SYDNEY ( Associated Press) — There was a turning point in the life of Queen Panke Tabor that eclipsed all others: it was the moment, she says, when she put her legs together in a mermaid tail for the first time.
For a Filipino transgender woman approaching middle age, seeing her legs wrapped in bright, scaly-looking neoprene three years ago was a childhood dream come true. And this marked the beginning of her immersion in the water world, where she will find recognition. A former insurance company worker described the experience of the half-man, half-fish sliding underwater as “meditation in motion.”
“It felt like a mermaid,” Tabora said one morning, relaxing in a fiery red tail on a rocky beach south of Manila, where she now teaches mermaid and freediving full-time. “The world outside is really noisy and you will find peace underwater. … This is a good skill in the real world, especially during a pandemic.”
There are thousands more mermaids like her all over the world – in the simplest case, people of all shapes, genders and backgrounds who enjoy dressing up as mermaids. In recent years, more people have been happily flocking to mermaid conventions and competitions, forming local groups called “pods”, publishing mermaid magazines, and pouring their savings into the multi-million dollar mermaid tail industry.
On a planet beset by war, disease, and social upheaval, many merfolk have taken refuge in the water. Perhaps Sebastian, the vicious crab in the 1989 film The Little Mermaid, said it best when admonishing the earth-loving mermaid Ariel: “The human world is a mess. Life under water is the best thing they came up with!”
Far from the criticism and chaos of life on land, the sea world is a kinder, gentler and more joyful alternative to the real world. The merfolk say it’s also a world where you can be anyone and anything.
This openness attracts some transgender people who empathize with the agony of Ariel, trapped in a body that feels wrong. It also inspires mermaids like Che Monique, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Fat Mermaid Society, which promotes body-positive mermaids.
“I’m a 300-pound black mermaid from America, I’m in my 35s, and hopefully that tells someone they can do whatever they want,” says Monique, whose group sells shirts that say “Fat mermaids make waves.” and “Gender is fluid.” under water.’ “Of course, on the one hand, it’s really stupid, but I’ve seen how it changes people’s lives.”
After all, the ocean is huge, she notes, and most of the planet is covered with water. So why not dive in?
“I think there is room for all of us at the bottom of the sea,” says Monique.
The lure of the mermaid is evident from the Montreal home of Mariel Hainaut, which is stuffed to overflowing with mermaid tails.
They lie on a hanger and in the drawers of her clothes, crammed into suitcases and dripping from plastic storage containers, ready to be sold to AquaMermaid’s 31-year-old CEO “meres” around the world. About 20 tails belong to Eno herself.
“When you wear a mermaid tail at the beach or in the pool, you become a superstar,” says Eno, whose company runs mermaid schools in Canada and the US. “Children and adults, everyone is happy to see the mermaid!”
When the mermaid first started gaining attention, most tails for sale were custom-made silicone creations that weighed up to 23 kilograms (50 pounds), cost over $6,000, and required a surprising amount of time and lubrication to wrestle. But over the past few years, the growing availability of cheaper, lighter fabric options, some of which sell for less than $100, has transformed the mermaid community from an exclusive enclave for privileged professionals to an achievable dream for the general public.
As mermaids became popular, glamorous photos of mermaids with glittery tails began to take off on social media, fueling mermaid mania even more. Obsession with The Little Mermaid is common among mermaids, and a new wave of interest in mermaids is expected when the live-action reboot of the film releases next year.
Tail swimming takes practice and requires a device long used by freedivers called a monofin – a single fin into which both feet are inserted. The mermaid’s mastery of the dolphin’s jump is key, along with pressure equalization techniques to reduce pressure in the ears underwater.
PADI, SSI and NAUI, the world’s largest scuba certification organizations, now offer mermaid courses. There’s even a World Mermaid Championship, last held in China in 2019, in which 70 mermaids jumped and posed in a giant glass tank in front of a brooding panel of judges.
Eno, who competed in the World Cup, hopes to help the mermaid get into the Olympics, possibly as a demonstration sport. Several Merlympics events have been held in Europe and the UK in recent years.
Masses of merfolk filled the streets of New York last weekend for the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade. And congresses of mermaids (“Mercons”) are now held all over the world. Last month, more than 300 mermaids from across the US and Canada attended the California Mermaid Convention, which convention co-founder Rachel Smith said was “a three-day mermaid convention.” Also, according to co-founder Ashley Rastad, it was “a good time for dolphins!” (Note: The mermaid community is awash with puns.)
