Florida camp turns mom into mermaid after bout with cancer
Few positives sprout from a bout with breast cancer. The first time I lay prone at the center of the “Star Wars”-like machine that would blast me with radiation, I made a conscious decision to banish fear from my brain and focus on my travel bucket list, which had come to a standstill in the rush of work, raising children as a single mom and, well, life.
No. 1 on my list was a visit to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
My father had waxed nostalgic about this magical spring, an hour’s drive north of Tampa, which he visited on a family road trip from Chicago to Florida in the ’50s. Named by the Seminole Indians, the crystal blue swimming hole ranks as one of Florida’s 30-some first-magnitude springs, a designation bestowed on springs discharging at least 64 million gallons of water a day.
It’s also the only spring in the world populated by mermaids.
Since 1947, a team of mermaids has performed underwater shows for spectators in what’s now a 400-seat submerged theater, outfitted with submarine-style glass windows.
When I found out about a two-day mermaid camp that trains the over-30-year-old crowd in the ways of the merfolk, I signed up stat. That’s the gift of breast cancer: You realize there isn’t any time to lose. As luck would have it, on the one-year anniversary of the date I clanged the end-of-treatment cymbal at the Lynn Sage Comprehensive Breast Center in Chicago, I dived into my magical mermaid adventure.
Newton Perry, a legendary U.S. Navy Seals trainer, put this quiet corner of Florida on the map in the late 1940s when he built the subterranean theater and placed a “Mermaids Wanted” ad in a local newspaper. Weeki Wachee’s Hollywood-style, sunken shows featured elaborate sets, complicated musical numbers and stunts like eating a banana and sipping a Coke … entirely underwater. The amazing acts attracted not only tourists but also Hollywood; the park served as the set for several movies, including “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” (1948) and “Neptune’s Daughter” (1949).
The Sirens of the Deep Mermaid Camp is a way for 30-and-older landlubbing women to test the waters as mermaids for a weekend. (There’s also a Junior Mermaid Camp for kids ages 7 to 14.)
The eight women in my session ranged in age from 30 to 60. We came from different places — Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago — but we all shared a love of water and a common goal: to step out of our ordinary lives and into the deep blue spring. Each of us was paired with a retired Weeki Wachee mermaid, a “Legendary Siren” to help us learn this unusual new skill set.
My first challenge was figuring out how to squeeze my lower body into a very tight, spandex mermaid tail — while wearing scuba fins.
The second challenge was trying to avoid falling flat on my butt while walking, on land, toward the diving ladder, a distance of about 15 feet, in aforementioned scuba fins and spandex tail.
The third challenge was braving the spine-tingling temperature of the freshwater spring, hovering around a nippy 73 degrees year-round. The sheer beauty of this peaceful, bubbling world made me forget the chill.
Many of the Legendary Sirens are well into their 60s and 70s, but they give the contemporary mermaids a run for their money. My instructor, Vicki Smith, 78, still danced through the strong currents with the greatest of ease. She fondly remembered performing in shows back in the late ’50s, when “diving into that pristine world of liquid diamonds was heaven on earth.” She even swam for Elvis when he visited the park in 1961.
Vicki taught me how to gather speed by shaking my tail fin — a spandex tube that bound my legs together, turning my scuba fins into a mono-tail. She showed me how to dolphin dive toward the center of the spring and ascend like a swan, how to use my breath to control my depth, how to wave like Ariel, and how to flash a brilliant smile, underwater, with my eyes wide open.
Our small group of mermaid campers worked as a team to learn the signature Weeki Wachee water ballet moves. We dared one another to dive deeper — with a heavy dose of girl-powered encouragement and lots of laughter above water.
“Some people find their peace and serenity in the woods,” Smith said. “For us, we find it in the water.”
Somewhere along the way, I forgot that I was trapped in the body of a middle-aged woman: There I was, not quite a lithe water ballerina, but a mom of two children, with plenty of heartaches and pain riding along on my tail scales, suspended midspring in “dolphin arch” position, smiling confidently at my imaginary spectators. I’m a so-so swimmer and as clumsy as can be on land. But I’m always enthusiastic and ready for a challenge. That’s the magic of Weeki Wachee: It can truly transform you into a carefree mermaid, if only you give it a chance.
Weekend camp sessions cost $450, with proceeds benefiting the Friends of Weeki Wachee, a volunteer-run organization dedicated to preserving the park’s natural beauty and running the camp.
Camp lasts from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and includes lunch. Though your trainer will be with you at all times in the water, you should be comfortable swimming and treading water at a depth of approximately 15 feet. Evenings are free to relax, though a day spent in the springs guarantees an early bedtime. Most mermaids opt to stay at the nearby Microtel Inn & Suites in Spring Hill.
The Weeki Wachee website encourages would-be mermaid campers to follow the park on Facebook and Twitter to get 2019 camp dates, which are expected to be announced in late January or early February. Camp sessions sell out quickly on a first-come, first-served basis.
Even if you’re not attending mermaid camp, a visit to the 538-acre park is worthwhile for a taste of Old Florida-style fun. Admission is $13 for adults, $8 for children ages 6 to 12. That price includes access to Buccaneer Bay, a spring-fed water park with a lazy river and white sand beach. Visitors can also take a relaxing riverboat ride or explore the adjacent Weeki Wachee River by kayak, available for rent onsite.
Admission also gets you a seat at the daily mermaid shows, but those performances — as well as riverboat cruises and wildlife shows — won’t resume until mid-March, due to renovation work at the park.
Mermaid campers cap off their session by performing a short showcase of their newly learned feats to visiting family and friends.
My kids won’t soon forget spotting their tail-finned mom swimming up to the airtight theater window to blow them an underwater kiss.
I won’t forget it either.
Amy Bizzarri is a freelance writer.
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