I was having a hard time holding my breath until I saw the mermaid swimming toward me. She slipped through the clear water as effortlessly as a dolphin, her iridescent tail glittering. We locked hands and swam off in the direction of her castle, our movements synchronized as one. She smiled, and a playful bubble drifted between us.
That did it. My lungs couldn’t take it any longer, and mermaid or no mermaid, I broke free and thrashed to the surface. My audition was over. Beth Thomas, the woman with the tail, is the supervisor of mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs in the town of Weeki Wachee (population 9), right off U.S. Highway 19 in west central Florida. She had just put me through a tryout to see if I had what it takes to become a member of her troupe. “Hey, that was pretty good,” she said, treading water beside me as I gulped air, but I knew in my heart it was not good enough.
For more than 50 years now, the underwater goings-on here in Weeki Wachee have been part of a great American institution — the one known as the roadside attraction. Back in the days before the Interstate came along, cross-country travelers encountered roadside attractions — caverns, zoos, dinosaur parks, haunted houses, wacky “museums” — everywhere they went. Today these quaint tourist traps are overwhelmed by sprawling theme parks, but, for those intrepid enough to eschew the thruway for the highway, they’re still out there, odd little oases of refreshment and entertainment like ...well, like the irresistible mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs.
Newton Perry, a flamboyant native of the Sunshine State, started putting on underwater spectacles for tourists at Weeki Wachee in 1947. Perry was a former Navy frogman who once served as a stunt double for Johnny Weissmuller in the old Tarzan movies. During World War II, he had worked on the development of breathing tubes and air compressors for Navy divers. His first show featured submerged women in swimsuits feeding fish and breathing from air hoses. Tame stuff by today’s standards but novel enough, back then, to gain notice. The seating capacity of Perry’s first “theater” was 16.
Before Perry arrived on the scene, Weeki Wachee was just another undeveloped swimming hole — one of a great many in Florida at that time. The state is renowned for its beaches and keys. Not so well known is that it may also have one of the highest concentrations of freshwater springs on earth. Earlier this year, a special task force, created to recommend strategies for protecting and restoring Florida’s springs, put the number at nearly 600. Among these are several of the nation’s largest, in terms of the volume of water they produce.
The existence of so many springs in the central and northern part of the state is due to the limestone formations that underly it. The limestone, porous, acts as a sponge, absorbing huge quantities of freshwater. Springs are places where that water issues naturally from the rock (or soil) onto land surfaces or into rivers and lakes. Most springs are small; many are not noticeable; some, like Weeki Wachee, are large and, as one state groundwater expert puts it, “charismatic.” Florida’s task force found that many of the state’s springs are experiencing reductions in flow and an increase in pollution from septic systems, storm water runoff, lawn fertilizers and agriculture. Even Weeki Wachee has undergone a steep increase in nitrate levels (and therefore the presence of green algae) since the 1970s.
Over the years, the show Newton Perry started there evolved from synchronized swimming and stunts like drinking a bottle of soda underwater to the current year-round production of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Weeki Wachee’s heyday was in the 1960s, when it was owned by ABC, which spent millions expanding an adjacent water park, improving the grounds and enlarging the underground auditorium, which now seats 400. As soon as Disney World, about 80 miles to the east, started up in 1971, Weeki Wachee began to feel the pinch. Annual attendance now hovers around 300,000, mainly older folks in the winter and younger families in the summer.
The first time I saw “The Little Mermaid,” I was with my wife and daughters. We sat down in the cool theater with tubs of popcorn and stared through panels of clear acrylic at an underwater kingdom. Altogether the viewing area was 80 feet wide and 10 feet tall. A faux anchor had been lowered into the water and a castle loomed, more or less, in the distance. The occasional turtle and school of fish swam by. The floor of the spring looked sandy and flat until the bottom dropped out about halfway to the castle; that was the mouth of the spring and it appeared to be very deep indeed.
The show began when a group of mermaids suddenly came swimming into view wearing colorful costumes, sparkling tails and exaggerated makeup. The kids were enchanted, and so was I. I was also curious. I had been a competitive swimmer for nearly 20 years, and I wondered: Could I do what those mermaids were doing?
The next time I visited Weeki Wachee, my intention was to find out. Beth, a ten-year veteran of the mermaid business, agreed to give me an audition. She told me that first I would have to hold my breath under- water for 30 seconds. Then I would surface, fully exhale and sink to the bottom of the “stage.” Next I’d approach the acrylic panels underwater, smile and wave. Finally I would have to do two acrobatic movements called the pinwheel and the dolphin.
Earlier I had chatted with two other members of the troupe, Gina Stremplewski, a mermaid, and Derek Brunet, who plays the part of the rescued prince. “It’s fun to be able to say you’re a mermaid,” Gina said. “The only bad part is the cold. You start to get the shakes after a half hour or so.”
The hardest thing to get used to, Beth told me, is the air hose. The performers take just enough air to maintain themselves at the proper viewing level. Novices take too much, and keep bobbing to the surface like corks. “You have to learn how to stay neutrally buoyant,” Beth said.
If you’re serious about being a mermaid, you have to work your way up like everyone else. If I were to pass my audition, I would start out as a trainee. After several months, I’d take a test to move up to swimmer. After a year or so, I’d take another test to become a full-fledged performer. Each new level would provide an increase in pay, and if I became a full-timer I’d be eligible for benefits.
Beth indicated from the control room that she was ready to go. Wearing only my baggy swim trunks, I jumped in. Grabbing onto the faux anchor, I held my breath, barely making it to 30 seconds. You can’t really see the audience without goggles or a face mask, but Weeki Wachee has an underwater sound system with powerful speakers, so you can hear people in the control room. I didn’t detect any outright laughter as I went through the rest of my audition, so I assumed I was doing OK.
Finally it was time for the concluding dolphin move. I was supposed to arch my spine, point my toes with one knee bent and spin backward in a full circle. I came up choking three times before I made it. Beth reminded me to approach the window underwater, smile and wave. “Bigger smile,” I heard someone in the control room say. “Bigger smile. That’s it. Now wave. Wave.” Then he started laughing. That’s when Beth came swimming out to me in her tail and bikini top, and we headed off for the Little Mermaid’s castle.
The magic of the roadside attraction is that it can make grown men and women feel and act like children. Maybe I’m not cut out to be a merman. But, thanks to Weeki Wachee, I could pretend for a day.