To most merfolk, this all looks a bit derisive. But it also matters a lot. Swimming in the Sacramento Basin where other members of the California convention had gathered, Merman Maui summed up the importance of community this way: “I have a new family with all these people.”
“Life gets so much better when you learn to have a little fun or a lot of fun, because we all believe in magic at some point,” Maui says. “Often times life can get pretty dull and boring. So why not just enjoy every aspect possible?”
A mermaid can give you a chance to become someone else. But it can also give you a chance to become more like yourself.
The mermaid Nymphia grew up as a 1990s kid and gender norms shattered her dream of dressing up as her idol Ariel. Years later, as an adult transgender woman, her dream finally came true when her mother helped her sew her first mermaid costume.
Nymphia later discovered a diverse community of like-minded people online and, at the suggestion of her mother, turned her lifelong obsession into a profession. Since then, Los Angeles-based Nymphia has appeared at everything from kids to corporate, and in 2019, she served as a trans merfolk ambassador for the California Mermaid Convention.
According to Nymphia, the theme of the transformation of a fish into a man in The Little Mermaid inspires part of the LGBT community.
“Transgender and non-binary merfolk are often associated with that mentality where you’re not entirely sure what world you belong to, but you can be this adorable sea creature and live like your most authentic self,” says Nymphia. . “I know many people who have found their gender identity, myself included, with the help of a mermaid.”
In the Philippines, Tabora also welcomes the inclusiveness of the mermaid community.
“You can accept young people, straight people and gay people, older people,” says Tabora, whose mermaid school is called DIVERSity by SeaReynang Pengki. “Anyone can be a mermaid!”
She, too, found a connection between her personal transformation and the sea world. For her, it’s all about evolution – her own and the evolution of the ocean.
“Transgender is a transition,” says Tabora. “It’s like in the sea, everything is developing. Fish are evolving, corals are evolving.”
Dalester Kidd, whose “merson” is Salacia the Mermaid: The Sea Witch of South Australia, found the mermaid community to be reassured when Kidd declared himself transgender and non-binary.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, we all share this love for the ocean,” says Kidd, proud winner of Mercon Australia’s 2017 Miss Congeniality Sandra Bull Shark award. “You can choose a name if your birth name doesn’t suit you. You don’t have to be who you were assigned at birth. You can pick up pronouns. … And that’s okay, because fish don’t need pronouns!”
Merfolk admit that their near-utopia is sometimes shaken by rough seas. As the popularity of mermaids has grown, so has the prevalence of creeps known as “merverts” and scammers who sell non-existent tails, says Kelly Highgema, creator of the Facebook group “Mermaids Beware: Scammers, Merverts and More.”
“Being a mermaid is a predominantly female hobby and profession… so of course it gets the attention of strangers online,” says Higema, who lives on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. “Most of the time it’s just creepy comments like they want to see you without your tail or hold your breath underwater.”
Higema advises merfolk to always have a reliable companion, or “mertender”, when performing in the tail.
“With your legs tied, you can’t run away, so it’s important to have that pair of legs around to make sure you’re all right,” she says.
The tails have also raised safety concerns among several consumer groups. A 2018 study of 25 children by the Royal Life Saving Society of Western Australia found that most had an average 70% decrease in their ability to swim when using mermaid fins and 60% when using tails. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission said it had received three reports of incidents involving mermaid tails in the past four years, the most serious of which resulted in a 5-year-old girl being hospitalized after she hid her hands inside the tail with it. legs and was trapped underwater.
That’s another reason proper training is key, says Lauren Metzler, founder of Sydney Mermaids. This month, Metzler received her advanced mermaid certification with the goal of teaching newbie mermaids how to avoid drowning on the seafloor.
Dawn is approaching in the Sydney suburb of Manly. She races back across the sand into the cold blue-gray water, eliciting smirks from passengers as they head for the nearby ferry to town.
“Some people drink coffee in the morning to wake up, some people swim in the water,” Metzler laughs as she glides across the water, her skin adorned with sparkly sequins. “It’s so much fun to swim in this tail!”
And in fact, for many merfolk, this is the main thing: entertainment. Especially after the COVID-related lockdown, there is a strong need to just play and enjoy being creative, Metzler said.
“The more we open our imagination and accept everyone for who they are, the more beautiful our experience becomes,” she says. “The sky – or the bottom of the ocean – is the limit of what you can do with a mermaid.”
Associated Press journalist Serginho Rusblad of Sacramento, California contributed to this report.