A Whale of a Tale
A Glimpse Into the Life of the Professional Mermaid Community
In the Beginning
How did this even become a thing?
My name is Hannah Burgess, a pretty average American white girl name (in fact the third most popular first name of 1995, the year I was born).I grew up being sort of a jack-of-all-traits. I played sports, played an instrument, enjoyed art, struggled with math, dabbled in photography, everything a teenager does to try and figure out who the hell they are.
Even though I was “good” at a lot of things, I never felt “great” at one certain thing, that is I never found something I was truly passionate about. When I moved to college in 2013 I had a lot of down time and wasted a lot of my time on tumblr, a artsy, hipster photo sharing platform. One day while I was looking up photo tags to find content to add to my blog I happened to type in “mermaid” in the search bar. At the time I expected vintage photos of mermaid movies to appear and spark my childhood nostalgia for mermaids, but instead I was presented with a whole world hidden under the surface of normal life, the world of professional mermaids.
Before I explain how I went from a aimless teenager to what you see in the title photo, I believe it is important to discuss the history of mermaids and how the perception of mermaids have changed over the last 100 years to allow the profession to develop into what it is today.
The History of Mermaids
Mermaid legends have existed almost as long as storytelling itself. Cultures all over the world have mermaid-esque stories, tales of women who live in the sea and the magic that surrounds them.The earliest account of “mermaids” were found in Ancient Greek who’s magic voices enchanted the crews of passing ships and lured them to the rocks where their ships would crash a the sailors would drown. The Yoruba people in western Africa had Yemaya, a river goddess who’s spirit traveled across the ocean during colonial African enslavement. These mermaid legends were passed down orally and many were written down in the forms of fairy tales such as Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid.
Fast forward a few hundred years to the dawn of a new medium of story telling, the motion picture. A lot of early silent movies followed mythology or historical stories such as Cleopatra (1917), Nosferatu (1922), The Mermaid(1911). The premise of Neptune’s Daughter was ”a water fantasy movie with beautiful mermaids in King Neptune’s garden together with a good love story” and was the first appearance of mermaids in the movie industry as well and starred Annette Kellerman, a woman who would later become regarded as the first professional mermaid.
Annette Kellerman was born in Australia in 1887 and was known for her competitive swimming and acting. She was the first women woman to wear a one-piece bathing suit and later launched her own line of one-piece swimwear that launched the start of modern swimwear in the early 20th century. Kellerman popularized the sport of synchronized swimming, starred in many aquatic themed movies such as Neptune’s Daughter, and performed in her home-made mermaid tail costumes at the Princes Court entertainment center in Melbourne, AU and did swimming shows inside aquariums in the area.
Kellerman immigrated to American to pursue a career in acting. Keller starred in many “fairy tale films” in the early 1910’s that started with The Mermaid (1911), “in which she was the first actress to wear a swimmable mermaid costume on film, paving the way for future screen sirens such as Glynis Johns (Miranda), Esther Williams and Daryl Hannah (Splash)”(Wikipedia). Similar designs to the costumes Kellerman wore on screen are still used by the world famous Weeki Wachee Mermaids, including her “aquatic fairy” costume featured in Queen of the Sea (1918).
Mermaids in America
Kellerman’s work influenced a change in the public perception of mermaids from the seductive, cannibalistic sirens of Ancient Greece, to a symbol of grace and fantasy. As mermaids became more mainstream (pun intended) stunt swimmer Newt Perry opened a mermaid themed park located in Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida in 1947. This park became an extremely popular summer tourist attraction in the 1950’s and 60’s and featured multiple daily mermaid shows in an underwater theater. The “mermaids” performed synchronized swimming acts using air hoses.
In the 1960’s Weeki Wachee expanded their show line-up to include programs such as “Mermaids on the Moon” which complimented America’s obsession with landing on the moon during the Cold War (insert pictures of post cards).
Over the years the park has been a home to multiple generations of mermaids including the lineage of Barbra Wynns, a retired mermaid featured in the New York Times Magazine video “The Mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs”. Wynns is a Weeki Wachee native who has dedicated her life to Weeki Wachee and is a respected member of international mermaid community. Wynns describes the feeling of being in the water at Weeki Wachee as “being at home”, a feeling shared by many mermaid performers. She continues to play a role in the training of new mermaids as well and has led workshops on aquatic performance at international mermaid conventions such as NC Merfest 2015.
In recent years Weeki Wachee Springs has opened their own “mermaid school” to accommodate the sudden explosion of mermaid obsession. Their school is one out of hundreds that have opened all around the world that seek to teach fitness and water safety through “mermaiding”.
In the latter half of the 20th century, mermaids made a splash in several Academy Award Winning films such as Splash (1984) and The Little Mermaid (1989). Both films were produced by Walt Disney Studios and launched mermaids into the international eye. Almost 40 years after the first rubber tails in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, Splash dazzled audiences with the realistic Urethane tail, the precursor to the extravagant silicone tails worn by professional mermaids today. A lot of work went into developing a fully functional mermaid tail for leading lady Daryl Hannah. Lead Special Effects Artist Robert Short (known for his academy award winning special effects in Bettlejuice (1988)) and his team created several versions of the signature orange tail, one of which is on display at Planet Hollywood, a restaurant at downtown Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Splash and The Little Mermaid captured the hearts of several generations and are the root of many professional mermaids’ love of mermaids and the ocean. But swimmable tails like the one in Splash remained an anomaly among the special effects/film world. It wasn’t until the dawn on the new millennium that the materials required to make swimmable and realistic tails became commercially available.
