Vol 6 No. 24 - March 8, 2006

A mermaid tale:
From Weeki Wachee to aquarobics

PHOTO:Holmes Beach resident Beverly Orchard is the active older
adult/wellness director of the Manatee Family YMCA in Bradenton. The former Weeki Wachee Springs mermaid teaches water aerobics at the Y.

By Cindy Lane
sun staff writer

HOLMES BEACH – Who better to teach aquatic aerobics than a scuba diver, synchronized swimmer and – mermaid?

Former Weeki Wachee Springs mermaid Beverly Orchard has taught a no-tails-required water aerobics class for 10 years at the Manatee Family YMCA in Bradenton, where she is the active older adult/wellness director.

"Swimming has been my world," said the 68-year-old Holmes Beach resident, who spent a year as a mermaid at the theme park near Brooksville in 1956, during the heyday of one of her heroes, aquatic movie actress Esther Williams.

"She was there to make a movie just before I got there," Orchard said, adding that the tourist attraction built a platform for Williams to dive into the 72.4-degree spring.

The water was chilly, but nothing like Lake Michigan, where Orchard swam as a Chicago kid. She learned to swim at age 7, then competed until her teen years, the age when girls’ swimming competitions dried up.

It was uncommon for sports competitions to include teenage girls then, said the former gymnast, adding, "We were the ones who paved the way."

While in college in Illinois, Orchard answered an ad to audition for the mermaid show in Florida over Christmas break, and only went back long enough to finish up the semester.

The dress code for mermaids in the 50s didn’t include the tail that’s familiar to today’s visitors, although she wore one in 1997 at a mermaid reunion. The swimmers wore dive flippers and learned to use hoses to breathe, sometimes holding their breath for up to two minutes.

Most of the mermaids stayed within 12 feet of the surface, but those who dove to 100 feet during the show had to recover in a decompression chamber. They were cued when it was time to come out and join the group for the finale, she said.

"It’s like flying over a mountain" swimming over the deep part of the spring, she said. "It took my breath away."

Sometimes men would jump into the spring and chase the mermaids during the show, she said. The girls would turn their air hoses up all the way and hand them to the unwary intruders, who would get too much air and cough all the way to the surface.

The spring itself posed another difficulty. The strong current from the spring’s boil pushed the mermaids to the surface when they tried to maintain still poses, Orchard recalled. They’d wedge themselves in some rocks to stay still and bang a rod on the rocks to scare away unwanted catfish.

Other spring dwellers became part of the show, such as the turtles that the mermaids dressed in ballet skirts.

Gators never attacked the mermaids, Orchard said, but they’d swim into the scene occasionally, and someone would hammer on the aquarium glass to let the girls know it was time to get out.

Underwater speakers hadn’t been invented yet, so the mermaids couldn’t hear warnings, music or anything else, Orchard said. They experimented with putting speakers in the water, careful not to let the wires get submerged.

"It’s a wonder we didn’t get electrocuted," she laughed.

Underwater photography was also in its infancy, and she recalls taking a Brownie camera into the spring in a plastic bag to experiment. Orchard later became an accomplished underwater photographer when she began scuba diving with her husband, an Illinois dive shop owner.

She recalls posing for photos with baseball players in Florida for spring training. Weeki Wachee required high moral character from its mermaids and chaperoned them.

"We were good girls," she said, a disappointment to players looking for spring flings.

When her mermaid days ended, she majored in health and physical education at a YMCA college in Illinois, and has spent much of her career with the Y.

The mother of two also was a synchronized swimmer in Canada, in the days when the sport was more graceful and less sharp than the modern Olympic sport, she said.

She also dived with "Jaws" author Peter Benchley in San Salvador, attracting fish for him to photograph by talking to them, presumably in mermaid language, and also has dived off Jamaica, the Bahamas and Cancun as well as lakes in Illinois and Wisconsin.

Now, she’s waiting for retirement to take a refresher dive course and enjoy more underwater adventures.

Meanwhile, there’s the Y pool, but it’s just not the same. It’s shallow, to accommodate students who don’t swim, but who want to enjoy the benefits of the low-impact water exercise she teaches.

"I long to dive in," she said.


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