Camp Mermaid

A fantasy course under the sea uncovers true tales of the human spirit
 
Camp Mermaid

Photography by Bob Croslin

Sporting purple-painted scales on her forehead and with her lower half encased in a royal-blue fish tail she stitched herself, Ruth Suehle is ready for her close-up. The 37-year-old community-leadership manager of a software company tosses her seaweed-laced dark tresses and rearranges the sea-glass beads dripping from her neck.

The other women splash her with approval while awaiting their turn on the makeshift pedestal to become immortalized as Sirens of the Deep.

Welcome to mermaid camp at Weeki Wachee Springs, one of Florida’s oldest roadside attractions. The 538-acre state park located 45 miles north of Tampa has been home to “live mermaid shows” since 1947.

“I guess I’ve always been part fish,” Suehle later muses. “I was always the kid floating at the bottom of the pool. Once, when I was 9 or 10, a man in a tuxedo thought I was drowning and almost jumped in to save me. My mom was like, ‘She’s fine.’ ”

Suehle is one of 10 women, including myself, attending Sirens of the Deep, the only mermaid camp run by the legendary mermaids of Weeki Wachee. For the next two days, we will learn to swim with a tail, pose in front of the underwater theater and execute the Bent-Knee Dolphin, a reverse somersault that requires a deep arch and the ability to blow water out of your nose.

For many of the women, becoming a mermaid is fulfillment of a life’s dream.

“I used to pretend I was Ariel from The Little Mermaid and sit on the edge of the bathtub and sing ‘Part of Your World,’ ” says Jillian Paige, a 27-year-old actress living in New York City. “I would make my mom be the wind so my hair would flow behind me.”

Paige is the youngest of our group of women who come from all walks of life and range in age from 27 to 60. There’s Kim Bliss, 40, a mail carrier from Port Charlotte, Florida, who is rocking a head of auburn dreadlocks that remind me of Medusa. There’s also Jennifer Molseed, a 40-year-old veterinarian from Virginia, and Laura Doyle McCormick, 54, an exercise physiologist who lives in Atlanta.

“When I was a child, I used to wish for gills when I blew out my birthday candles,” says McCormick, whose trip to camp was a Mother’s Day gift from her husband and three sons.

When we’ve all posed for our glamour shots — standard operating procedure at mermaid camp — it’s time to get into the water. This requires removing our blue sparkly tails (because as everyone knows, mermaids don’t have legs) and then putting them back on near the dock. It’s not an easy thing to do, and I struggle once again to insert my feet in the flippers that are encased in the pockets of the fin. Once that’s accomplished, I pull and wriggle the formfitting tail up and over my hips until my legs are stuck together like twin popsicles.

I am paired with instructor Becky Young, a 61-year-old respiratory therapist who worked as a mermaid in Weeki Wachee’s underwater theater from 1973 to 1976 and then again from 1981 to 1985. She also swims once a month in Weeki Wachee’s Mermaids of Yesteryear show and is one of eight former mermaids who run the Sirens of the Deep camp on weekends throughout the spring and summer. She hands me a face mask and then jumps in the water wearing flippers. I slither into the cold and grasp the flotation device she has extended for my use.

“Welcome to Weeki Wachee,” she says, towing me to the deep middle of the spring. “Now you’re part of its history.”

In truth, Weeki Wachee has long been part of my narrative. My parents took me to the park in the early 1970s when I was 5 or 6, and I remember gazing in wonder at the mermaids with their flowing hair, graceful moves and ability to eat a banana and drink soda underwater. I decided then that I had found my life’s calling and returned home to practice holding my breath in my best friend’s pool. I spent so much time underwater that summer that my blond hair acquired a green sheen from the chlorine, which I took as a sign from Neptune himself that mermaid magic flowed in my veins — or at least in my hair follicles.

Newton Perry, an avid swimmer and Hollywood movie consultant, is responsible for conjuring “the only city of live mermaids.”

In 1946, Perry, a technical adviser and an actor with Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan movies, was scouting for a good site to start a business and came across Weeki Wachee Springs on U.S. 19. The freshwater spring was full of rusted refrigerators and old cars. He removed the junk and built an 18-seat theater into the limestone, submerging it 6 feet below the surface so viewers could look through glass windows and into the water. He then invented an underwater hose that supplied oxygen from a compressor and began scouting for attractive girls to perform synchronized ballet moves while breathing from the hoses that were hidden throughout the rocks and scenery.

In 1959, Weeki Wachee was purchased by the American Broadcasting Co. (ABC) and became one of the hottest tourist attractions in the country.

Even Elvis Presley once stopped by to catch a show.

Vicki Smith, one of the camp Sirens, recalls performing for him in 1961.

“It was my 15 minutes of fame,” Smith says. “He was a true Southern gentleman; soft-spoken, kind of shy. He was about 22. I was 21. He was good-looking, but I was good-looking too.”

After the show, Elvis gave the mermaids signed copies of his latest album. “He wrote, ‘To Vicki, Warmest wishes. Elvis Presley.’ ” Smith hung on to the album for several years, but when she and her husband moved to Tennessee, she gave it to a young girl who shared her name.

