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Monday, June 24, 2024

Mermaids from across the nation gathered at Ginnie Springs last weekend.

Tami Baker, 38, reached out to the online network of “mermaids,” enthusiasts who invest thousands of dollars to swim in custom-made tails. Upward of 100 mermaids, aged 6 through 60, gathered at the springs for the weekend.

Baker was a 5-year-old in Mansfield, Ohio, when she saw the 1984 film “Splash.” She said everyone wanted to be a mermaid then.

Baker was scrolling through her Facebook feed 30 years later when she came across a video. In it, one of her friend’s daughter was swimming in a Fin Fun tail. Fin Fun is a company that produces water-friendly fabric tails that slip over the legs and feet. Baker wondered, “Why didn’t they have those when I was a kid?”

Curious, Baker said she hopped online and began researching mermaid tails. She decided to buy a cloth tail, the lowest cost option, first. Baker fell in love the minute she first flipped her fin.

She decided to make her own sequin tail next. She hand-sewed the entire tail, which took her a little over a year.

Chelseabelle Rioux was a small child in Mississippi when she decided she was going to become a mermaid. She took a long raft and cut two holes in it. She slipped her tiny legs into the raft and jumped into her apartment pool.

Rioux couldn’t swim. Unable to free herself from the makeshift tail, she began to drown.

The tennis coach from the apartment complex dove in to save her.

Clinging to the side of the pool, Rioux’s dream was still intact. She was determined to become a mermaid one day.

Now at 43, Rioux said buying a tail five years ago was the best decision she’s ever made. Swimming every weekend has improved her health, even causing her to quit smoking so she could dive deeper.

Rioux said every mermaid makes a tail at some point or another.

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Haley Edwards, a 21-year-old theater major at Converse College, makes silicone tails herself. She sculpts each scale by hand. The tail she was wearing Saturday had 980 scales.

Another one of her tails was sported by her best friend, Ariel Shelton, 21. Shelton is from Jacksonville, but the two have been inseparable since Mermania, a national mermaid conference, two years ago. Edwards said she is now charging $1,200 for her creations.

Baker said silicone tails can cost anything from $900 up. In addition, mermaids invest in handmade tops, scuba certifications, GoPros and crowns.

The tail Baker wore cost $5,000, and the tail Rioux was wearing cost $3,000. The silicone tails are completely custom, so whatever the mermaid can think, a retailer can make happen.

Lori Reeves Schaefer, one of the matriarchs of the Florida Springs Mermaids group, owns the most tails. She said she entered the mermaid world when she bought fabric tails for her granddaughters two years ago. After buying one for herself to swim alongside them, Schaefer was hooked. She now owns more than 10 tails.

The mermaids said the tails were akin to driver’s licenses; it’s how they identified one another. Schaefer is different from most mermaids because she shares her tails and accessories.

I went to Ginnie Springs expecting to simply interview some women who enjoyed wearing expensive tails while swimming. I was surprised to immediately be welcomed into the ranks of a supportive community of “merpeople.”

I sat on the steps of the entrance to the spring between Baker and Rioux talking to the “merpeople” for 20 minutes before they insisted I slip into a tail, too.

Schaefer pulled off her tail and booties and helped me into them.

Rioux and Schaefer swam beside me and taught me a couple of tricks: Keep your knees relatively straight and use your core. One of the best poses is outstretching one hand and blowing kisses with the other. Flips are much easier if you have a nose plug.

I have a lot of experience in the water. I swam competitively for 13 years under Steve Lochte, but the women were right. Deep diving with a fin adjusted to your body’s measurements was unlike any other aquatic endeavor.

While the “mercommunity” may be more than welcoming, outsiders are not always kind. The mermaids said they are often questioned online as to why they would choose to spend money on such an expensive hobby.

Mermen are degraded even more. Wesley Croft, 29, was the only merman wearing a tail when I was at the spring. He said he was too scared to put a tail on for more than a year.

“To all the other mermen, don’t be afraid of being made fun of,” Croft said. He said being a part of the most amazing and accepting community makes hate from the outside irrelevant.

Baker said there was more than 10,000 people interested in the event on Facebook. She didn’t expect this. The Ohio mermaid had organized the event as a way to take pictures with her photographer, Brian Cosgray, and meet up with some of her friends from Florida.

Baker has made a career as a professional mermaid. She started doing kids’ birthday parties. Now she does everything from the home and garden show in the International Exposition Center in Cleveland to pirate festivals to the most profitable weekend at her local lake. She said her portfolio is essential, because in Ohio, the idea of a mermaid is completely foreign to most people.

But Rioux doesn’t charge for her work. She owns two pet salons and is a mermaid almost every weekend in Florida springs as a volunteer with Florida Springs Mermaids.

The group is present most weekends at Alexander Springs. It is holding another Mermaid Meetup with the world-famous Hannah Mermaid at Ginnie Springs on Aug. 25. The group’s motto is “You can swim with us.”


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