LAS VEGAS – While blowing a kiss to a little boy, the last thing Ariana Liuzzi expected was a black eye from a stingray.
Most jobs don't include the risk of being attacked by fish – or being flashed or mooned by human strangers. But for Liuzzi and the handful of other mermaid performers at the Silverton casino’s aquarium, it’s just another day in the tank.
Liuzzi, 22, may have one of the more adventuresome jobs in this tourist town: Four days a week, wearing a sequined blue-green tail, she climbs into a 117,000-gallon tank inside the busy casino for a series of flips and kicks -- playing the role of a storied she-creature for hardened gamblers and youthful visitors alike.
Over the last four years, she has endured such indignities as being mooned by a hotel patron, not to mention the “drunk guy who flipped me off because I wouldn’t give him a kiss,” she said, crinkling her nose with disgust.
But that’s nothing compared to the wildest residents of the casino, located just east of Interstate 15: the tropical fish, 4,000 of them, which include 160 different fish species, five types of rays and even a few sharks.
On the day she had her run-in with the cow-nose ray, Liuzzi was blowing a “bubble kiss” to a small boy on the other side of the glass when she spooked the ray.
It was relaxing just over her head, allowing the bubbles to pass through its gills. Liuzzi said she had no idea the creature was so close.
“Cownose sting rays are the most friendly of the rays we have and love to come up to you for attention; they're like dogs,” said Liuzzi, a journalism major at the College of Southern Nevada.
Apparently, she said, the creature was startled by her fast motion and took off swimming straight toward her eye.
“It felt like I was just punched, because they swim with a lot of force when they feel they need to get away from a situation,” Liuzzi said. She had to be pulled out of the tank and couldn’t finish the show, but she has recovered.
Growing up near the ocean in Long Beach, Liuzzi says, she was a “water baby.” At age 8, she took to the pool and began synchronized swimming, competing in the sport until she turned 17. Her family moved to Las Vegas when Liuzzi was a teenager, but despite the desert climes, she found a way to stay in the water at local pools.
In 2009, her swim coach encouraged her to audition for the Silverton job. The coach was also the casino’s “head mermaid."
Liuzzi soon discovered the world of the fish tank, where the water temperature is kept at 77 degrees -- a happy medium for the varied creatures that hail from most of the seven seas but call the mammoth tank home.
Although all Silverton mermaids are certified divers, their special uniforms - seashell bikini tops and tails - are not fashioned with typical scuba tanks. Instead, the performers breathe from “hookah ports” throughout the artificial reef, taking in just enough air to accomplish a few stunts before returning for more.
The mermaids each spend about 15 minutes underwater along with a safety diver. They’re lowered into the tank by a swing lined with scrunched-up pink fabric.
Despite the incident with the ray, aggressive creatures are rare. But, she said, “There’s one particular fish that has been hostile recently, and not just biting but attacking people.”
Hostile creatures wind up in the quarantine tanks for a “time out.”
Visitors can be as colorful as the fish.
“There’s a lady that dresses her cat up to see us. She brings it in a carriage and puts sunglasses on it,” Liuzzi said. The woman once brought her costumed cat to a meet-and-greet session so her pet could be photographed with the mermaids.
But her favorite guests are the children. Near the tank’s upper deck hang children’s drawings with brightly crayoned colors and scrawled sketches of the mermaids.
“So many kids think I’m real,” Liuzzi said. Some people contact her on social media to tell her she made their day.
For Liuzzi, it’s just another day in the tank.