filmed there. American Broadcast Company (ABC) purchased the park in 1959, launching it to international fame. This was the beginning of Weeki Wachee’s golden age.
ABC funded the current 400-seat theater that allowed for technical advancements like the “tube room,” a concrete bunker with a four-foot-wide tube in the floor. The tube descends 16 feet down and 64 feet across into the spring. The mermaids would slip into the tube and pull themselves along with handholds (air hoses and lights were added later), emerging from its mouth hidden in the rocks. They’d rise from below the windows of the theater, as if by magic from the depths of the spring. (The tube has since been closed due to safety regulations.)
In the 1960s, the show expanded into full productions like The Frog Prince and Mermaids on the Moon, complete with costumes, scenery, props, and music and narration piped into the theater. The mermaids executed quick costume changes in the air lock far below the surface. Still in use today, it could be transformed into various set pieces, like a giant conch shell. Other scenery and props included a dolphin that swam past the windows in a flurry of bubbles, and a castle installed for Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid that was removed a year later when a visitor got stuck in a window.
At the height of the park’s popularity, 35 mermaids acted out elaborate productions, performing eight shows per day to sold-out crowds. They attracted half a million people a year and were featured in television commercials (for the park and for products like Clairol shampoo). They performed for celebrities like Elvis, Jimmy Buffett, Mickey Mantle, and Esther Williams. The park even had its own newspaper.
Weeki Wachee’s principal show was—and remains—Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” which opens with the song that has become synonymous with the park: “We’ve Got the World By the Tail.” In the performance, as in Disney’s famous film, the little mermaid is enchanted by the human world and falls in love with a prince, portrayed by the park’s only male performer. On the advice of the sea witch—a siren in black and gold spandex and a Medusa-like headdress—she dives into the black hole to drink from a “potion at the bottom of the ocean” that will give her legs in exchange for her voice.
The little mermaid dives down past the theater’s windows and into the spring’s narrow vent, while the narrator recites: “She has never gone that deep before. No flowers, no seagrasses grow there. Only the dark cavern below awaits her. It leads toward the whirlpool where the currents whirl like a rushing wheel, round and round, grabbing everything in its path.” She fights the current to a cave where she drinks the potion, then rises from the depths of the spring, pirouetting on human legs.
After the requisite trials and tribulations, the little mermaid and her sisters defeat the sea witch with the help of the handsome prince, proving, as he says, that “love does conquer all, on land and in the sea.” The mermaid performs a duet with her prince, and lives happily, humanly, ever after.
Hans Christian Andersen’s original story is far stranger and more terrifying than Weeki Wachee’s or Disney’s. In Andersen’s version, the sea witch warns the little mermaid that if she does not win the prince’s love, she will turn into sea foam. Her every step is as excruciating as if she were walking on knives and yet, voiceless, she is unable even to gasp in pain. The little mermaid fails to win the prince’s love, and he marries another woman. The “daughters of the air” spare her from spending an eternity washing up on shore as sea foam and transform her into wind, the incarnation of restlessness.
“Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature,” scholar Joseph Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth. “The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you.”
For women in the 1950s and 60s, Weeki Wachee mermaidhood offered an alternative to marriage and to the typical careers of the time: teachers, sales clerks, and secretaries. Women came from as far afield as Tokyo to audition for the cherished roles, which demanded a combination of athleticism and allure.
Hopeful sirens received a letter of instruction from Weeki Wachee: “Applicants must have no fear of the water, be photogenic, 18 to 25 years of age, and have a pleasing personality….fill out the enclosed application and return it together with a picture of yourself, preferably in a swimsuit.”
A siren-in-training lived in the furnished cottage on site for a 6- to 12-week training period. One of the last hurdles was a 117-foot descent (the equivalent of a 10-story building) into the black hole.