“It probably ended up in the bottom of her toy box,” she says.

Smith joined the Sirens in 2014 after a spot opened up on the squad. There are only eight Sirens at any one time, and some of the women wait years before being invited to join. “Everything about this spring is so magical,” Smith says. “The feelings you get, the memories you have, the sisterhood you share. If this is the first job you’ve ever had, it spoils you.”

Smith started working at the park when she was 17. “You had three options when you graduated from high school,” she says. “You could either go away to school, get married or become a Weeki Wachee mermaid.”

Back then the theater held 65 people; it now accommodates 500. It was a two-girl show, and they performed eight or nine times a day, she says. “It was what they called a demonstration show because we ate a banana, we drank pop, we did a ballet routine. There was no music, no choreography, no costumes.”

Eventually, themes and story plots were developed for the underwater performances along with elaborate props, music, lifts and fancy costumes. Today, the 20 mermaids and two princes perform three or four shows daily in the Newton Perry Underwater Theater.

Lydia Dooson, a mermaid from 1969 to 1972 and one of the Sirens, recalls performing in “Cinderella,” “Peter Pan” and “Mermaids on the Moon.”

“It was 1969 and we’re landing on the moon and I’m swimming on the moon,” she says. “We had robots and a moonrise. This was before Disney opened in 1971. The theater was packed. It was standing room only.”

Dooson’s proudest moment came in 2007 when she swam “Belle of the Ball” with her 23-year-old daughter, Lauren, who had followed in her mother’s wake to become a mermaid.

“She literally took my breath away,” says Dooson. “It was the highlight of my life. If I talk about it anymore I’ll cry.”

Back in the water, Young is demonstrating the mermaid crawl, which involves thrusting your hips to gain forward momentum.

“It’s kind of like the butterfly stroke, but without the arms,” she says after watching me flounder like a convulsing fish through her goggles. “Don’t use your legs. You want to undulate.”

It quickly becomes clear to me that being a mermaid is no walk in the park.

 “We make it look easy,” says Young. “The water’s cold and it’s hard work, but there’s something really special about it.”

Eventually, I master the crawl and graduate to more-advanced moves like the flat-backed dolphin — a reverse somersault with an arched back and straight legs; the standing swan, which resembles an underwater headstand; and the Ferris wheel, a stunt executed by two or three mermaids holding on to each other’s tails while rotating in a circle. Laura McCormick and I work hard to nail this.

“You almost had it,” cheers Young as McCormick and I convulse in giggles at our botched efforts each time we surface.

Young was living in Iowa when she watched a televised special on Weeki Wachee in high school. “I thought if I ever got to Florida, I’ve got to see this place.” When she was a senior, her parents moved to Florida, and she followed after graduation. One day, she read an ad in The St. Petersburg Times: “Mermaids wanted.”

She decided to apply even though she felt certain she wasn’t glamorous enough to get the job. She was wrong. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” she says.

In 1997, she returned for a reunion show and in 2010 became a founding mermaid of Sirens of the Deep. The first few camps were sparsely attended, but word soon got out, and now they sell out days after the posting goes up on the Weeki Wachee website in January.

“For some people, it’s a bucket-list item,” Young says. “They’ve always wanted to be a mermaid. They love being in the water. For a lot of women it can be very healing.”

That’s part of the motivation behind Jillian Paige’s trek to the camp. A year ago June, her 23-year-old husband died of cancer. Her friend, Adam Mastrelli, gave her the trip with the hope that she’d find some solace living out her childhood fantasy.

“There’s nothing like the restorative powers of bonding with strong women,” she says.

During a lunch break of fruit, deviled eggs and Caesar salad, the group discusses the appeal of mermaids. We all agree there’s something mystical and magical about living under the sea.

“Who doesn’t want to breathe underwater and be all graceful and gorgeous?” says Bliss. “If you look at the literature, it’s subtle, but as far as female superheroes go, mermaids are the only strong ones. They’re the ones out there kicking butt. They’re in charge of everything down there and the ones calling the shots.”

“And you get to lure men to their deaths,” jokes Dana Reilly, a 60-year-old business owner, who has seen Disney’s The Little Mermaid at least 20 times with her granddaughter.

“That’s just a bonus,” Bliss says.

After the break, we head back to the water for a final swim as Sirens. Our fantasy is about to end, but for the first time in a long time I feel at peace, unencumbered by the weight of daily life and grateful for the companionship of the other women and the Sirens. As I push deep below the surface to admire a moss-covered statue of a prince, a shaft of afternoon sun shatters the depths like a floodlight.

A sea turtle moseys by. With a roll of my tail I surge forward, feeling powerful and free, like the mermaid I always knew one day I could be.

UNDER THE SEA

Want to try your hand (er, tail) at mermaid camp? Two-day classes include underwater ballet training, lunch and a certificate of completion. Go to Weekiwachee.com for information about the camp and other attractions at the park.