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Finding Florida

Finding Florida: Here There Be Mermaids
By Mitch Traphagen mitch@observernews.net
Dec 7, 2006, 23:58

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Mermaid Carli Dofka is illuminated by the sunshine filtering down through the crystal clear water of Weeki Wachee Springs. Less than a two-hour drive from South Hillsborough can take you to there to a place where mermaids are real.
WEEKI WACHEE
– In a quiet little corner of a busy part of the world are mermaids.  As if in a fairytale, people come from near and far to watch them swim – they come today as they did nearly 50 years ago.

In 1947, there were approximately two million people living in all of Florida – with roughly a quarter of those people in the Tampa Bay area.  Tourists outnumbered Floridians by more than a million - and at least a few of them personally witnessed a modern day myth of the sea. 

North of the bustling little city of Tampa, cars were few and when one was heard passing through the tiny little community of Weeki Wachee, women in swim suits would rush out to wave.  Sure, they were being polite and nice to the tourists – but they were also providing an incentive to stop, pull over, and see a show unlike anything else in the world.  Given the almost complete dearth of development, it would not be hard to imagine that more often than not, some combination of the friendly waves, the swimsuits and the girls pulled drivers in much like the mermaids of ancient yore lured sailors.


Some things never change.


Those tourists went home with incredible stories of the things they saw – fitting in prominently, of course, were descriptions of mermaids smiling underwater – and occasionally drinking a grape soda or eating a banana.  Yes, underwater. 


That, of course, made the tourists’ neighbors want to see all of that.  Tales of sunshine and mermaids were just the cure for the winter blahs of Michigan – or New Jersey – or Ohio - or pretty much any place that wasn’t Florida. 

In that same year, President Truman opened the Everglades as a National Park - it’s uncertain if the mosquitoes left any survivors.  Disney World was not yet a twinkle in the eye of a three-fingered, gloved mouse but tourism in Florida was getting ready to leave the launch pad.  And from a spot on the road in the middle of nowhere, the mermaids of Weeki Wachee were becoming world famous.  


The new National Park was monumental from an environmental standpoint but for the tourists, the only alligator they were interested in seeing was the one being wrestled at a roadside tourist trap.  For that matter, why see an alligator at all when you could see a mermaid drinking a grape soda underwater?  For many, that choice was easily made.


It was a simpler time.  There was no 24-hour per day infusion of news and entertainment - yet somehow people survived.  Florida back then gave tourists reality through fantasy in human terms - as opposed to virtual reality created from computer fantasy.  Elvis came to visit and brought 15,000 screaming, sometimes fainting, friends with him and the mermaids were swimming through eights shows a day in front of sold-out crowds.


Not only had the mermaids arrived, tourism in Florida had cleared the launch pad and was headed for the stratosphere.


Today, tourists outnumber Floridians by more than 25 million.  And while comparatively still quiet, cars are no longer a rarity along U.S. 19 north of the metro area.  As such, mermaids no longer rush out to greet the passing drivers.  Despite that - and even with a population of just nine people - the incorporated city of Weeki Wachee is difficult to miss.  It is, after all, the only city in the country with live mermaids.


Dofka nears her reflection on the surface at Weeki Wachee Springs.
The heyday may be over but the charm remains in Weeki Wachee.  Fifteen mermaids swim year around in the 72-degree water of the natural spring.  A theater, built when the American Broadcasting Company owned the attraction, still provides guests with a below-the-surface view through the crystal clear water.  As a natural spring, the mermaids sometimes have to compete with the occasional unexpected visitors.


“We swim with wildlife so we get to see fish and turtles and manatees come in there,” said Carli Dofka, a mermaid at Weeki Wachee.  “We get an alligator every once in a while.  A few months ago it was bad, we had a couple of alligators come in and they had to take them out.  They were big gators.”


And no, the mermaids don’t wrestle the gators.  Even Florida has a few limits.


Dofka has been a mermaid for three years.  As she demonstrates during shows, it is much more than simply being a pretty girl in a fish suit.  During one act, Dofka free dives – without air – to the bottom of the spring 117 below the surface.  To do so, she holds her breath for more than two and a half minutes.  But according to her, that’s not the hardest part.


“My first dive down to 117 feet was a little scary, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  But the main thing is doing the ballet and trying to hold your breath that whole time.  That’s difficult.”


And it most certainly is ballet and in the most unforgiving environment possible – underwater.  Dofka and her fellow mermaids swim in perfect synchronicity for such a length of time that the audience has no trouble believing they are indeed creatures of the sea.


And in a way, she has become one.  The acts she performs underwater are now second nature – as is the tail she wears.


“When I first swam, it was so difficult,” she said.  ”The first time I freaked out a little bit because the tail is really heavy.  But now I don’t even notice it.  I’m a mermaid because I love it.  I love to swim for the kids – I love to be in the water.”


For nearly 50 years, mermaids have been swimming at Weeki Wachee. Pictured above are mermaids Cyndi, Nikki, Heather and Carli.
Back on dry land, when not meeting guests or greeting wide-eyed children, Dofka regains her legs and indeed breathes air.  She is a student at USF majoring in physical education.  At this time, she plans to continue swimming after becoming a teacher.  When asked if she wonders what her students might think about having a mermaid as a teacher, she had a quick reply.


“When I was in elementary school I had a teacher who was a mermaid,” she said.  “I didn’t think anything of it.”


That alone says much about the unique quality of the area.  Being a mermaid in Weeki Wachee is widely considered an honor and former mermaids often return with great stories of their time there.  They are, after all, world famous and there is nothing “virtual reality” about that.  It is hard earned.


Is it sexist?  Maybe a little - but only if you look for that sort of thing.  Not to mention that few people would willingly buy tickets to see 40-something-year-old guys with beer bellies frolic around in the water.  Nor would most audiences pay to see the gruesome results of those same guys taking a one-way trip on a free-dive to the bottom.  In reality, it is no more sexist than NFL football.  The mermaids are performers but they are also most certainly athletes.


The park is a throwback to a simpler time in Florida tourism – there are no computers creating digital illusions – the mermaids perform their acts from genuine hard work, dedication and talent.  And in the end, guests walk away believing that perhaps in this quiet corner of the world, mermaids may well exist.


“It’s a neat thing to be a part of Florida’s history,” Dofka said.  “It’s a nice feeling.”


Weeki Wachee Springs is located west of Brooksville at 6131 Commercial Way – just off the intersection of U.S. Highway 19 and State Road 50.  For more information visit http://mermaid.weekiwachee.com.

Mermaid Gallery:  Broadband Gallery | Dialup Gallery | Video


© Copyright 2007 by The Observer News Publications and M&M Printing Company, Inc.

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