Fish Tales: Mermaid for a Day

I joined Key West’s mermaid community to realize my childhood dream of becoming Ariel.

WORDS Jess Swanson
June 2019
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What I hadn’t counted on was becoming a flailing human-raccoon.

The mermaid enters the Havana Cabana hotel on foot. If it wasn’t for her scaly green leggings, seashell necklace and flowy chestnut hair, I might’ve mistaken Kristi Mills for a mortal. A Key West native, Mills is best known as the owner of The Captain’s Mermaid Boutique, a quaint mermaid-themed store in the town’s historic seaport. She hands me one of her products: a tight iridescent skirt that flares out at the ankles like a caudal fin. “I figured you’d want to wear this,” she says. “At least until we fit you for your tail.”

To call Mills a mermaid enthusiast would be an understatement. The granddaughter of a commercial fisherman, she spent her childhood immersed in tales of alluring human-fish hybrids, and her interest grew to the extent that she’d bind her ankles with shoelaces when she swam to perfect her form. Now 43, Mills gives mermaid swimming lessons, visits schools to promote conservation, and appears at various splashy events. Next month (July 5-7), she will assume the role of Head Mermaid of the inaugural Key West Mermaid Festival, which she founded, whose events include a pool party, art show and parade.

Mills is not the only mermaid in Key West. The place is home to a thriving pod of the creatures, who sometimes serve as unofficial ambassadors for the town, but more often just seem to enjoy playing the part. A prominent member of this community, Mills often takes fledglings under her, uh, fin—which is why I’m here today. As a child, my birthdays were mermaid-themed, and even now I’m overly competitive about underwater breath-holding contests. So after a quick “mermosa” cocktail at a local sea-themed bar, Mills leads me off to her shop, where I will realize a lifelong dream.

“Mermaids bring out your inner child,” she says, responding to my squeals. “Everyone wants to believe in magic.”

The magic gets off to a tricky start. Putting on a mermaid tail—yes, Fin Fun Mermaid actually makes these—is exhausting, like squeezing into a spandex potato sack, and moving around in one (on land, anyway) is an awkward affair. But when I do manage to hop-wobble to the nearest mirror, my face-plant fears melt away. The tail is a shimmering emerald-green, and oddly flattering in a Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not way. My violet bikini top is pure Little Mermaid. “All you need is a red wig,” says Mills, beaming with motherly pride.

This evening, we’ll attend a Mermaid Mingle at the hotel pool, and to drum up interest we head to the promenade at the Southernmost Point, where we recline on the hood of a ’57 Chevy in full regalia. While adult passersby seem amused or befuddled by the spectacle of two lounging fish-women, some of the children respond with fear. “Don’t worry, we don’t bite,” Mills tells a little girl cowering behind her mother. “We’re not sharks!” I flash a toothy grin, and the girl retreats further behind her mom’s legs.

At this point, somebody decides it would be a good idea for the Chevy to cruise along the main drag, Duval Street, with us still on the hood. Mills smiles and waves as we pick up speed, but I need both hands to hold on, lest I slither onto the road.

“Nice fin!” a backward-capped bro hollers at us. “Nice legs!” I shout back.

The hood of the car, meanwhile, is getting progressively hotter, leaving me feeling less like a mermaid and more like grilled tilapia.

I’m relieved, then, when we drive back to the Havana Cabana for a swim. Following a quick break I meet Mills at the pool’s edge minus my tail, which I quickly learn is a mermaid etiquette no-no: “It ruins the illusion.” Having squeezed back into character, I enter the pool, where Mills teaches me to flutter my tail for propulsion while steering with my outstretched arms. But there is nothing on the syllabus about wearing waterproof mascara, and

I surface from my first dive in the form of a human-raccoon.

A more urgent consideration is the way the tail makes it impossible to tread water, and the desperate flailing that follows this realization. “Float on your back,” Mills says above my panicky siren song. Other lessons include keeping your eyes open as you swim, to avoid mermaid-human collisions, and using your lower abs to wriggle like a fish.

Before long, a small girl swims up and asks if she can touch my tail. Another wants to know how we breathe. “Gils!” replies a passing woman, who is also decked out in luminescent scale leggings. As the sun begins to set, there are upwards of 30 mermaids at the Havana Cabana, either flapping about in the water or perched at the bar.

When I can flap no more, I join them, striking up a conversation with a woman with long blond hair and a magenta tail. “It’s like making kids believe in Santa Claus,” she says, nodding at the wide-eyed girl who patted my tail earlier, “but so much better.”

Jess Swanson

Jess Swanson is the senior editor at American Way and Celebrated Living. She graduated from Columbia University School of Journalism. Her reporting has taken her from the python-infested Everglades swamps to a bubbling onsen in Tokyo to a lava-spouting volcano in Nicaragua.

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