The Mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs
When I first visited Weeki Wachee Springs, I was seven years old and immediately fascinated with the place. I don’t quite remember the beautiful scenery, the palm trees, and the crystal clear water in detail but what really amazed me were the Weeki Wachee mermaids who dove in the spring and performed effortlessly on the underwater stage. They seemed perfectly at ease, holding their breath for several minutes, reaching for one of the air hoses just every now and then, before continuing with their acrobatics.
Weeki Wachee (pronounced Week-ee Watch-ee) derives from the Native American words “wekiwa” and “chee” and means “little spring.” But here this would be slightly misleading: It is actually the deepest naturally formed spring in the United States. Divers still haven’t located the bottom of the spring.
A one hour drive north of Tampa, Weeki Wachee is one of Florida’s numerous roadside attractions, originally built to entertain families driving around the state during vacation. Fish and manatees were the only residents of Weeki Wachee until, in 1947, a stunt swimmer developed the idea of an underwater show based on air hose breathing techniques. A theater was built into the spring, providing an aquarium-like setting for the mermaids to perform in.
The shows started with underwater ballet and now include entire plays – of course The Little Mermaid – featuring elaborate costumes, acrobatic choreographies, and music. Special air hoses allow the performers to stay under water for up to 45 minutes. The spring water’s temperature is at a relatively cool 21°C, literally chilling the mermaids to their bones, requiring long hot showers after each show – sometimes several times a day. Certainly, being a mermaid isn’t your average job: Half the trainees who make it through the interview and water auditions never achieve the rank of a mermaid. The final exam requires the aspiring mermaids to hold their breath for two and a half minutes while changing out of costume in the mouth of the spring. On a side note: The mermaid breath-holding record is 6 minutes and 10 seconds. Currently, there are only 19 active performers working in this tough, yet beautiful, environment.
Weeki Wachee Springs is located on U.S. 19 at the intersection of State Road 50, just north of Spring Hill and south of Homosassa Springs (6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill, Florida 34606). The park is a member of the Florida State Park System.
All photos in this article are copyrighted material of Weeki Wachee Springs and used with permission.