In the late 2000’s the rise of social media allowed for proliferation of niche communities such as the field of “mermaiding”. Pioneers of the mermaid industry made their own tails out of spandex like the Weeki Wachee mermaids or neoprene (wet suit material)painted to look like fish scales.
Hannah Fraser, one of the first contemporary professional mermaids(also Australian like Annette Kellerman)started making her own tails in 2006. Hannah grew up in Byron Bay, AU which is home to an abundance of ocean life and picturesque ocean waters. From a young age Hannah developed a love for ocean life and started underwater modeling as a hobby in her late 20’s. She made her first mermaid tail and started taking videos of her swimming among dolphins and other native ocean wildlife. After her mermaid content started to circulate around the internet, Hannah realized she could use her influence as an internet sensation to bring awareness to ocean wildlife conservation.
Hannah appeared as a mermaid (as well as human) in the world famous documentary The Cove(2009), a film that highlighted the horrors of Japanese dolphin hunting. The film’s success launched Hannah’s ongoing conservation movement and since then she has swam and posed with numerous different kinds of endangered wildlife such as humpback whales, whale sharks, dolphins, and Manta Rays.
In 2015, Hannah gave a TEDx Talk explaining how her job as a professional mermaid or “servant of the sea” connects humans to ocean wildlife. Her theory is that by highlighting the beauty of endangered creatures through photos and video it can help spread promote message of conservation without harsh scare tactics. But this “edu-tainer” approach to professional mermaiding is not limited to Hannah Fraser. In the cold coastal reigon of Nova Scotia, CA, there is another pioneer of the professional mermaid industry that has dedicated her life to education.
Stephanie Brown aka Raina the Halifax Mermaid started performing for children’s birthday parties as a mermaid in 2009. With a degree in early childhood development, Raina started to build a clientele in her region through interactive mermaid parties and by combining her mermaid character with mermaid swim lessons, ocean conservation education, and esteem building. Raina’s first few years as a mermaid were spent developing the community through an online forum called “The Mernetwork”. “The Mernetwork” has over 2,000 members from all over the world and has an interface similar to reddit with threads and discussion boards for various aspects of the mermaid industry such as mermaid media, mermaid tail making, information on insurance, marketing, etc.
In order to consolidate the massive amount of information about how to become a professional mermaid, Raina published her first book titles “Fishy Business: How to be a professional mermaid”, the first out three books on certain aspects on the business of being a professional mermaid. In 2013 Raina also launched a vlog series on YouTube titled “So You Want to be a Mermaid?”, a weekly supplement to the material inside her books. She currently has around 500 videos that cover every subject relating to professional mermaiding and over 8,000 subscribers. Countless beginner mermaids use her resources as a guide to establishing themselves as a performer.
In 2015 Raina participated in the first published study on mermaid tails. With the rest of her Halifax mermaid team, Raina partnered with Dalhousie University’s Capstone project alongside engineers, scientists, and aquarium staff at the Aquatron Research Laboratory. The purpose of this study was to test the hydrodynamics of several types of mermaid tails and monofins (the fin inside every tail) especially if a the tail has a wide fluke, lots of extra fins, or a small monofin inside. The end goal of this study was to gain information about the function of tails because often form is put over function for the sake of the appearance of a tail. The hope is that information collected by this study could potentially improve the design of mermaid tails to make them safer and more efficient in the water.
This study on mermaid tails resulted from the massive backlash against mermaid tails all over the world when fabric tails became commercially available and affordable through companies like FinFun Mermaid. FinFun Mermaid is a family owned and safety oriented company, but their products are often mistaken for toys and abused by inexperienced swimmers.
In 2015 Several viral videos of children struggling to swim in mermaid tails along with potential liability suits against pools for allowing dangerous “toys” such as FinFun tails and monofins led to a international movement to ban monofins and mermaid tails in public pools. Every YMCA in the United States and entire provinces in Australia and Canada banned mermaid tails in pools regardless of the certification a swimmer has to use them.
The danger associated with mermaid tails comes directly from inexperience in swimming with a tail and lack of training. Professional mermaids like Raina were outraged by this rash decision to ban mermaid tails based on risk-adverse conclusions and quickly came up with solutions to this new problem facing professional mermaids.
All over the world professional mermaids combined their skills to educate the public on safe mermaid tail/monofin usage and the mermaid school fad erupted. Regardless of location, the goal of these mermaid schools is always to educate swimmers about how to safely use a of mermaid tails when a parent buys their child a tail as a gift for their birthday or Christmas. The price of fabric mermaid tails have come down so much that they are around the price a parent would spend on a gift and are regarded as a fun toy just like the latest Princess dress-up outfit rather than a piece of swimming equipment such as a snorkel or fins.
For me the best thing about being a mermaid is being a symbol of “magic”. Although I don’t actually have magical powers that allow me to defy the laws of nature, I do have the magic to inspire artists to paint, poets to write, and for people of all ages to believe that they can be anything they want to be.
I started my mermaid business four years ago as a freshman in 2013 and have worked for The real Mermaids Tank show, the Virginia Aquarium’s “Mermaid Monday’s”, and for the Kitty Hawk Kites Mermaid School as an instructor. I am a PADI open water certified SCUBA diver and an American Red Cross certified lifeguard. I have four tails, two from FinFun Mermaid and two silicone tails from The Mertailor and Mermaid Jessica. I love making mermaid videos and crafting accessories and tops to portray a variety of mermaid characters.