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The Mermaids of Weeki Wachee

InDepth editor Pat Jablonski takes us to see the longest running mermaid show on Earth that dates back to 1949, and discusses what it takes to be one of the park’s seventeen aquatic athletes. In addition to their shows, Weeki Wachee mermaids guard the site of deepest active cave exploration in North America.



By Pat Jablonski

All images by Nikki Webster, Brit on the Move, unless noted.

You could be forgiven for thinking how easy it must be, but if Linden Wolbert’s story about being a professional mermaid didn’t convince you that mermaids are aquatic athletes, you can’t be convinced. But never mind. As long as you enjoy the show, because after all, that’s what the mermaids want you to do. At Weeki Wachee, anyway.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, located near the west coast of north-central Florida, is a family-friendly water park that features—you guessed it—mermaids. Following its lock down during the pandemic, the park re-opened on Memorial Day. Since this issue of InDepth features mermaids, and since it’s a mere two hours south of High Springs (GUE’s home base), we sent a willing volunteer. Me.

So ordained by the Seminoles in Florida, Weeki Wachee means little spring or winding river, but the spring is anything but little. From its subterranean caverns, Weeki Wachee spews forth over 140 million gallons of clear, fresh, 23 °C/74 °F water daily. Divers have explored the springs to depths of 131 m/429 ft and surveyed more than 9.7 km/32000 ft, but the end has yet to be found. Are you curious yet?

First, you should know a little history about the mermaid show: A former navy man turned swim coach turned event promoter, Newt Perry, purchased Weeki Wachee Springs in 1949. At that time, it was full of trash and junk, all of which had to be cleared before he could fulfill his dream: producing an underwater mermaid show and sharing it with the public. He invented an underwater breathing apparatus—a free-flowing air hose supplying air from a compressor—and built an 18-seat theater. He would later build a 50-seater when viewing windows were added. He sought out pretty girls who could swim, and taught them to perform ballet moves underwater, and the mermaid shows of Florida were born.

The viewing window into the springs.

In 1959, ABC TV bought the park and built the current theater that seats 400, but when Disney World opened just 161 km/100 miles to the east, yankee visitors flocked there. Weeki Wachee lost its tourist appeal, fell into disrepair, and changed hands several times, until the state of Florida purchased it and integrated it into the Florida Park Service. Florida probably got a heck of a deal. The mermaids became park rangers, and during the pandemic they spent a year practicing and choreographing routines. 

Entrance fee for an all-day pass to all parts of the park is US$13 for adults, $8 for children aged six and above. Meandering toward the signs boasting the mermaid show, visitors will note how well-kept the grounds are. Once they arrive at the theater entrance, they will be greeted by a mermaid-out-of-water who is in charge of allowing patrons into one of the four half-hour shows every day, seven days a week. 

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The Show Must Go On

Waiting in line for the 1:30 show, “The Wonders of Weeki,” in which “the mermaids of Weeki Wachee showcase the history of the park and mermaid feats of yesteryear,” the greeter was Mermaid Brittany, who was happy to talk candidly about her experience as a Weeki Wachee mermaid. She’s an Ohio girl who loved the water, so she headed for Florida, where she settled and worked in a dive shop in Crystal River while becoming a master diver. When she saw a notice for mermaid tryouts, she applied, and out of 200 hopefuls, five were selected—Brittany among them. The tryout involved an endurance test, an underwater test with open eyes, and some ballet moves. Making the cut was only the first hurdle. Following her selection, she spent four-to-six months training before she was cleared to perform on the show. She’s been there three years now and wouldn’t change places with anyone on the planet.

Weeki Wachee Park

In line were probably two or three hundred people. Outstanding among the excited patrons were some notable little girls wearing mermaid-themed clothing and clutching sequined mermaid dolls. Not a lot of boy children were to be seen, which brought to mind something Brittany said—men didn’t tend to apply when openings were available for princes. “They must not see it as manly,” she guessed. Could they be missing out?

