By Cathy Salustri
Once monthly, former Weeki Wachee mermaids don their tails and slip into the 72-degree water. Catch them while you can.
Mermaids are everywhere, from the Starbucks icon to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. In the Las Vegas desert, there is an annual mermaid convention. And courtesy of Walt Disney, everyone knows Ariel.
But this Weeki Wachee mermaid show on Florida's northern Suncoast, not far from the Gulf of Mexico, was the first of its kind. More than 60 years ago, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park invited the world to watch mermaids dance.
In 1997, Weeki Wachee called former mermaids out of retirement to celebrate the Springs' 50th anniversary. Lines wound along park paths and out into the parking lot to see 26 former mermaids – some in their 70s – twirl and pirouette under the sea during their mermaid shows.
One show turned into three that day, and the former mermaids' Tails of Yesteryear found its place alongside the current Weeki Wachee mermaid shows. Once monthly, former mermaids don their tails and slip into the 72-degree water.
They look little like their younger counterparts. These mermaids have spent 40 years on land. They have had babies and careers.
But back in their element, they are agile, graceful creatures again, eliciting applause and tears from the crowd. The spring washes away weight and wrinkles, and they play out a script from 40 years ago – dancing on the water, suspended in time.
Barbara Wynns, the spokes-mermaid for the "formers," as fans call them, first swam as a mermaid when she was 17. After she retired, she longed to return.
"There are no words. You've got turtles playing with you and manatees. You're floating in cool, clear, fresh water. It's the most incredible thing in the world. You dream about it when you're not here."
In 1957 Brooksville, a girl's choices were limited: get married, go to college or become a mermaid. Vicki Smith began swimming without the costumes and music that accompanied later shows. Marriage didn't stop her, and when she got pregnant, she kept swimming.
"It's like water in your veins," said Vicki, at 71 the eldest of the Springs' grande dames. She lives less than two miles from the park. "We're still a part of the river, a part of the spring."
Former mermaid Lydia Dodson also stayed close. Her daughter Lauren became a mermaid, too. But the job application changed with the generations.
In 1969, Lydia swam across the spring and back and got the job. The early mermaids also wore masks. 40 years later, Lauren had to execute underwater back flips and demonstrate breathing and buoyancy control.
"(My mom) says what we do is way harder," said Lauren, who will leave the Spring this fall for
When Lauren leaves, there will be no going back. Park management says that once the former mermaids hang up their fins for good, the legacy shows will end.
"Whenever these current mermaids get ready to quit I tell them, ‘Be sure you're really done, because you're never really done'," Barbara said. "Every mermaid that ever swam a show at Weeki Wachee would say, ‘If I could just get on that air hose one more time.'"
If You Go
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
6131 Commercial Way, at the intersection of SR 50 and US 19
One weekend every other month, the formers have a wet rehearsal in front of park guests; the following month, they perform. Admission costs $13 for adults and $8 for kids ages 6-12; Buccaneer Bay admission is included in the price of admission. Canoe and kayak rentals cost extra.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is also home to Buccaneer Bay, a spring-fed water park with flume rides, kiddie pool area, beaches and sand volleyball. Kayak rentals and guided trips are available at the park for a six-mile, downriver paddle to Rogers Park, which has a swimming area and restaurants on the river.
Other local spring-fed rivers with swimming and kayaking include the Chassahowitzka, Crystal and Rainbow. Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park offers boat tours on Homosassa Springs as well as an underwater observatory for manatee viewing.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Park
4150 Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa
Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge
1502 Southeast King's Bay Drive, Crystal River
Crystal River Preserve State Park
3266 North Sailboat Ave., Crystal River
Rainbow Springs State Park
19158 Southwest 81st Place Road, Dunnellon
Cathy Salustri writes about historic Florida places and people as well as Florida's lesser-known attractions and out-of-the-way adventures. She lives in St. Pete Beach.