Do You Believe in Mermaids?

When she was a child, Catherine Williams’ parents took her to see the Mermaids of Weeki Wachee, women who had been mesmerizing visitors for generations with their performances of underwater ballet in the famous Weeki Wachee Springs. 

“They were extremely glamorous,” says Williams, today an art conservator in Austin. “I remember they smiled the whole time while underwater. After seeing them, I would try and try to teach myself to do that.”

Visitors have been cherishing memories like this for decades, ever since a man named Newton Perry had the idea for a new kind of show — synchronized swimming (think Ethel Merman in “Neptune’s Daughter”) that would be performed entirely underwater. 

Perry, an accomplished swimmer and coach who had trained Navy Frogmen to swim underwater in World War II, established the park in 1947 and opened it to the public as a tourist attraction. Located just north of Tampa on U.S. 19 — only four miles from Livano Nature Coast — the park boasts one of the deepest-known underwater cave systems in the country, with springs fed by 117 million gallons of clear, fresh water bubbling up from the limestone of the Florida aquifer system every day. 

Perry believed the underwater performers (always known as mermaids, though the original swimmers did not wear tails) would be a perfect fit for the already breathtaking beauty of the site. He invented a special breathing apparatus that the mermaids still use to this day. He built a subaqueous theater for audiences to watch the mermaids through a giant glass window, and the show has been drawing visitors to the park ever since. 

“We have people from all over the world descend on Hernando County to see this unique and charming attraction,” says John Athanason, tourism marketing specialist for Florida’s Adventure Coast Tourism Bureau. The most famous visitor, he adds, was Elvis Presley, who in 1961 paused production on a film he was making nearby to come see the mermaids perform. 

Athanason’s personal history with Weeki Wachee — today a Florida State Park — dates back to childhood. A native Floridian, he remembers coming to see the show as a kid. In 2001 (prior to his current position), he became the marketing and public relations manager for Weeki Wachee Springs and says returning to the park brought memories flooding back.

“When I started working at the park in 2001, it was like stepping back in history and reliving my childhood,” he says. “That’s what makes the park special, because it provides that for people.”

Before there was Disney World

Part of that nostalgia, Athanason notes, comes from the fact that Weeki Wachee predates by far today’s bigger-name Florida attractions, like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. “A lot of the major parks now have rides that are 3D or virtual reality,” he says. “And they’re great — don’t get me wrong. But there’s something special about the Weeki Wachee Mermaids, because you’re 16 feet below the surface of this pristine spring, and it’s the only theater of its kind in the entire world. It doesn’t need any special effects. Regardless of your age or gender, to see these beautiful people perform underwater ballet is magical.” 

Charles Buchanan, a writer and visual artist in Birmingham, Ala., had heard about the park for years but never had a chance to visit as a kid. A few years ago, he got his chance when he took his family to Sanibel Island for vacation; on the way home, they decided to take a detour to Weeki Wachee. “Our daughter at that time was four, very much into mermaids, and still straddling that line between what’s real and fictional,” Buchanan remembers. “But we could tell she was going to lean on the side of, ‘These are totally mermaids.’”

For Buchanan, the sense of history was tangible. “It’s a quirky, interesting, authentic old-Florida tradition, and I love the idea that generations of people have driven that way to watch these performers.” 

A Sorority of Sirens

Athanason says over the years he’s gotten to know many of the underwater performers, who engage in four to six months of intense training before officially joining the elite group known as the Sorority of Sirens. Many are simultaneously attending college or graduate school or training for a career as an EMT or firefighter and have earned the privilege of performing as a mermaid to put themselves through school. Athanason says he sees how hard it is for them to relinquish the title of Weeki Wachee Mermaid once they decide to move on to the next phase of their lives, but he’s also had the pleasure of watching them maintain lifetime friendships and later bring their own children to experience the magic of the show.

“They showed off all their tricks, like the one who could drink a Coca-Cola underwater, and they were giggling and had such a youthful spirit.”

Many in fact return in earnest, years later, to volunteer as instructors at Sirens of the Deep Mermaid Camp — a weekend-long experience in which women ages 30 and up come to Weeki Wachee for a crash course in underwater ballet, transforming themselves into mermaids, at least for a couple of days. 

Erin Street, who is based in Birmingham, Alabama and works in human relations for a tech company, participated a few years ago and describes it as an unforgettable opportunity. “I grew up in Clearwater, Fla., going to see the mermaids,” she says. “When I heard about the camp, I messaged a friend from high school, and we jumped on it.” 

She says her instructors that weekend ranged in age from their 50s to an 84-year-old woman she describes as “amazing.” 

“For a weekend, you learn how to swim underwater and do certain skills and tricks, including a lot of breath control. You want to be graceful and lovely, so they teach you how to open your eyes, smile, and blow kisses while you’re doing flips and various formations. They make it look effortless, but it’s much more physically demanding than you think. The highlight is being able to swim in the underwater theater and see from a vantage point that very few people get to see.” 

Street adds that the instructors also told them about the history of the park, the springs, and the amazing wildlife. They told the campers about the Native Americans who once lived on the land and gave the springs the name “Weeki Wachee,” which means “little spring” or “winding river.” 

She says many of these mermaid veterans have become strong advocates for preserving the natural integrity of the area and teaching others to treat it respectfully. After her weekend there, Street says she understands why. 

“It’s a very peaceful, beautiful place,” she says. “People tend to forget that Florida has these amazing, natural spaces like this and go right for the kitsch, but this is really a beautiful thing. Even now, if I’m having a bad day, I’ll think about what it felt like, floating on the surface and looking underneath … knowing that I was able to make this dream come true and that I actually became a mermaid. It makes my inner child very happy.”

Tara Cox, a writer and editor in New York City who has also attended the camp, echoes that sentiment. “I remember thinking, this is how it would feel to be onstage at Madison Square Garden if you were a musician,” she says. 

“The people who work there have a ton of talent to perform those shows. They look beautiful, but they’re also magical and special and different.”

Cox adds that meeting the retired mermaids only enhanced her childhood belief that they hold superpowers. 

“They did a show for us during that weekend, and it was just gorgeous. They showed off all their tricks, like the one who could drink a Coca-Cola underwater, and they were giggling and had such a youthful spirit. It was beautiful. My instructor would also tell stories from back in the day. Not only was she a mermaid, but her daughter was, too.” 

Cox says that even though she was exhausted, she still wasn’t ready to leave when it was over. “None of us wanted to leave. We said, ‘This is only two days? I could do this for a week!’ It holds a special place in the heart. Until I die, I’m probably going to go there as my happy place.”