Siren sisters: The fishy tale of America's strangest theme park

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Meet the mermaids keeping one of Florida's oldest theme parks alive (when they're not dodging alligators in their spring-water pool, that is)

Clean the tank, go through the safety procedure, put on your make-up and your tail, and dive into a spring: it's all in a day's work for Kylee Troche. She's 20 years old, she lives in Florida, and she's a full-time mermaid.

Troche works at Weeki Wachee Springs, a state park and, as its website puts it, "The only city of live mermaids!". As part of a team of 16, Troche – or Mermaid Kylee as she is known – performs up to three shows a day inside a very deep, large natural spring, where she is watched by an audience sat in a theatre, looking at her through a large glass window. The mermaids don't use any scuba gear: they have special air hoses that allow them to top up their breath underwater, to create the impression that they really are lovely creatures emerging from the deep. As well as technical demonstrations, these shows tell Hans Christian Andersen's story of The Little Mermaid, with a cast of real-life mermaids – well, girls in make-up, shell bras and slinky scaled tails, anyway.

Of course, that tale might be better known as a wholesome, cheesy Disney cartoon with a happy ending – but Weeki Wachee seems to restore something of the true fairy-tale eeriness. Disneyland it certainly isn't...

"It's on Highway 19, there's not much around; it's a strange area," says the British photographer Annie Collinge who, attracted by the way the slightly run-down Weeki Wachee was "surreal but with an element of reality", took a series of shots of the park. "They are aware it's vintage entertainment – they know they're not competing with Disney."

It may lack the big bucks of a worldwide corporation, but the mermaid park has a long history, and pre-dates many of Florida's now more famous attractions. "This year we're celebrating our 65th anniversary," John Athanason of Weeki Wachee tells me, with a degree of pride. "It was one of Florida's original theme parks, a roadside attraction. Disney did not come till the early 1970s. Places like Weeki Wachee were the premiere attractions, everyone who visited Florida came; it has a rich history."

Weeki Wachee Springs was established by Newton Perry in 1947; a former Navy Seal, he came up with that innovative air-hose breathing trick. At the start, the shows tapped in to the Hollywood vogue for "aquamusicals" and grand displays of synchronised swimming: the performers made no pretence of being half-fish. "They were just pretty girls in bathing suits doing underwater ballet," Athanason explains. But it didn't take long for them to cotton on to the potential of dressing the girls as mermaids: "[Mermaids] always had this mythological charm about them. For hundreds of year, regardless of gender or age, they have this allure; little girls have always grown up wanting to be one."

That was certainly the case for Troche – she grew up in Michigan but visited Florida each summer, making repeated visits to the Springs. "I had a season pass, so the mermaids were my idols," she says. When she moved permanently to Florida she started working in the gift shop – you can't be a mermaid till you're 18 – then graduated to the shows.

She was a pretty typical audience member, it seems: apparently children just love their fishy friends. The mermaids go out and do meet'n'greets after the shows, and Troche says little kids are always asking her what she eats, where she sleeps, how she breathes.

Isn't it all a bit creepy, though? Collinge's image of a mermaid perched on a bench, being eyed by middle-aged men, doesn't seem as if it's capturing the magic of childhood. Not so, says the photographer: "That mermaid is being serenaded by a barber-shop choir on Valentine's Day; they were sent by her boyfriend. There are a couple of strange guys who sometimes go there to look at the mermaids, but generally it's just people with kids. It's a big thing – they're like local celebrities. It's actually a super-cool job."

Athanason agrees. While he acknowledges that "there's a group out there who are very – how can I put this? – enthusiastic about mermaids, most of the people who come are families, and a lot of senior citizens who visited when they were young, and they're excited that the park is still here."

Troche adores working there – "I get paid to dress up!" – as does Athanason: "I came here when I was a little boy, I had a crush on the mermaids like every little boy, I expect. I've been here 10 years now and every time that curtain rises, the beauty of the spring still surprises me – and then you add this element of pretty girls in mermaid tails..."

Not, he's quick to add, that it's just about a "pretty face". It sounds like being a mermaid is actually quite tough. The water is only about 22C to 23C, which after any length of time feels chilly. They perform 20ft underwater, against a 5mph current from the spring, which gushes more than 117 million gallons of water up from subterranean caverns every day. Swimming against that – elegantly, with a smile, while telling a story – requires both serious strength and enviable poise. No mean feat when you're also breathing through a tube and have your legs stuck together in a tail .

Despite a background in dance, Troche found adjusting to the life aquatic rather tricky: "When you first start, it's twice as hard – I went home many times really sore. Now I have one arm bigger than the other from using it more! You learn breath-control, too: I can hold it for two minutes completely fine; I don't have to use air hoses much."

But it isn't just about the physical challenges – the mermaids also have to contend with passing wildlife. This is a natural spring, and they share their stage with a lot of inquisitive sea creatures: fish, manatees, turtles and even – gulp – alligators make cameo appearances. The turtles, apparently, are particularly curious, a situation that Troche was initially not at all comfortable with: "I was definitely afraid of the turtles, I'd have to get out." But, just as Mermaid Kylee learnt to master her breath, so she has managed her fear of sea beasts: "Now I'm tickling their bellies," she giggles sweetly, before heading off for another day of face paint, tail-flicking and keeping the magic alive.

 

For more information: weekiwachee.com. Annie Collinge's series on the park will be exhibited in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans next year (collinge.com)

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