Located about forty-five miles north of Tampa, and still in existence today, Weeki Wachee Springs has been featured in major motion pictures and visited by astronauts, movie stars, and Elvis Presley. Like everyone else, they came to see the famous mermaids—in actuality, highly trained swimmers and divers.
The following excerpts from Weeki Wachee Mermaids is part of our series highlighting the work of Florida literary magazines and publishers. The book itself features rare, never-before-published vintage photographs, postcards, and publicity shots taken over a thirty year period. Co-wrttien by Lu Vickers and Bonnie Georgiadis, Vickers’ accompanying text retraces the origins of the attraction, particularly the ways that entrepreneur and underwater photography pioneer Newt Perry set Weeki Wachee apart from all the other springs in Florida; while, in this excerpt, Georgiadis, a former mermaid herself, recounts her underwater experiences.
From Lu Vickers’ Intro
The years captured in the photos and postcards collected here—from the monochrome 1940s to the colorful Photochromed 1970s—were the wonder years, not just for Weeki Wachee, but for all of Florida’s attractions, the years that began when, as historian Gary Mormino points out, a “flood of postwar tourists spawned a commercial creativity that survives to this day.” No other state can lay claim to such creativity. By the late 1940s, Florida had more gardens, jungles, monkeys, and parrots than a tourist could snap with a Brownie Hawkeye. But only one place had banana-eating mermaids, and that was Weeki Wachee. As an anonymous caption writer wrote beneath one of the thousands of photographs to come out of Weeki Wachee featuring a group of teenaged mermaids playing on an underwater playground, “It took Florida to come up with this stunt.”
The vintage photographs and postcards that still exist tell more than the story of a park’s rise to prominence. They represent a unique piece of Florida’s history: the history of a spring, the history of the underwater performance that began the day Newt Perry dove into a crystal clear spring. Nothing says Florida quite like the image of a Weeki Wachee mermaid.
What the Mermaid Saw
Esther Williams, the famous swimmer turned movie star, was my idol. I’d seen her in the movies performing synchronized swimming on the water surface and below. She was a ballerina in my eyes, an underwater ballerina. Back when I was a kid, I swam at Wall Springs, south of Tarpon Springs, Florida, my hometown. Pretending to be Esther, I’d slip below the surface of the water and smile and do all kinds of tricks. In my imagination, I would line up a row of my classmates on the roof of the dressing rooms that ran parallel to the swimming pool; then, we would peel off, diving into the water wearing flowered bathing caps and sparkling bathing suits. Of course this never happened, but I sure dreamed it did.
I was in the seventh grade at Tarpon Springs Junior High in 1947 when Weeki Wachee opened. My sister, Marti, was a senior when she drove us the 30 miles up U.S. 19 to see the show. A number of kids in her class were among the original performers. We walked down a set of stairs into what looked like a long steel submarine with three rows of wooden benches where we sat and looked out windows into the spring. We were actually sitting six feet underwater. We looked out and watched our friends, Ed and Mary Darlington, Mary Ann Ziegler, and Ned Stevens, as they ate bananas and drank bottles of Grapette while breathing from air hoses. They also fed the little blue-gilled bream bread right from their hands.
It was hard to believe they were performing underwater, because the water was as clear as air and their hair (at least the girls’ long hair) flowed with their movements as if windblown. They carried hoses that constantly streamed air bubbles, and when they nonchalantly put the hoses in their mouths and inhaled a breath of air, they made the act of breathing underwater look simple.
The best part was when one of them made the deep dive for the grand finale. The girl swam directly down into the boil of the spring, deeper and deeper, until she went out of sight. Another mermaid pulled her air hose away so she HAD to hold her breath. Did she rush back to the air chamber? No. As she ascended toward the surface of the spring, she performed ballet for what seemed like a very long time before finally swimming to the chamber for a breath.
These boys and girls were the talk of Tarpon Springs High School. Admiring glances followed them through the halls. They were just like movie stars. After watching them, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew I was born to be a Weeki Wachee mermaid! I told my Aunt Margi, who snidely replied, “You could NEVER do that!” That’s all she had to say. I HAD to do it. Four years later, when I was seventeen, I applied to be a mermaid.
Vicki Sharp (left), Mary Sue Clay, (center), and Bonnie Georgiadis demonstrate the 3 Bs of mermaiding in this 1960 photo. By permission of Bonnie Georgiadis. Reprinted by permission of the University Press of Florida.
