When I pulled up the mermaids’ bios online, Frenchy saw the page from across the room and said, What do you have there, the Playboy Channel? Attraction is built into the myth, of course, starting with the Sirens, the Selkies, and the Finfolk, all those forbidden attractions, two separate worlds, the danger of drowning in love.
I’ve long been interested in the idea of Weeki Wachee Springs, that “City of Live Mermaids.” It’s one of those “lost America” attractions that used to be in the middle of nowhere, back when having a car, time, and disposable income was a relatively big deal, and family trips—without electronics—was an (often miserable) adventure to see something you’d only seen in books, at best. There was also, I thought, a diver connection:
“In 1946, Newton Perry, a former U.S. Navy man who trained SEALS to swim underwater in World War II…experimented with underwater breathing hoses and invented a method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose supplying oxygen from an air compressor, rather than from a tank strapped onto the back. With the air hose, humans could give the appearance of thriving twenty feet underwater with no breathing apparatus."
Some of that is a little problematic, since SEALs weren’t an organizational unit yet, and you don’t breath oxygen but air on those hoses. None of the other websites I saw mention his Navy service, and, saddest to me, no one at the park’s guest services, admission gate, or gift shop knew who Newton Perry was, even though the Mermaid Theater is named for him; apparently there is no history room at the park, which is state-run now. I’ll be buying books, looks like.
In any case, these are real live mermaids performing underwater in the spring’s limestone basin, which is about a hundred feet across, and the water crystal clear. We catch the afternoon show, “The Little Mermaid,” which the announcer on the speakers before and after the show stresses is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Disney is 83 miles up the road.
The young women are fit and attractive, and wear bikini tops and fabric tails (sometimes silicone, velour, or other materials, and they aren’t ballasted, one tells me) with a built-in flipper. The audience sits behind a glass wall, below surface level, and several mermaids, a sea witch, a sea turtle, and a prince act things out, dance in the Esther Williams mode, and lip-synch to a recorded soundtrack of dialog and song. The characters turn somersaults and swim in and out of sight and through a trap door. The current from the underwater spring outlet is said by the park to be five miles an hour. Frenchy says military diver guidelines indicate that a current of more than about a knot (1.15 mph) is unswimmable for any length of time. The mermaid tells me they have no trouble swimming in the tails, which zip open from waist to fin, and they use breath volume to control buoyancy.
The springs are turning out to be enormous. Cave divers from Karst Underwater Research have made a couple of extended descents of thousands of linear feet and nearly 250 feet of depth, in the last half-a-dozen years, into two underwater cave systems, which may be connected.
These days, of course, Weeki Wachee, far away exotic underwater world, where beauties breathe as magically as astronauts in an alien environment, is no longer in the middle of nowhere, and even my seven-year old has seen it all, at least on a screen. The park is still a long drive from the interstate, now because the area is so built up—little towns, bigger towns, stripmalls, highway construction. There are subdivisions nearly to the front gate. That you wonder which backyard they’ve put it in now. But seeing things in person matters, at least until they upgrade the hardware. And the sirens sing:
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!
We run down the coast to Clearwater, a beautiful powdery white-sand beach three miles long. It’s built up too, something awful, but at least they had the sense to keep the buildings off the beach itself, unlike Panama City. Dinner at Frenchy’s Original Café on the beach; the Frenchy I was with was delighted with the name. A walk on the long pier lined with vendors selling jewelry and artwork. The wondrous, adoring face of the woman stroking the back of the Captain Jack Sparrow imitator, who was getting impatient, love, because her friend’s camera went dead in mid-pose, and he relies on tips.
Photo courtesy of Florida State Archives.