A mermaid convention descends upon the Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary this weekend. Granted, it won’t just be mermaids – there will be mermen, pirates and a fairy or two – but the spirit will be one of storybook fun as regular people don fish tails and swim gracefully in a pool.
“Like most little girls I always played mermaid at the pool,” says Luma Gallegos, one of six event organizers. “It’s a relatable mythical creature – it’s a woman who is totally empowered, who is part of the ocean, but is still a woman.”
Today, as the Mermaid Atlantis, she’s one professionally.
Merfest is a chance for people like Gallegos to share their passion and sense of wonder with the public, but it’s also a chance to see each other, as Merfolk are scattered across the country. Gallegos, for example, lives in San Francisco.
Some work kids’ birthday parties while some swim in freshwater springs in Florida. Some are pool mermaids, while others, like Gallegos, swim in the open ocean. What many of them have in common, though, is a sense of ecological responsibility.
Local group N.C. Merfolk, who runs this weekend’s convention, donate a portion of their proceeds to charities that help sea turtles.
The weekend events include mermaid performances and a Kids Zone featuring Ariel of “The Little Mermaid” and a Skalawag Skool for little pirates.
Gallegos talks about what goes into being a professional mermaid.
Q: I’ve read about mermaids who work in the springs in Florida, but where else do merfolk tend to work?
A: I personally do a lot of film and videography work in the open ocean. I get hired to go out to tropical locations and swim with wildlife, and photographers and videographers use that content as art, or a lot of times to inspire people for ocean conservation. I do a lot of birthday parties, a lot of swimming mermaid events.
Q: What’s the history of professional mermaids?
A: From the 1920s to the 1950s, there was this whole aquatic revival going on in Hollywood and in the media. People started doing underwater performances – and apparently the first popularized underwater performance was to watch women eating bananas underwater. That turned into mermaid performances, and Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida was the first place to really capitalize on that. A couple of the original Weeki Wachee mermaids will be there as attendees.
Q: How do you train to swim with a mermaid tail?
A: I train at my home pool in San Francisco. I try not to train with my full tail because I just get bombarded with awesome people who just want to know what’s going on, but I can’t get my workout in. I’m basically doing laps at the bottom of a 10-foot pool.
Q: In your open ocean video, you’re changing depth a good bit.
A: Dealing with pressure is a pretty tricky thing. In the mermaid community, we talk about different species of mermaid. I’m a tropical saltwater mermaid, so I love going in deep water. I love going in open ocean.
Q: It sounds almost like an extreme sport, when you describe it like that.
A: Swimming with sharks and whales and manta rays and holding your breath as long as you can when you go up to 60 feet underwater? Yeah. It’s an extreme art sport (laughs).
Q: What does it feel like when you are 60 feet underwater?
A: The very first time I did that I was on the Big Island in Hawaii, and it was a few days before my first open ocean photo shoot. I had been doing lots of laps in the pool, but that type of pressure and the waves and everything, it’s not the same.
So I took a lesson from Annabel Edwards, who’s a freediving champion. She had a floaty thing, and she had a piece of rope with a weight on it, and she said, “This rope is 60 feet long.” So she had me go down and come back up and she taught me how to clear my ears.
I had a really hard time, and I couldn’t get past 30 feet, consistently for an hour. And then a pod of wild spinner dolphins came out to play, and they were all 50 feet down. So I suddenly jumped from 30 to 60 feet – because there were dolphins to play with.