School for Mermaids Makes a Splash

By Matt Moffett TARRAGONA, Spain—After Susana Seuma shattered her leg in a car accident a few years ago, she was physically unable to continue her job as a sales floor manager. Ms. Seuma’s partner asked her if she had ever dreamed of being anything other than a saleswoman. Well, Ms. Seuma confessed, she had always wanted to be a mermaid.That conversation amid Ms. Seuma’s despair led to the founding in 2013 of the Sirenas Mediterranean Academy, which bills itself as Spain’s first school for mermaids. On a recent Saturday in this northern coastal town, the 41-year-old Ms. Seuma strapped on a fan-shaped monofin and pulled a glimmering spandex tail over the top. She led a similarly outfitted group of five adult students through a series of flips and dives in an outdoor pool. “I’ve seen the movie ‘Splash,’ but now I feel that I’ve lived it,” said class participant Marta Fernandez.The Academy has provided nearly 500 people with the mermaid experience, and business is growing. After reading about the academy online, an 8-year-old girl from Turkey dragged her family to Spain for a day of swimming you can’t get in Istanbul. Another client was a septuagenarian Spanish sportsman who said he had waited his whole life to star in his own half-fish story.Monofin enthusiasts with a flair for mythology are taking to pools and beaches around the world, turning the word “mermaid” into a verb.Once confined to aquatic shows or Hollywood movies, “mermaiding”—swimming with a fish-shaped tail—is making broader inroads thanks to an ardent online community infatuated with a character that is both sexy and environmentally friendly. The world of mermaid role play now encompasses fin- and tail-making companies, as well as schools teaching special strokes and breathing techniques. There are even a handful of mermaiding superstars.Mermaiding’s growth has led to controversies about its safety. In May, Edmonton, Canada, effectively declared itself a “no mermaid zone,” banning monofins and mermaid tails from public swims at city pools. There are risks that Daryl Hannah-wannabes might black out when they swim underwater, said Edmonton pools supervisor Rob Campbell, though he added he wasn’t personally aware of any mermaiding accidents.Krista Visinski, the aspiring Edmonton mermaid whose training sessions precipitated the ban, refused to just go away with her tail between her legs. Ms. Visinski, who dreams of someday giving performances from a mobile water tank, got more than 600 signatures from around the world on a petition protesting the prohibition as an affront to “anyone who has ever dreamed of being a creature of the deep.” Edmonton officials aren’t budging, however.Most mermaid tail makers say their products require basic swimming competence and aren’t suitable for very young children. Boosters like Ms. Seuma say mermaiding is a surefire way to get older children hooked on swimming and is great for core fitness for adults.The swimming establishment may take some convincing.“I suppose this is an activity that beats nothing…but from a safety perspective I’d much rather see people teaching their kids to swim and to stay on the surface where lifeguards can monitor them,” said B. Chris Brewster, president of the United States Lifesaving Association.Mermaids have long been a part of seafaring lore. Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids in the Caribbean in 1493, though he noted they “were not as pretty as they are depicted.” Biologists say the great explorer had likely seen manatees.Modern-day mermaiding has been propelled over the past decade by online social networks, said Matthieu J. Guitton, a specialist in cyber behavior at Laval University in Quebec City. “People who would have been isolated were able to share pictures of themselves as merfolk,” he said. Some merfolk even developed a language, “Mermish,” based on words from books about mermaids, along with their own linguistic inventions, Mr. Guitton said. Upon taking leave, a Mermish speaker might say “Lusa em” or “See you.”A handful of merfolk have turned their passion into a livelihood and source of celebrity. Australian model Hannah Fraser has tried to raise environmental awareness by swimming alongside whale sharks, which are imperiled by poachers. Ms. Fraser recently gave a TED talk on “turning fantasy into reality.” Orlando-based Melissa Dawn, a self-styled “mermaid for hire,” had her name legally changed to Mermaid Melissa. Her YouTube videos have attracted tens of millions of views. Kazzie Mahina, an Australian model who developed a fin made of recycled rubber, has a publicist who sends out mermaid talking points.As more people yield to mermaiding’s siren song, a minor industry is growing up around tail-making. In 2012, Abby and Bryn Roberts, twin sisters from St. Paul, Minn., were studying art in college when they took what they thought was a one-shot assignment making mermaid tails for a local renaissance festival. The sisters subsequently found that their tails were causing an enormous buzz on a part of the Web they didn’t even know existed—, a spirited forum for all things mermaid-related.Their eyes opened to new possibilities, the Minnesota twins dropped out of college, moved to Hawaii and launched a tail-making startup, Finfolk Productions. Their custom-made, silicone fancies start at $2,700. Despite the price tag, the Robertses say they have enough orders to keep them busy for the next year.In 2009, 72-year-old Idahoan Karen Browning made a mermaid tail on her sewing machine for a granddaughter. Other children started clamoring for Mrs. Browning’s tails, leading her family to form a company, Fin Fun Mermaid. It has evolved into a mermaiding colossus, which sold more than 50,000 fins and tails to 102 countries in July of this year alone. A basic tail and fin package starts at around $100.To help people use the equipment properly, Filipina diving instructor Normeth Preglo launched the pioneering Philippine Mermaid Swimming Academy in 2012. Ms. Seuma of Spain, as well as mermaiding entrepreneurs who opened schools in Canada and Singapore, attended the Philippines academy for training. Many of Ms. Seuma’s clients are people enjoying birthday or bachelorette parties, but others have more poignant stories. One was a young Spanish woman who had recently had a leg amputated. As she glided through the water in her tail, there was no evidence of the woman’s disability.“She looked every bit the mermaid,” said Ms. Seuma. Write to Matt Moffett at

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