Full mermaids often opted to continue living on the grounds. They took ballet and etiquette lessons, abided by a curfew, and were required to keep their hair long. A few of the more daring sirens would sneak away from the guards who watched over their cabins to skinny dip in the spring and hang out with air hoses in the mouth of the black hole.
The park’s popularity took a hit when Disney World opened in 1971. Roadside attractions couldn’t compete with Disney’s all-inclusive model and began folding across the state—but Weeki Wachee held on, adding an exotic animal show, covered wagon rides, Buccaneer Bay Water Park, and a Seminole village, an homage to its Native American heritage. (“Weeki Wachee,” named by the Seminole Indians, means “little spring” or “winding river.”)
The park survived, but barely. The plaster was flaking off the mermaids at the entrance. The wooden paths through the park were buckling. Visitors dwindled, and when the mermaids weren’t performing, they cleaned the park.
Weeki Wachee persisted throughout the 90s and early 2000s—until it was donated to the state of Florida in 2008 and renamed Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. The mermaids became state employees. A nonprofit, Friends of Weeki Wachee, began raising money that, along with government funding, allowed for significant renovations.
Today, the park is at capacity again, thriving as a destination throwback to those early roadside attractions. It can’t compete with Disney World’s luxury accommodations and big-budget entertainment (Disney even added its own mermaid show)—but it is a beloved destination amidst the wasteland of strip malls crowding Florida’s vacation highways. It’s a place where, for $13, families can swim in a clear blue spring, ride a boat through the jungle, spot manatees and peacocks and crocodiles—and meet real mermaids.
The mermaids, too, consider it a magical place, and the sirens from the park’s heyday speak of their performance days with starry-eyed nostalgia. After hanging up her tail, “I felt like a fish out of water,” Rita told Heidi and me as she towed us through the spring. She went on to a long and fulfilling career with the postal service, but performing at Weeki Wachee “is a job that spoils you for all of the jobs in the whole world. When we leave, we dream about being back.”
For most mermaids, returning to the spring was just that: a dream. Upon retiring, they were no longer permitted access to it. They could visit the water park with the public, but they could not reenter the world they’d left in their youth—until 1997, when a former mermaid organized a 50-year reunion, “Mermaids of Yesteryear.”
Weeki Wachee invited as many sirens as they could track down for a reunion performance; for many, it was their first time returning to the spring since they’d hung up their tails.
“The spring has a calling, this unknown magnetic force that draws you back,” Rita said, treading water along the shore, where the reflection of the overhanging trees mingled with the sea grass far below our tails.
When Rita slipped back into the water for the first time since 1968, she felt like she’d never left, she said, “like I was in another dimension, where I was just like I’d been when I was 18. I felt at home.”
The reunited sirens enjoyed the experience so much, and the show was so successful, that the park added monthly Mermaids of Yesteryear shows, maintaining a roster of eight retired sirens who swim two to four shows a month and lead the annual Siren Camp, established in 2013.
“I went through a much more rigorous testing than I did the first time because in the 60s, they didn’t have the regulations or the safety procedures that we do today,” Rita told us as we flopped back onto the raft for a lunch break. “This time, I had to swim nonstop 400 yards—that’s four football fields!—without stopping. Then I had to tread water for 15 minutes, then show ballet moves. And then—this was the wildest part—I had to have two interviews and take a 100-question written test on the principles of scuba diving.”
It’s worth the effort, Rita said. “How often in life do you get to go back and do something that you really loved and believed in, that you did when you were young and beautiful?”
We hung our tails over the Siren Sorority railing to dry. As we snacked on an unmermaid-like lunch of chicken tenders and pasta salad, the sirens invited us to introduce ourselves and share why we had come to camp.
We were still in our bathing suits. Our makeup had washed away and our hair was beginning to frizz in the heat. No one seemed to care. The campers and sirens listened intently to each woman, nodding and smiling in encouragement. As we made our way around the circle, it became evident that we were all there for deeply personal reasons.
