Weeki Wachee looks like countless sleepy Florida towns, except for one noteworthy difference: it has more mermaids than humans.
This magical, one-stoplight town about an hour north of Tampa is composed of little more than a Winn Dixie Supermarket, Motel 6, and the local joint, BeckyJack’s Food Shack.
But follow the winding road through the tiny town, and eventually you’ll find Weeki Wachee Springs, home of the Weeki Wachee Mermaids.
This group of about 28 mermaids perform 30-minute shows three times a day in the state park’s submerged theater. Breathing tubes secured to the bottom of the spring feed the mermaids oxygen, allowing them to stay underwater for the duration of the show.
They swim in the natural springs alongside other water-dwelling residents, including manatees, turtles, otters and, occasionally, an alligator
The mermaid show started in 1947. Former U.S. Navy sailor Newton Perry came a year earlier to the then-wild area to pursue business. He cleared the spring, which was full of old, rusty appliances and discarded cars, and discovered a way to breathe underwater with an air hose and a compressor. Eventually he built a theater to start a show in the springs.
Perry scouted “pretty girls” and trained them to perform underwater, including dancing, eating and drinking, and wide-eyed smiling. Girls came from around the world to audition.
With little else to bring people to Weeki Wachee, “The Only City Of Live Mermaids!” has only four human residents as of 2013. The town is completely dependent on the mermaids — and the mermaids on the town. Even the mayor, Robyn Anderson, is a former mermaid.
Inside the Newton Perry Underwater Mermaid Theater, guests resting on rows of wooden benches chat as they wait with excitement for the morning performance of The Little Mermaid. Minutes later, the curtains rise, revealing an enchanting underwater universe.
On the other side of the glass, the mermaids, with their glimmering tails and flowing hair, swim through the cool, blue water. They perform with grace, moving effortlessly and stopping only occasionally to catch a breath from the tubes.
The transformation process from mere mortals to mermaids is arduous. Before their fins even touch the water, the mermaids master movements on land. They perfect their coordinated dives and twirls through hours of practice in the water, relying on the veteran “mersisters” to teach them techniques.
Desiree Stookey and Jordyn Belmonte are two of Weeki Wachee’s newest resident mermaids. Belmonte has dreamed of becoming a mermaid since she was 5, when she moved to Florida and saw her first mermaid show. Her family and friends love her underwater work.
“They have known I wanted to do this since I was a little girl, so they are very supportive,” she said.
Being a mermaid is also not without risk. After learning the choreography on dry land the girls must learn how to maneuver underwater and breathe, relying on a 64-foot-long tube that connects the performers’ locker room to the theater.
“There is a lot to think about,” said Belmonte. “You are swimming with what feels like one leg instead of two, the air hoses are pretty hard to tackle at first, but the hardest struggle is looking comfortable while performing even if you’re cold or tired.”
Once they are in the spring, the director uses an underwater sound system to give instructions from a control room inside the theater.
Back inside the locker room, girls scurry around in bathrobes applying makeup and picking out tails for their next show.
Mermaid Nikki Chickonski stands at the phone, calling down to the showroom to confirm who will perform in the upcoming shows. And just like that, it’s time to be mermaids again.
Five minutes before showtime, the girls grab their tails and head for the dive tunnel. Air tube in hand and dive masks firmly affixed to their faces, the mermaids splash into the springs to fill the pools with aquatic grace.