After walking down the sloped steps of the newly refurbished, newly reopened, auditorium to get near the front and sitting down facing a curtained wall of glass in an air-conditioned auditorium, old videos of past mermaid shows played on multiple TV screens strategically placed around the room. The last of the videos were in color, and the montage ended with highlights from a 2012 Jimmy Buffet concert in the park.

The theater darkened, and a porthole at the top of the stage opened up. A mistress of ceremonies popped her head out and let the audience know that they were in for a treat, that they were welcome to take photos—but warned against using a flash—and encouraged applause and cheering, as the mermaids could hear and would respond to encouragement. She called out, “Enjoy the Show,” closed the porthole, and disappeared, only to reappear as the curtain rose underwater flanked by two bejeweled mermaids. These three young women hovered in a perfect line underwater, smiling and waving as the story began. 

Aquatic Athletes

Mermaid Brittany

There is no doubt that the glamorous mermaids are graceful aquatic athletes. They smile as they swim—dolphin style—and mouth the dialogue that is synced with the show so perfectly that the younger members of the audience could believe they’re speaking. Their need to take breaths is not nearly as obvious as one would think. They make it look that easy—which is their job, after all—but a dropped hose or hair entanglement in the hose can create problems—problems they solve with hardly a pause in the action. A fun fact: the mermaids at Weeki Wachee don’t actually breathe as a diver would from a regulator. Indeed, the air is forced into their lungs through the hose, one with a toggle that they control. They have to keep their lungs half-full in order to maintain neutral buoyancy. Also, when they are hovering in place—as they do, a lot—they are fighting a current, so they have to stay in a perfect line (think a line of chorus girls), as well as at the same depth. It’s synchronized swimming taken to a whole new level.

The shows are thirty minutes, in which time several costume changes take place, all underwater, out of view of the audience. Can you imagine changing from one elaborate costume to another underwater? Holy cow.

Notice the compressed air hoses, which enable the mermaids to remain underwater for the show.

After the show, there is an opportunity for patrons to meet a mermaid and have photos taken with her as she sits upon her throne. This is one more obvious bit of proof that park visitors are in a state park rather than a for-profit entertainment venue: Take as many photos as you like, with each member of the family. Little girls beamed to be standing proudly next to a real, live mermaid as their parents and grandparents snapped away—all free of charge.

Sometimes the mermaids have to fend off the occasional inappropriate comment, but the hardest thing for Brittany was learning to not react to the terrible burning sensation of water up her nose. Think about it. 

Becoming a mermaid at Weeki Wachee is not a career move for most. There are currently seventeen mermaids performing, and reportedly they are as “close as sisters.” When one leaves—as one did recently, for law school—they cheer her on. Some of the former mermaids—the “sirens”—return for reunion shows.

The New York Times ran an extensive piece about Weeki Wachee before Covid, back in 2013, The Last Mermaid Show,” written by Virginia Sole-Smith. Virginia might be surprised to discover the renewed interest in mermaiding—it’s even a verb now. 

Come on down and see for yourself.

Weeki mermaids guard a massive cave currently being explored by Karst Underwater Research (KUR). Photo by Mike Barnette.

Dive Deeper:

InDepth: Exploration of Weeki Wachee 2019-20: The Search for The Source Continues by Charlie Roberson

Alert Diver: “Where Mermaids Fear to Tread” by Michael Menduno

Pat Jablonski heads up the copy edit team for InDepth. She is a blogger, a writer of stories, a retired tutor, English writing teacher, and therapist. She’s a friend, a wife, a proud mother and grandmother. She is also a native of Florida, having spent most of her life in Palm Beach County. She has a B.A. in English from FAU in Boca Raton and an M.S.W. from Barry University in Miami. She learned to swim in the ocean, but she doesn’t dive.

