I’m told that the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie involves ferocious killer mermaids, one of whom, for some reason, falls in love with a clergyman. I don’t think so, Hollywood. Mermaids have been set in stone for me ever since, as a boy, I saw a certain picture postcard: two beautiful women in tails, yes, and also in old-fashioned swimsuit tops, and their eyes have an unearthly gleam, and their lips are a brazen red, and their long fine hair floats filmily, driftily, spookily, above and behind.
And one of the mermaids is drinking what I took to be a Coca-Cola, and the other mermaid is eating a banana.
Ah, Florida! I grew up in Georgia, and I often tell people that Lady Gaga stands for that state twice. But Florida was the first state where I saw things that I knew were supposed to be exotic, and those underwater Flaflas still resonate with me. The postcard was from one of Florida’s earliest roadside attractions: Weeki Wachee Springs, off of U.S. 19 an hour or so north of Tampa. My parents took us to similar Florida destinations, such as Silver Springs, where we looked at fish and so on through a glass-bottom boat, and Sulphur Springs, where my grandfather soaked his rheumatism in murky water, but somehow we never made it to Weeki Wachee. Recently, at last, I did.
“Dancin’ and singin’ fish-tail women!” the loudspeaker blares, and there they are, moving and beaming, in crystal-clear emerald-tinted iridescent waters. We mermaid fanciers watch from a four-hundred-seat theater embedded in the spring’s limestone bank. We look face-to-face through glass at mermaids sixteen to twenty feet deep in seventy-two-degree water. When Weeki Wachee first opened, in 1947, there wasn’t much traffic on the highway. At the sound of an approaching car, mermaids would run out (taillessly) and lure it in with their siren calls. Weeki Wachee’s fortunes have waxed and waned since then. The Mouse, as Floridians often characterize Disney World, may have made actual human-scale mermaids seem small potatoes. To some people. Not to me.
“Mermaids go with bubbles like fairies go with wings,” says the promotional material from Weeki Wachee. Okay, it should be “as fairies go,” but who quibbles over grammar with mermaids? When a Weeki Wachee mermaid takes a sip of compressed air from a handy hose, she rises. When she exhales a bit, she subsides. “Gobs of bubbles” are produced either way. Fish are attracted to the bubbles. Mermaids interact with the fish. (I believe alligators are screened out, somehow or another, but there are photos of manatees swimming with the mermaids. Some people have speculated that the myth of mermaids arose from sailors’ sightings of manatees. If you’ve ever seen a picture of manatees and mermaids side by side—hey, who doesn’t love manatees, but come on.)
But now the bubbles are getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller. We have reached the point in the show when a single mermaid has headed down, down, way out of sight, into this bottomless spring, and the pressure is mounting, on her and on her bubbles, so we know it’s true, how deep she’s going. The air hose comes up, without the mermaid. They’re tiny now, her bubbles. She’s shooting for a descent of 117 feet, in ballet slippers. You try doing that without using your tail.
Seems like she’s been down there forever—two minutes and twenty-three seconds, by the clock. Time to reflect that more than 117 million gallons of water spring daily from the subterranean caverns whose bottom, if it exists, has never been touched. At last, she’s back! Just as chipper as you please. And boom: The whole view is all bubbles. Underwater, of course, there are no curtains, so when a Weeki Wachee show segues from scene to scene, stagehands set off a wall of bubbles. I’ll bet that if you have never been to Weeki Wachee, you have never seen so many bubbles at once.
And now we’re getting down to the iconic scene. Sure, fish eat underwater, but pretty girls? How can such things be? And yet it is happening, before our eyes. One mermaid is drinking from a bottle. It’s not Coke, I have learned from the Weeki Wachee souvenir booklet, because that drink’s carbonation “causes mermaid bloat” and throws off the bubble-balancing precision that dancin’ and swimmin’ at a given level in a five-mile-an-hour current require. It’s Grapette, which is less bubbly. Okay. I go way back with Grapette.
And the other mermaid is eating an apple.
I expected a banana.