A month ago, I made a pilgrimage to Weeki Wachee, Florida, a dot of a city on the marshy Gulf side of the state at about the same latitude as Orlando. Weeki Wachee is little more than one square mile, has a population of 12 and is all about cold water.
I went there to watch mermaid auditions.
Weeki Wachee means little spring in the language of the Seminole Indians, and that spring is where an underground river surfaces, surging daily 117 million gallons of cold, clear, carbonated water. The river flows out to the Gulf of Mexico, and the springs are the centerpiece of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, a 70-year-old former roadside attraction known for its mermaids. It’s high-caliber kitsch and Florida fantasy. It’s small town stardom and aquatic athleticism. The mermaids wear their mermaid tails, swim in a spring with turtles and the occasional manatee, breathe out of hoses they hold in their hands and perform in an underwater theater that looks like an aquarium.
When I was a little girl growing up in Florida, I wanted to be two things: a mermaid and Nancy Drew. As Nancy Drew I could ask questions, be smart and look for clues to figure stuff out. If I were a mermaid, I could swim all day and breathe underwater. Fish would befriend me, and I’d spend my time watchful and undulating.
Water, air, fire, earth—this quartet of classical elements has been deployed in mythology, astrology and philosophy to distill the complex and help explain who we are. If I had to choose one, I would choose water, but what I know more deeply is that it is water that has chosen me.
The night before the mermaid auditions a cold front slinked in from northern climes. The late morning temperature on that January Saturday was a non-Floridian 40 degrees. Despite this, about five dozen women made their way into the park and huddled on a sandy beach that fringed the springs.
Young women who had enthusiastically embraced cosmetics wore blue sweat suits that read “Mermaid.” These were the already chosen. They carried clipboards and divided the hopefuls into groups, numbered their biceps with waterproof marker and explained the test would be a timed endurance swim of 300 yards against the current and 10 minutes of treading water. They said the ultimate goal of a mermaid was to look graceful while submerged 20 feet underwater.
When the groups were called the hopefuls waded into the chilly spring, swimming in a large loop outlined by soft buoys and current mermaids in swimsuits shouting encouragement. I stood in a thicket of journalists near a water slide watching the hopefuls kick. I listened to their labored breathing and imagined myself among them, swimming backwards through time.
Mardee was one of the wannabes. She stood on the shore swathed in a beach towel after the endurance swim. She had passed. At 57, Mardee was the oldest to audition and called herself a water nerd.
She said she grew up on a lake in rural central Florida about 30 miles from Weeki Wachee. She swam daily as a little girl and dreamed of being a mermaid or a duck. She said the dream of being a mermaid was sidelined when she married just out of high school and had children.
As she waited to be called for the water treading test, Mardee said she had fully expected to be competing with much younger women. “Initially I thought this might be ridiculous for me to do, and I don’t have any illusions I will be chosen, but I wanted to do the process. I wanted this to be a testimony to my grandchildren that you are never too old to reach for your dreams.” Her voice grew wistful and trailed off. Her lips took on a bluish tinge.
Amanda also stood on shore shivering beside her friend Stephanie. Both were in their early 20s and had failed the endurance swim. Amanda used two words I had never thought of putting together: mermaid strategy. She had the same cascading red hair as Ariel, the Disney mermaid.
“What I did this time was to start too fast, and then I just ran out of energy,” she said. Stephanie nodded vigorously and chewed on the edge of her beach towel. “This was way harder than I thought it would be. Way harder. Next time, I will start slow and save my energy to make it to the end.”
Amanda said she will try again even if the next audition might be a year away. “Come on. I mean this is a dream, isn’t it? Don’t you want to be able to say to someone that you are a mermaid? And you really are?”
That answer would be yes.