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Why It’s Okay To Make Mistakes

To err is human. To trimix is divine? Instructor evaluator Guy Shockey examines the importance of learning through one’s mistakes, and most important, being willing to admit and share them with others, especially for those in leadership positions. It’s the only way to create ‘psychological safety” within our community and improve our collective diving safety and performance. Wouldn’t that be divine?




By Guy Shockey. Images by Andrea Petersen

A few months back, I read an article about a club where members talked about failure and making mistakes. This club required that members freely discuss their mistakes and failures without fear of judgment. The goal was to destigmatize failure and recognize that we learn by making the very mistakes we are afraid to talk about! Moreover, to become truly high performing and develop unique and creative solutions to problems, the article argued that we needed to be free of the worry of failing—to understand that “to err is human.” 

The article went on to mention that for high performing teams to be successful, they needed to operate in an environment of “psychological safety.” This term was originally coined by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, and Gareth Lock has written about the concept extensively. In his work with The Human Diver, Lock identifies psychological safety as a key component primarily missing in our diving culture. As a full-time diving professional and someone who delivers The Human Diver programs, I couldn’t help but reflect on the failure-destigmatizing club in the context of our diving culture in general and, more specifically, dive training.

Consider the humble Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. The Roomba learns how to clean a room by bumping into nearly everything in the room and, with some nifty software, creates a “map” of all the “vacuumable” space in the room. Then, it goes about its business efficiently and repetitively cleaning the room. The Roomba has learned by making multiple mistakes—much like humans do. 

Now imagine being able to transfer that new “map” from one Roomba to another so a new Roomba doesn’t have to repeat the mistakes of the first as it sets out to vacuum the room. Finally, imagine this transfer of data to be less-than-perfect—perhaps, occasionally, the new Roomba will make some mistakes (from which it will learn). But it will make far fewer mistakes than the original Roomba had to make. 

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I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. Humans learn the same way Roomba vacuums do (hopefully without running into as many hard surfaces), and we can transfer information between each other. Because the transfer process is less than perfect, we still make some of the same old mistakes. This is particularly interesting because, despite drawing specific and repeated attention to these common errors, students often still make the same errors! One of the most important parts of instructor training is educating future instructors to recognize where these common mistakes will occur and encouraging them to ramp up to being hyper-vigilant rather than regular-vigilant. 

Learning Through Mistakes

One way we learn is by making mistakes, talking about them, and sharing the experience in the hopes that future divers don’t have to make the same ones. At its core, this is the very essence of learning. Incidentally, this is also what makes experience such an important characteristic of a good teacher. The more experience the educator has, the more mistakes they’ve made and, consequently, the more information they can transfer. Fear of owning our mistakes keeps us from learning from them; perhaps more importantly, it means that others will miss out on these important lessons. 

Yet, in diving culture, we (for the most part) shy away from discussing the mistakes and errors we (hopefully) learned from for fear of being considered a less than capable diver. When divers in influential or leadership roles do this, it is a tremendous loss for the diving community in general—it robs future groups of divers of the opportunity to learn. Sadly, because this commonly happens at the leadership level, it is hardly surprising that other divers further down the line copy that behavior, and we ultimately end up with a diving culture that emulates the example of the leadership. 

I advocate for taking the opposite approach. In my teaching, I am very open about the mistakes or errors I have made while diving. I recognize that I am basically a smart Roomba, and I learn by making mistakes. Thus, it would be disingenuous to pretend that I don’t make mistakes—I had to learn somewhere! I believe this approach lends authenticity to my instruction and starts to create psychological safety in my classes. Ultimately, my goal is to encourage students to recognize that, “If the instructor can admit they make mistakes, then it is okay to talk about the ones our team made during the training dive.” 

I have found that there is a remarkable change in the relationship between student and instructor when this happens. Learning becomes more of a collegial activity, and stress and performance anxiety significantly decrease. This leads to more successful learning outcomes and happier students. I am a firm believer that, while training can be serious, it should also be fun!

