The worst part about being a mermaid, according to Staycy McConnell, a 31 year-old full-time mermaid performer at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida, is all the swimming.
It may sound like a contradiction — not liking to swim when you’re a mermaid is like being a tax accountant who’s annoyed by math — but the job requires more time underwater than even the most skilled swimmer would be comfortable with. The Florida air is usually warm, but the temperature in the Weeki Wachee freshwater springs, where McConnell performs with her fellow mermaids for packed houses three times a day, seven days a week, is usually in the low 70s. (The U.S. Water Fitness Association claims that the ideal water temperature for adults is between 85 and 89 degrees.) “If you’re not one who really likes cold water, it can be pretty miserable,” says McConnell. “Especially when you’re down there 30 to 45 minutes at a time.” Which just so happens to be the length of an average mermaid show.
And then there’s the 15-pound mermaid tail that performers have to wear, which zips up the side and binds their legs together. “You have to swim like you only have one leg instead of two,” McConnell says. “Which isn’t as easy as it looks.” Making it look easy is what separates the career mermaids from the amateurs. “You don’t want to do a swimmer’s stroke when you’re being a mermaid,” she says. “You can’t look like you’re struggling down there.” Performers spend countless hours rehearsing a highly stylized swimming technique called the Mermaid Crawl. “It’s about being graceful and looking natural,” McConnell says. “You learn how to swim with pretty hands.”
Making sure your hands grip the water in an aesthetically pleasing manner isn’t the first thing most people think about when they’re 16 to 20 feet below the surface in freezing water. But it is for a Weeki Wachee mermaid. And then they have to remember all the choreography of their routine, which includes underwater lip-syncing and synchronized swim-dancing, all while trying to breathe through a hidden rubber hose, and hoping that the pressure from being underwater won’t give them another ear infection or nose bleed, and fighting against the spring’s current, which can push against them at surprisingly strong speeds of up to five miles an hour, and trying to smile through it all as if they’re the happiest, most relaxed and care-free fictional creature in the world.
Weeki Wachee, located about an hour north of Tampa, is one of the oldest and most revered tourist attractions in Florida. It’s been around since 1947, and though it’s long past its golden age during the 60s — when it wasn’t uncommon for celebrity guests like Elvis Presley to stop by and flirt with the mermaids — it still attracts steady crowds, with an annual attendance of around 175,000 visitors. It’s a far cry from nearby Disney World, which attracts 16 million-plus people every year. But Weeki Wachee, unlike Disney, hasn’t changed in any significant way in 65 years. The park was putting on mermaid shows back when your grandfather was vacationing in Florida, and it’s putting on more or less the same classic mermaid shows today.
The auditions to be a Weeki Wachee mermaid, McConnell says, can be brutal, especially for the young men and women (yes, there are male mermaids) who think the job just requires posing for pictures with tourists. “Before we even talk to you,” she says, “we make you get in the water. We watch from the theater to see what faces you make.” Some people, she says, may be amazing swimmers, but their expressions underwater are far from elegant. Do their cheeks pop out like a mermaid Dizzy Gillespie, or do their complexions turn blue and their eyes bulge in unattractive ways? The last thing an audience at Weeki Wachee wants to see is a mermaid who looks like he or she might be drowning.
McConnell has been with Weeki Wachee for 12 years, making her the current most senior mermaid at the park. (Most girls, she says, last only a year or two.) Being a mermaid may not be the highest paying profession — she’s also a bartender at a nearby Applebee’s to supplement her income — and health benefits for mermaids are only optional. (“We pay in sea shells,” she jokes. “In the under water world, it’s legal tender.”) But McConnell says she has no intention of retiring any time soon. It may have something to do with the lack of career options, acting or otherwise, that require the same skill set involved in pretending to be a mythological half human-half fish hybrid.
Asked what she might want to do next after hanging up her fins, McConnell says, “I guess I could do any show where you have to hold your breath for any length of time.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Bloomberg Businessweek website.)