Heidi had become obsessed with the Weeki Wachee mermaids when she “realized what incredible athletes they are,” she said. “It’s this cheesy sort of thing that’s also really difficult.”
The rest of us groaned in agreement, already anticipating muscle aches and blistered heels from the swim fins.
“People buy me mermaid things. I do love mermaids, but for me, it is very specifically about Weeki Wachee and these mermaids.” She had never seen them in person—until four years ago, when she finally attended the show. “The curtains in the theater went up and there they were—and it was everything I had dreamed that it would be,” she said. “I had this ridiculous grin on my face, but I was also crying because I was so thrilled to see them in person. I’m so impressed by how they make this all seem so easy and magical, even though I know all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into it.”
At 10, Sally suffered a stroke that paralyzed her right side. Her mother, a nurse, encouraged her to swim in the lake near her house. “That water was an important part of my rehab,” she told us. She became a medical social worker specializing in rehabilitation. Now retired, 68-year-old Sally had another stroke a year ago and went from helping others through therapy to doing it herself—again. She rediscovered water’s healing qualities.
She read about Siren Camp in the Chicago Tribune and sent the article to her two oldest friends. They coordinated their efforts to enroll; now, they sat in a row balancing paper plates on their bare knees. They’d brought neon wigs for a group photo shoot and had perched three mermaid barbies wearing homemade Weeki Wachee sashes on the table behind the chicken tenders. Their laughter rang across the spring.
Stephanie had attended Siren Camp the previous year and had flown from Portland, Oregon, for more—this time, with her own tail. Tall and wiry, 61-year-old Stephanie vibrated with nervous energy. She was eager to share her mermaiding experience with the newbies and pulled up last year’s photos and links to tail distributors on her phone, offering to send us info on where to buy the best shell bikinis.
A self-described “water baby” who grew up on the Long Island Sound, she’d been obsessed with mermaids since she was a girl, watching Diver Dan on TV. Commercials for Weeki Wachee fed that desire, and she begged her mother to take her to the spring—but she never got to go. When she finally visited the park as an adult, she was enthralled by the mermaid performance, but “I was more interested in that beautiful clear blue beyond them,” she said. “I just wanted to be in that water.”
As a member of a pod—a community of mer-people—she swims recreationally in her tail and participates in her local mermaid parade for charity. (“My husband dresses up as a fisherman and I’m the catch of the day.”) She also volunteers at conservation events and reads to children.
“I’m not a pretty princess with flowing hair who kids want to see,” she told us, with matter-of-fact, self-effacing humor. “But I taught preschool for 15 years and I can relate to the younger crowd. So I’m billing myself as the grandmother mermaid.”
“You’re all here for such different reasons,” Rita said. She and her sister sirens had started the program to share the spring with other women, and to encourage them to pursue what they most need out of the experience. By now, I’d begun to understand that what I needed out of Siren Camp wasn’t just a full notebook.
I’m a writer, I told the sirens and my fellow campers. I also work full time as an editor for a university, and I have a three-year-old “who’s at home with my husband, so I slept in this morning!” The women nodded and laughed in recognition. “I miss them, but I’m enjoying this time to myself, doing something just for me.”
“Good for you,” Rita said. “That’s so important.”
Rationally, I know it’s important; that pursuing my work and my passions sustains my sense of self and sets a valuable example for my daughter. But I felt guilty about leaving my family, about taking time for—and spending money on—myself, I told them, opening up a little more than I’d planned to. The research for my novel had become secondary to this strange experience.
I often feel torn in too many directions, failing on all fronts and unable to breathe, I told them. I’m grateful to my mother and her mother who sacrificed and fought for me to have a career and a vocation as a writer, and to have a family. I’m empowered to “have it all,” but my expectations for myself have outstripped what’s humanly possible. I know I’m not alone in this: “70 percent of mothers in this country work, with mothers serving as the primary or sole earners in 40 percent of American households,” Amy Westervelt writes in Forget “Having It All” (Seal Press, 2018). “[I]n recent years forces have conspired to make it exceedingly difficult to be a working mother in America unless you’re very rich. Sexism contributes to lower wages, particularly for mothers, and then there’s the high cost of childcare, diminished access to positions of power, and the expectation that women always put family before career.”