Creating Psychological Safety

Creating psychological safety in our diving culture is a daunting task, but every flood begins with a single raindrop. The first thing that needs to happen—at all levels—is an acknowledgement of failures and mistakes among  those in positions of influence and leadership. Sadly, this is not as easy as it sounds, and there is frequent pushback. Ego is one of the most dangerous aspects of a personality and it frequently causes people to overreach, crippling growth and learning. The irony here is that every single one of us has made a mistake. We all understand that no one is perfect, yet many in leadership positions cling to the view that vulnerability is weakness—that demonstrating imperfection will cause others to stop trusting them (or revering them). 

I propose that the opposite is true. I should also note that I believe every dive professional is acting in a leadership role. This means that, while creating psychological safety can best be started by those in senior leadership roles, it must also be encouraged at all levels of leadership, including anyone in supervisory or teaching roles. In a perfect world, every diver would embrace this approach and enable psychological safety within their team.

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There are a few things you can do to help develop psychological safety. First, facilitate a debrief at the end of the dive and begin with “something that I as the leader did wrong or could have done better was…” This immediately creates fertile soil for psychological safety to flourish. When the leader is the first person to say, “I made a mistake,” it establishes that this is a safe place to discuss mistakes and errors with the intention of learning from them. This opens the door to follow-up discussions. 

On the subject of transparency, in any organization it is often the voice of dissent—a contrary position—that is the most valuable. This voice causes the group to reflect on original assumptions and decisions and offer a perspective that “groupthink” does not. This means that we need to be open to different solutions to problems lest we be blinded by our own cognitive biases—ones that have been developed over thousands of years of evolution in order to make us more efficient Roombas. 

We are essentially fighting against our own brains, and it takes a significant amount of effort to think outside the box. We are hard-wired to think in terms of “evolutionary” rather than “revolutionary” ideas, and we need to make a conscious effort to consider the voice of dissent and understand why it is so hard to do so. 

In Conclusion

In psychologically safe environments, we experience a significant increase in “discretionary effort,” or shifts on the “need to do” and the “want to do” curves. If a team has a high degree of psychological safety, they are motivated to perform higher than the minimum standard. If you create a high degree of psychological safety, your team will perform better as a result. 

This is where it all comes full circle. We want our dive teams to perform at a high level. We want them to have a high degree of discretionary effort. We want them to embrace our “commitment to excellence.” Therefore, we must be the ones to create the psychological safety necessary to facilitate this growth. 

One of the most effective things you can do as a leader is to be open and willing to share that, in the end, you are human too. You make mistakes, you admit to them, you learn from them, and you share them with others so they can learn too.

One of the most effective things you can do as a leader is to be open and willing to share that, in the end, you are human too. You make mistakes, you admit to them, you learn from them, and you share them with others so they can learn too.


Other stories by Guy Shockey:

InDEPTH: Reflections on Twenty Years of Excellence: Holding The Line (2019)

InDEPTH: Situational Awareness and Decision Making in Diving (2020)

InDEPTH: The Flexibility of Standard Operating Procedures (2021)

InDEPTH: How to Become an Explorer: Passion, Partnership, and Exploration (2022)

InDEPTH: Errors In Diving Can Be Useful For Learning— ‘Human Error’ Is Not! by Gareth Lock

InDEPTH: Learning from Others’ Mistakes: The Power of Context-Rich “Second” Stories by Gareth Lock

Guy Shockey is a GUE instructor and instructor trainer who is actively involved in mentoring the next generation of GUE divers. He started diving in 1982 in a cold mountain lake in Alberta, Canada. Since then, he has logged somewhere close to 8,000 dives in most of the world’s oceans. He is a passionate technical diver with a particular interest in deeper ocean wreck diving. He is a former military officer and professional hunter with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. He is also an entrepreneur with several successful startup companies to his credit.

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