People have asked me, “What’s it like to live underwater?” You are weightless, suspended without wires—zero gravity—and yet you can move about with very little effort. It is like drifting in a dream or floating in the clouds except the clouds are made of air bubbles, dancing their way to the surface. The bubbles look like white cotton candy, and they’re having their own little race. The larger bubbles always win. When a rainstorm comes, the wind dashes about, rippling and pushing the surface water this way and that. You can see the energy, but you can’t feel it. You are apart from it. When the rain begins to fall, hundreds, no thousands, of stars form, twinkling overhead, as the drops strike the surface of the water. It is so beautiful. Oh, for gills! Sometimes, especially in the summer, there is lightning along with the rain showers. Mermaids fear lightning, along with the alligators, poisonous snakes, eels, and aggressive soft-shelled turtles. Lightning can travel a long distance through water; it can strike downriver and shoot up to the spring. You’d be very aware of it if you had contact with any kind of metal: costume parts, metal zippers, safety pins, the air hose’s brass fittings. Heaven forbid your body should come in contact with the ground. Touching the ground with rubber flippers, though, would exempt you from feeling shock.
My first experience with lightning was when I was standing barefoot on the wooden floorboards in the air chamber looking through the glass window. I was watching B. J. Steiner perform ballet just in front of me. My turn was coming up. B. J. had exhaled a little too much air and was sinking toward the ledge right before me. She lowered her hands to push off the bottom. At that exact second the lightning struck. I saw the flash. Her body crumpled with a jolt. She pulled herself into the air chamber and shouted, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” Luckily, I never felt a thing. Today the mermaids are called out of the water when there is even a threat of a thunderstorm.
Through the years I have heard some funny comments from guests. One of the funniest came from someone who seemed to forget she was looking through water and exclaimed “I didn’t know turtles could fly!” Then another time two mermaids were swimming away from the audience on the surface after the show. Their flippers moved up and down as they swam. A little old lady said, “Oh, how sweet, they’re still waving goodbye!” I had to scratch my head when I heard someone say, “You know, there’s at least three good breaths inside that face mask.” But most amazing were the multitudes of people who flatly refused to believe the show was real! The water is that clear. People made up ways we could do the show without really being underwater that were much more difficult than the way we actually did it: The theater windows are aquariums containing fish; the mermaids are suspended by wires; there are large fans blowing their hair. Then there were the other misconceptions. A large number of people thought that we breathed pure oxygen. Below thirty feet oxygen becomes lethal. We’d all be dead! We are breathing compressed air, folks.
I spent thirty-seven years at Weeki Wachee, thirteen or so as a mermaid, then seven years as show producer and choreographer. I learned a lot from our previous show makers: Gloria Hamilton and Jack and Marilyn Nagle. When I first took over as producer and choreographer, we were changing the show every year, alternating between a fairy tale and a musical revue. I especially enjoyed writing shows like Mermaids on the Moon. The underwater landscape at Weeki Wachee reminded me of the surface of the moon, and our weightlessness lent itself to visions of outer space. Staging Peter Pan was a natural as well. We could actually fly!
At that time we didn’t realize those were Weeki Wachee’s best years. The big mouse scurried into Central Florida and our attendance dwindled. We stopped changing the show every year to save the cost of new props. But costumes still needed replacing about every six months. Fabric doesn’t like being wet all the time. Then I stopped choreographing and was transferred to the bird department where I became a manager. That included handling birds of prey, macaws and cockatoos, as well rehabilitating wild birds. I went from being a mermaid to becoming a falconer. I helped rehabilitate and release two bald eagles using falconry techniques. Now, there’s a thrill.
It’s been twenty-one years since I left Weeki Wachee. Now, I realize, I never really left. So many memories keep flooding back. So many friends. My daughter, Tasula (Sue) Murray, was once a mermaid. We swam shows together. I get together with a group of retired mermaids several times a year, and I am thrilled when the former mermaids ask me to help in their productions. This group of “formers” swims shows one weekend a month on a volunteer basis, thanks to the generosity of the Florida State Parks system. I must also add that the present-day Weeki Wachee mermaids are not only spectacular, they are phenomenal! Go take a look!
Adapted from “What the Mermaid Saw,” by Bonnie Georgiadis, in Weeki Wachee Mermaids: Thirty Years of Underwater Photography, by Lu Vickers and Bonnie Georgiadis. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.