We expect ourselves to be superwomen, and when we fall short, we think it’s because there’s something wrong with us. We must not be working hard enough. We must not be talented enough. We must not be smart enough to figure out how to find balance. It’s impossible to “have it all,” and the idea that it should be possible if we just work harder, ever harder, just serves to oppress us.
“I feel like I’m drowning all the time,” I told them.
I’ve been grappling with that self-imposed (and systemically reinforced) oppression through writing. My stories are about girls and women seeking liberation from family responsibilities and societal expectations. My novel-in-progress is a more in-depth exploration of these themes, framed by a loose retelling of “The Little Mermaid.”
The way I read it, the titular character of Andersen’s fairy tale—a woman longing for liberation from who she’s supposed to be—is the embodiment of womanhood suppressed. Her very sex is subjugated by her tail. She transforms, only to find that she’s no better off. And through that realization, comes to find that the problem is not with her tail.
After lunch, we pulled our tails back on and hopped to the edge of the raft. It was a little easier than it had been that morning; this time, I managed to slide rather than flop into the spring and rise without desperation to grab hold of the rescue tube. I’d become comfortable floating along with Rita, peering into the depths of the water—but I had to let go eventually. It was the moment of truth: Could I be a siren?
When I finally pushed away from Rita, my fluke bubbled up in front of me, pitching me backward. Rita helped me stuff it back down and taught me to hold my body straight, fanning my tail to remain upright.
She taught Heidi and me to swan dive by arching our backs and plunging downward, shooting our tails up behind us to propel our bodies deeper. She assured us that we wouldn’t drown, and that although we might feel like we were running out of breath, our bodies would have an oxygen reserve to draw from. The amount of breath you need is different for every swimmer, she said. Part of mermaid training is to determine one’s limitations. I had a lot of them.
Sirens don’t swim with face masks; I nervously handed mine over to Rita and struggled to open my eyes underwater, fighting the panic that began creeping back in. As the photographer who was documenting our practice paddled toward us, Rita reminded me to smile.
“Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth so water won’t come in,” she said. “It might feel silly, but it looks great on camera.” I forced my eyes wide and smiled for the photographer. (Although Rita assured me I looked fabulous, the photo evidence has since proven her wrong.)
Rita taught us the mermaid’s signature undulating swim, accomplished by engaging the core and rolling the pelvis. As siren Becky Young said in a memorable New York Times interview, “It’s like having really good sex.”
Sex is inherent to the Weeki Wachee mermaid show (there’s a reason would-be sirens were required to return their applications with photos of themselves in a swimsuit). It’s inescapable, given mermaids’ origins as busty enchantresses who lured Greek sailors to their doom. Christianity later painted them as symbols “of lust, vanity, sexual display, seduction and a sort of temptation which led to damnation,” writes scholar Jim Higgins (Irish Mermaids).
Sex complicates my reading of the little mermaid. She is a sexless seductress, which is not as antithetical as it sounds. Sirens led men astray with the promise of sex and instead of fulfilling their desires, tore them to pieces.
While it would be disingenuous to write about mermaiding without discussing sex—and acknowledging the creepiness of the park’s origins, with Newton Perry recruiting photogenic high school girls—sexuality was all but absent in Siren Camp. It’s an experience entirely removed from the male gaze: We didn’t perform for an audience; there were no sunburnt dads watching from the theater. And the camp accepts only women above 30 (one session allows men, but only two registered this year). The minimum age is 30, Becky explained, thanks to a 20-something camper who had claimed a job at the local aquarium by saying she was “Weeki Wachee trained.” Those of us above 30, she said, are less likely to be pursuing careers as mermaids.
