If you go
What: The World-Famous Weeki Wachee Mermaids
When: 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. daily Saturday-April 20
Where: S.C. Aquarium, 100 Aquarium Wharf
Price: Free with general admission ($14.95-$29.95)
For more info: 577-FISH (3474) or scaquarium.org
Mysterious myths and legends of exotic mermaids have been popping up around the world for centuries: in European and Asian folklore, in tales from global sea explorers and pirates, and in high-brow literature and visual art.
These days, mermaid fans usually seek the aquatic creatures in movies, TV shows and books. But there are small communities of real-life "mermaids" around the U.S. who can swim like skilled athletes and dance and entertain like seasoned stage professionals.
One of the preeminent mermaid shows on the scene hails from the famous Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in southwest Florida, located near the Gulf Coast just north of Tampa and just west of Orlando. It's a natural tourist attraction that has been featuring various underwater swimming and dance performances since the 1940s. They specialize in presenting mermaids in an aquarium-like setting.
Owned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Weeki Wachee Springs is now part of the Florida State Parks system.
"We have something that no other theme park can create: a beautiful theater built into a vast, first magnitude spring," says John Athanason, the marketing and PR manager for Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. "One of the big misconceptions is that we have mermaids swimming in a tank or an aquarium, but that's not the case. We're one of a kind."
In a rare trip away from the Weeki Wachee park, the mermaid team will make the trip to the S.C. Aquarium for a weeklong stint featuring an interactive family-friendly program and underwater performances.
Six of the park's most popular mermaids will swim, two at a time, with the sea life in the Aquarium's impressive Great Ocean Tank three times daily Saturday through April 20.
The S.C. Aquarium, one of the Lowcountry's most popular attractions, regularly features specialty exhibits and a variety of aquatic animals who live in and around rivers and oceans, but this event marks the first time mermaids will be highlighted at the Aquarium.
6 decades of mermaids
Athanason knows Florida's theme park world well. He's worked in the business for years, starting early in his career at Universal Studios in Orlando.
Full-time with the Weeki Wachee park for the last 13 years, Athanason knows well how water-related entertainment can connect with audiences, young and old.
"I'm a native Floridian, and Weeki Wachee was a place my parents always brought me to when I was a little kid," he says.
"I remembered the place fondly, so when the opportunity came up to work at the park years ago, I was glad to sign on. The place kind of captivates you and gets a hold of you, which is good."
For years, Weeki Wachee Springs has called itself "The City of Live Mermaids." The park predates Walt Disney World by decades, and over the past 65 years, it has stood out as a unique piece of Florida's heritage. In 2008, Weeki Wachee Springs became one of Florida's newest state parks.
"The park was one of Florida's original roadside attractions," Athanason says. "In the early years, the underwater performers were called mermaids, but they didn't wear tails ... The park's co-founder, (the late) Newton Perry, really had a vision for the park by way of synchronized swimming. He wanted to implement that same concept underwater, so he developed the park with a theater built into the main spring."
Perry worked as a film consultant and event promoter before developing the Weeki Wachee Springs underwater shows in the late 1940s.
He utilized highly trained stunt swimmers and based shows on underwater air-hose breathing techniques.
Hollywood filmmakers have occasionally visited the attraction to shoot scenes in the natural springs and with the roster of mermaids.
"The mermaid tails didn't come about until the mid-'60s," Athanason says. "Since then, we've been the mecca of mermaid-related entertainment. It all really started here, as far as I'm concerned. The mermaids have become very popular.
"The nice thing about this attraction is that we have all of that history and nostalgia. People know there's something special about the Weeki Wachee Springs mermaids," he says.
"The show takes me back to my childhood days," he adds. "It's remarkable. As with watching other dance performances on stages with beautiful choreography, the mermaids' performance can take you away from what's on your mind and what's bothering you in the day and provide entertainment and thrills. And it's all underwater."
Mermaids on the road
The Weeki Wachee mermaids never ventured away from their home base until 2008, when they planned a summer residency at Ripley's Aquarium in Myrtle Beach. There, the mermaids performed in a 15-foot deep, 85,000-gallon saltwater tank populated with sharks and stingrays.
"Before we did the Ripley's Aquarium, we'd never done the show outside of Weeki Wachee," Athanason says. "We were concerned about handling the choreography in the space and how we might be limited, but we worked it out well.
"The South Carolina Aquarium has been so helpful as we prepared, sending us dimensions of the tanks, information on the rock formations and information on what inhabits the tank. It won't take the mermaids but one rehearsal to get things down."
The family-friendly program at the S.C. Aquarium will feature hands-on guest experiences in addition to the elegant musical performances in the Great Ocean Tank.
Special interactive areas will be set up around the facility where guests can meet the mermaids, pose for photos and discuss marine life conservation efforts. Pirate-themed puppet theaters, craft areas and dress-up stations will be on hand, as well.
"At a lot of the aquarium shows, we try to use the mermaids to attract young and older people, but we bring an educational component to the show," Athanason says. "It's not just pure, simple entertainment. We hope to raise awareness about the aquariums to captive audiences. We want education to be fun."
Not just for kids
While youngsters may be dazzled by the unusual sights of pretty mermaids swimming in the Great Ocean Tank with their long fish tails, adults will surely get a kick out of the show, as well. There's an opportunity to appreciate the athleticism and artistic aspect of the intricate underwater choreography and breath-holding techniques.
"Their breath control, the ease with how they do it, and their look of comfort is very impressive," boasts Athanason. "I love to see the reactions in the audiences at the shows. The young people and the parents seem captivated by the beauty and gracefulness."
The six featured performers - Mermaids Stayce, Kristy, Andrea, Denise, Crystal and Mariah - will use their own customized air-hose system at the S.C. Aquarium, but the relatively smaller space and additional sea life will provide new challenges.
"The sea life at the South Carolina Aquarium isn't a great safety concern for the girls," Athanason says. "Any time you're diving there is a sense of danger, but we're more concerned about invading the animals' habitat. These mermaids are environmentally savvy. Our springs are inhabited by manatees, turtles and other special sea life, so the mermaids are already very aware and sensitive to being a detriment to the habitats."
While the professional mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs hark back to the exotic creatures of Greek myths and Hans Christian Andersen stories, their real-life, modern-day adventures aim to amuse and delight as well as serving educational and promotional purposes.
Altogether, their show provides an out-of-the-ordinary experience for any fan of aquatic life.
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