An hour’s drive from Tampa, Florida, there’s a spring so deep that no one has ever found the bottom.
And in that spring, beautiful women with intricate fishtails swim through the 74-degree water that bubbles up out of the ground.
Welcome to Weeki Wachee Springs, where “mermaids” are real and perform three shows every day.
The park was opened in 1946 by a former Navy officer named Newton Perry who had previously trained SEALS to swim underwater. After happening upon the spring, he built a theatre with 18 seats six feet below the surface. In those days, if the female performers heard a car passing by on highway U.S. 19, they’d run to their pedestals in their swimsuits and wave to the passers-by to come see their show.
In 1959, the park was purchased by the American Broadcasting Co. and a new, larger theatre was built with 500 seats 16 feet below the surface. Celebrities like Elvis Presley and Esther Williams began to flock to the shows, which by then featured as many as 35 mermaids.
But with the opening of larger parks like Disney World, people began to lose interest in the vintage-y mermaid park. In 2003, Weeki Wachee was threatened with permanent closure, but a campaign by the current and former mermaids saved it. Today, it’s an official Florida State Park.
British photographer Annie Collinge first stumbled upon the park online, and the more she read about it, the more she realised she needed to visit the park herself to believe it.
“I was actually having a look at a website about the Coney Island Mermaid Parade and there was an interview with a guy that makes Mermaid tails,” she explained in her artist’s statement. “They asked him what first inspired him to start making them and he said that he had grown up next to the Weeki Wachee Springs. I had a look on Google and instantly knew I had to go there.”
What she discovered was a group of women who not only love their jobs, but who are exceptional swimmers and athletes as well.
“The thing that you don’t realise about their job is, its very physically demanding,” Collinge says. “They all have advanced Scuba qualifications and are very strong swimmers. To get into the theatre you have to swim without air down a tunnel with their tails on, and that is definitely not for the faint-hearted.”
Collinge’s exhibition, “Annie Collinge: The Underwater Mermaid Theatre,” is currently on display now through January 5 at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. You can follow the photographer on Facebook and Instagram, as well as on her website.
Welcome to Weeki Wachee Springs, the vintage mermaid park that was first opened back in 1946 by a former Navy officer named Newton Perry.
Newt trained the girls to swim with air hoses that were peppered throughout the landscape so they didn't need to use a visible breathing apparatus or carry an air tank on their backs.
The women perform 16 to 20 feet below the surface where the current runs a strong five miles an hour. Even staying in one place takes an immense effort.
To become a Weeki Wachee mermaid, the performers must be able to swim without air down a tunnel with their heavy tails on, according to photographer Annie Collinge.
Women from all over the world used to come audition to be a Weeki Wachee mermaid. Today, the park has 17 mermaids, including three men who play Prince Eric in 'The Little Mermaid.'
The mermaids have 3 shows a day: Two performances of 'The Little Mermaid' and one show that is instructional on how the mermaids breath underwater.
In addition to the mermaid shows, the park also has a river boat cruise, wildlife show, and even a kid's water park called 'Buccaneer Bay.'
Photographer Annie Collinge spent three days with the mermaids, watching them perform and taking pictures of the park.
Usually the park is full in the summer, but Collinge visited in February so it was less busy, providing her with more opportunities to photograph the performers.
The park still has a very vintage feel to it, despite the recent renovation it went under after becoming an official Florida state park in 2008.
Collinge spent a lot of time with the female mermaids taking hauntingly beautiful portraits of their make up and performances.
She was also able to photograph them in their locker rooms and outside the spring, watching them get ready for the live shows.
'I wasn't really into mermaids but have always been drawn to sort of childish things with a dark edge,' Collinge said. 'Mermaids fit the bill perfectly and if you look at the history of them in mythology it really is completely dark.'
'(Mermaids) essentially coaxed sailors into drowning because they hadn't seen women for so many month/years at sea,' explains Collinge. 'The whole idea of a woman that is part fish is also pretty surreal and when you seen them performing in the theatre it really is pretty amazing.'
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