Not one camper described herself as feeling, or wanting to feel, sexy—but every one of the campers and sirens shared a desire for our bodies to be strong and healthy, especially as we age.
I found swimming in a tail to be more athletic than alluring. The tail allowed me to keep afloat more easily and dive deeper than I could with legs. With Rita always there beside me, I pushed myself to try a dolphin dive (pitching myself backward into a reverse swan-dive) to give the stone prince a kiss on his algae-slick head. I could understand why Stephanie had bought her own tail. It made me feel powerful.
For Stephanie, swimming in a tail was a kind of meditation achieved by “finding the state of flow where there’s no beginning and no end and your body just takes over,” she told me during a break. “Everything slows down and there’s just no thought of what’s going on, on the surface, because it’s quiet and clean and clear.”
While Stephanie and I reveled in our tails, Sally struggled: “It’s hard adapting to it,” she told me as we pulled on our tails again after the break. “I’m really frustrated.” But as the camp progressed, she got the hang of it. Paddling around the spring on the second day, she said it felt “like a whole different experience. It’s free flowing. Something’s just clicked, and I feel beautiful.”
I also felt different on the second day, with the acclimation period behind me. The experience had awakened in me a long-dormant love of physical challenge. I was surprised by how long I could swim holding my breath, how confident I had become.
On the last day, there was a tornado warning. As the tornado sirens yowled, we pressed together in the clubhouse, the rain battering the tin roof and driving into us from all sides. Shivering in our bathing suits, we passed the time eating cookies and talking about our lives. The sirens told us stories about performing in their youth.
Rita shared a scrapbook in which she’d collected every newspaper clipping, postcard, and photo she’d appeared in as a mermaid since 1963. We turned the pages with reverence, admiring pictures of Rita feeding fish, her legs folded below her in the sand, her long hair floating around her.
Her fellow mermaids pointed to photos of themselves and their friends, trading stories. It was clear, not just in the way the sirens interacted with one another, but in the way they talked about all the mermaids they had known, that to them, sirenhood was a sisterhood pledged by love for this spring and the physical pleasure of swimming.
“It’s a bond you can’t explain,” Rita said, turning the pages of her scrapbook. “Sometimes it’s even better than family.”
Some might see Siren Camp as just a bunch of over-the-hill ladies in fake tails—and it is. I’d gone in a skeptic, too, but I was surprised by how personal Siren Camp had become for me, and how the experience resolved itself into a journey of independence.
“It’s important to do the things that give you this much joy in life because it carries into every cell in your body,” Stephanie said, helping herself to another cookie. “Sometimes I say, ‘You’re 61, going around swimming like a mermaid.’ But then I think, ‘Well, life is so short. Why have I even waited this long?”
The tornado sirens ended, but it continued to rain gently on and off, and we donned our tails for one last swim. Rita showed Heidi and me how to dive down and align our bodies parallel with the surface. We gazed up through the water, and the rain looked like stars.
I didn’t transform when I put on a tail. Although the spring felt like a different world, it didn’t liberate me from everyday life; my responsibilities were there to meet me when I rose for breath. I didn’t emerge from the spring a new woman who can effortlessly juggle motherhood and work, wifehood and writing. But by putting on that tail and giving into the fantasy, I learned a few things about living everyday life. Joseph Campbell famously wrote, “Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive.”
I can simultaneously miss my family and revel in being alone. I can write a chapter of my novel and then watch bad TV in bed. I can drink whiskey solo at a tiki bar and laugh with other women while eating chocolate chip cookies. I can be overwhelmed, and still find liberation in small moments, like watching the rain shatter the line between water and sky. I can dive deeper than I thought possible. I can use up all my breath and still have oxygen to spare.
Animal Wife by Lara Ehrlich is available via Red Hen Press.