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What is ‘Mermaiding’? The Water-Ful History Behind the Social Media Trend

(Photo Credit: Wu Wei/ VCG/ Getty Images)
(Photo Credit: Wu Wei/ VCG/ Getty Images)

Mystical creatures thought to be the stuff of stories, mermaids have entered the mainstream to show us that they are here and they are real. ‘Mermaiding’ is the act of wearing a costume mermaid tail, using both legs together to swim. It has become a popular activity in recent years, with people participating for recreation or even for their job.

There are a number of different companies that make mermaid tails that people can purchase, and there are an increasing number of mermaid shows, conferences, and festivals held around the world. Mermaiding, however, is not a 21st-century invention. Wanna-be mermaids have been swimming around for over a hundred years.

The Australian mermaid

Annette Kellerman was an incredible swimmer turned film star who is often seen as the first mermaid. She started swimming because she had rickets, and swimming helped to strengthen her legs. At only 18 years old she traveled to Europe with the goal of swimming its most notable rivers. She even tried to swim across the English Channel but was unsuccessful.

Instead, she moved on to performing a mermaid act and underwater ballet in the London Hippodrome. During one of her performances, she caught the eye of Prince Arthur, son of Queen Victoria, and he summoned her to perform at London’s Bath Club, a gentleman’s club.

Black and white photo of a woman wearing a mermaid tail and holding a giant key sitting in front of a back drop painted with fish.
Australian silent film actress and swimming star Annette Kellerman, c. 1911. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images)

Part of the requirement for her performance was that she cover her legs to be respectful. Needing a light bathing costume for the performance, she sewed a pair of black tights to a men’s bathing costume. The suit became known as “The Kellerman.”

Black and white photo of a woman in a mermaid costume with a man wearing Roman armour.
Annette Kellerman (left), in mermaid costume in role of “Merrilla, the Queen of the Sea” with an unidentified actor. (Photo Credit: Fox Films/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain)

Although she used her new bathing outfit for her performances, she began wearing swimmable mermaid costumes in her films. Most of the movies she made had an aquatic theme and involved her playing mermaids. She designed and made a number of these costumes herself.

Weeki Wachee Springs

In the mid-1940s, the first large-scale mermaid show began. This aquatic show, located in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida, was created by Newton Perry who trained US Navy SEALs to swim underwater during the Second World War. When the war ended, he thought that Weeki Wachee was a perfect location for this new performance.

Black and white photo of a woman wearing a mermaid costume underwater while a photographer takes pictures of her.
Professional diver Verna Benson poses underwater in a mermaid costume for photographer George Robertson at Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida, November 21 1966. (Photo Credit: Alan Band/ Fox Photos/ Getty Images)

He created breathing hoses for the performers to use, instead of carrying oxygen tanks with them. Rather than the mermaids performing in a tank, Perry placed the audience viewing area in the natural spring so they could watch the mermaids underwater.

When they first started, the mermaids weren’t a very popular attraction but they still put on entertaining shows. They would perform ballet, eat bananas, and drink non-carbonated beverages – all underwater. Eventually, the show grew in popularity and the mermaids performed eight times a day! The shows were real productions that included props, music and storylines.

Black and white photo of three women in bathing suits playing vollyball under water.
Weeki Wachee Mermaids performing underwater with Patsie Boyett as the kicker, Ruthann Skinner holding the ball and Dottie Kulick trying to block, 1954. (Photo Credits: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

Mermaid shows are still performed at Weeki Wachee, though with some modifications over the years, like the addition of a bigger viewing area.

Modern mermaids

Modern mermaids are a far cry from Kellerman and her skintight black bathing suit. They now have ornate and extremely detailed costumes with realistic textures and looks. Mermaiding has also taken off as a sport, no longer just associated with purely recreational swimming and performances. It is now part of the USA Artistic Swimming association, and there are many local and national competitions. Competitions include freestyle routines as well as different categories judged on skill alone.

Coloured photo of a large group of people upside down in the water all wearing mermaid tails with fish surrounding them.
110 divers perform underwater as they set a new Guinness World Record for the ‘largest underwater mermaid show’ at Atlantis resort in China, April 28 2021. (Photo Credit: Wu Wei/ VCG/ Getty Images)

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In April 2021, 110 mermaids came together to break the Guinness World Record for the largest underwater mermaid show at the Atlantis Resort in China. Performers met ahead of time for training and to practice their routine before unveiling it for the crowd.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.