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 happily flocked to mermaid conventions and competitions, forming local groups called “pods” 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. AquaMermaid’s CEO sells them to “mermaids” all over the world.
“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 fabrics has opened up the mermaid to 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.
However, merfolk admit that their near-utopia is sometimes shaken by rough seas. As the popularity of the mermaid 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.
Tail swimming takes practice. 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.
Mermaid conventions (“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.” (Note: The mermaid community is awash with puns.)
To most merfolk, this all looks a bit derisive. But it also makes sense. 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?”
Associated Press journalist Serginho Rusblad of Sacramento, California contributed to this report.